The sun rose and honeyed the sands of the Jornada del Muerto. Spanish for "Journey of the Dead Man,” this basin where Spaceport America sits in the New Mexico desert looks more like Mars at this hour than our own home planet. On September 17, 2018, the temperature at Spaceport would reach a toasty 94 degrees, an especially hot start to autumn even for New Mexico.
Just before dawn, clusters of families and friends arrived on two coach buses. They’d been roused from their hotel rooms and taken on a ride through the pitch dark desert to arrive in time for launch, set to occur shortly after sunrise.
About 100 people gathered at the complex, situated smack in the middle of nowhere—many of them parentless children, or childless parents, elder widowers and middle-aged grandkids—to watch a little piece of their loved ones blast into the blue sky.
They’re a group among a wider trend of space-based memorial services, where companies offer to send cremains—usually a “symbolic” few ash grams in a capsule—of a loved one to the edge of space, the moon, or endless earth orbit.
A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF DEATH AND SPACE
For as long as humans have dreamed of space travel, we’ve been forced to reckon with what it would be like to die on that final frontier. Eighteen astronauts and cosmonauts have died midair in the history of spaceflight. Those aren't bad odds, at just three percent of the 536 total humans sent to space. But most of these astronauts either perished during launch or landing, in accidents that rendered their bodies unretrievable, vaporized by explosive heat or scattered back to earth amongst shuttle parts. Of those 18, only three men—the crew of the Soyuz 11, in 1971—technically died in space, when their reentry capsule depressurized.
The tragedy of Soyuz 11 gave humanity pause for whether we were meant to explore the cosmos corporeally. But it didn’t stop the Apollo missions from forging forward, and only fueled science fiction writers’ imaginings of what death in space would entail.
One of the best-known examples of science fiction grappling with space-death, and specifically, space burial, is Spock’s demise in the 1982 film Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. The Vulcan is given a relatively old-fashioned burial, considering it’s the year 2222: His irradiated corpse is loaded in a closed coffin capsule, as a bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” plays. The coffin is shot out of the Enterprise and into the orbit of a nearby planet.
The same year that film hit theaters, Space Services Inc. became the first company to launch a privately-funded rocket, Conestoga I, into space. More than a decade later, its second and final attempt, Conestoga 1620, broke up 46 seconds after launch. But from that company’s ashes, former Space Services employee Charles Chafer founded Celestis, in 1994.
Lipstick-tube sized portions of 24 people’s cremains were Celestis' first clientele, loaded aboard a Pegasus rocket and launched from the Canary Islands in 1997. Among them was a portion of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, as well as famed psychologist Timothy Leary. Since then, Celestis has done 15 memorial launches, all secondary payloads aboard other NASA rockets.
“I was looking for something that could bring to commercial space activities a mass market,” Shafer said.
“Obviously everyone dies—at least today that’s true—therefore you have a global market.”
In 1998, NASA loaded the ashes of Eugene Shoemaker into a memorial capsule on the Lunar Prospector, a mission to orbit and map the moon’s polar surface. It orbited for a year, and when its fuel ran out, it crash-landed on the moon’s surface, making Shoemaker the first, and so far, only, lunar burial. Wrapped around the memorial capsule was a piece of brass foil, inscribed with an image of the comet Hale-Bopp and Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, as well as a passage from Romeo and Juliet:
And, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Like Lunar Prospector, each Celestis mission has a primary payload: supplies or experiments from NASA. In the 12-second burn to 40,000 feet, the experiments on the Starseeker flight—the name Celestis gave the mid-September 2018 launch—collected data for GPS, vehicle vibrations and avionics, useful for NASA and UP Aerospace in developing future flights. The rocket and all the cremains aboard floated in space—just barely beyond the Kármán Line, or true outer space—for three minutes before floating back down to the White Sands missile range for pickup.
Starseeker was one of Celestis’ “Earth Rise” packages, which start at $2,495. For another $2,500, a couple grams of your loved one can go into orbit aboard a satellite or rocket. The next step up, the Luna service, promises to place their DNA on the moon, forever—for $12,500. For the same price, Celestis' Voyager service sends their DNA or remains into deep space. These far-flung missions haven't occurred yet, and won’t until NASA or a private company sends a mission to deep space. But when they do, a portion of Gene and Majel Roddenberry’s cremains will be aboard the inaugural Voyager flight.
A GASP FOR AIR
Everyone dies, but not everyone gets the same amount of time on this earth. One of those present for Celestis’ Starseeker mission was Kristina vanMeter. She and her two kids, 12-year-old Ben and nine-year-old Julia, traveled from their home in Maryland to watch a few grams of her cremated husband, Forrest “Dan” vanMeter, launch atop a SpaceLoft rocket. His cremains and those of 52 others were loaded onto the rocket days earlier, alongside five technology payloads for flight tests courtesy of NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.
The morning Dan died, at age 44, started like most other recent mornings. He lay in bed, wasting away of late-stage colorectal cancer. His mother was asleep in a chair, on the other side of the bed. Kristina went to shower and ready herself for another day in the horror movie that had become her routine: Wake in a bedside chair, get dressed, then bring their children in to the hospice facility to spend some time with their dad. Her youngest, Julia, would plead with her father to let go.
That day, they wouldn’t do any of that.
“While I was getting out of the shower—and this is just one of those moments, and I'll never forget—I had to put my hand against the shower wall, and it was like my breath was sucked out of me,” Kristina said. “I literally had to gasp for air.”
She recalls taking a huge inhale, and thinking, Oh, right. Something happened. Seconds later, Dan’s mother called down the hallway: “Kristi, come quick.” He was gone.
“I do feel like our souls are energy,” Kristina told me, when we spoke one recent Sunday morning—she’d just dropped Julia off at soccer.
Like we’re connected? I asked. “Yeah, at that moment,” she said. “So that was another thing that kind of attracted me to the whole idea of the space memorial. This energy, the physics behind that.”
Charles Chafer himself has had friends go up on his own company’s flights. “If somehow there's something of yours on that rocket... There's a real fundamental, almost I would say, genetic connection to the show,” he said. “It's very fulfilling for the people that go through it, even if it’s just another launch.”
THE MEMORY PICTURE
In funeral directors’ lingo, the “memory picture” is the lasting image of a person before they’re laid, scattered, or otherwise put to rest. It’s lingo that typically sells expensive caskets and floral arrangements. For Celestis’ clients, part of that picture includes staring up into the business end of a rocket as it leaves the atmosphere.
Videos of Ascension “Memorial Launch” ash-scattering ceremonies borders on absurdism. A video camera attached to a weather balloon records as the ground falls away, until the earth’s curvature and the glowing horizon of its atmosphere are visible. It rises for 90 minutes, slowly expanding to nearly 50 feet in diameter.
At around 100,000 feet—technically “near space,” just beyond the Armstrong Limit, where humans can’t survive—a sensor is triggered and the canister opens, releasing the cremains. According to the Ascension website’s description:
“The ashes will be carried around the world on stratospheric winds, circling the globe for days or even weeks. Eventually, they will cause clouds to form and fall back to Earth as rainfall or snow. Trace nutrients in the ashes will fertilise the earth, supporting the growth of new life wherever they land.”
This package costs around $2,856, but if you don’t want to watch grandma’s ashes glitter into the stratosphere, a camera-less service is available for $1,165.
Ascension Flights’ parent company, Sent into Space, was born out of an experiment by two University of Sheffield PhD students, Chris Rose and Alex Baker, in 2010. They wanted to see if they could take a photo from space, using a really big helium balloon—and they did. Their “space selfie” garnered global media attention, and the pair turned it into a small business, sending gimmicks, diamond rings, photographs and whatever else people would pay them to float into the stratosphere.
Alex Keen, Ascension’s head of communications, told Supercluster in an email that Sent into Space discussed ash-scattering services early in the company’s history, but they wanted to perfect the flight system before handling something as precarious as a mourning client.
“It was very important to us that we not rush into the service,” Keen said. “Losing a loved one is always an emotional experience and a person's remains are very precious to those who they leave behind. We wanted to be certain that we could provide a safe, consistent and high quality service before we offered public flights.”
According to its website, Ascension has a 100 percent retrieval rate for the flights that send up a camera rig. They’re able to closely monitor every step of the process, from the balloons to the weather on the morning of a flight. On the day of a launch, they set up multiple live communications systems that update the payload's location in real-time, refining those flight paths and positioning themselves right under the camera as it drifts back down to earth.
Companies like Celestis, which are hitching rides on NASA rockets, don’t have that level of control.
And on rare occasions, rockets holding dozens of people’s cremains explode mid-air.
METHOD OF FINAL DISPOSITION
The urge to memorialize our dead is getting more non-traditional, and more diverse. As the Millennial generation grows up—many of us raised to sit through boring, tedious funeral services in red velveteen parlors or chapels—we’re reckoning with how we’ll handle the responsibility of burying our family, friends, partners.
After decades of the church telling families how to appropriately, respectfully grieve, alternative, eco-friendly and more expressive memorials are having a resurgence. Services that turn ashes into diamonds, lockets, fireworks or plant food are more common now than ever.
Some of this is out of necessity, whether financial or environmental. A traditional funeral with a casket, embalming, viewing and burial services can cost upwards of $10,000—and it’s only getting more expensive, as grave plots come at more of a premium, currently around $1,500 a plot. More than 6,000 people die every hour, and we only have so much earth.
At the same time, cremation rates are going up, raising the question: What to do with the deceased’s ashes once you have them? Why not blast or float them into space?
It’s a question some traditional funeral directors are asking. Nick Grassby, who helps run his family’s funeral home in southwest England, read about Ascension in an issue of Funeral Director Monthly magazine, and got in touch to see what they could offer his clients.
“I think companies like Ascension will become increasingly popular as more and more families move away from the traditional burial or scattering of ashes on consecrated ground, and consider other options,” Grassby told Supercluster in an email. “The idea of your loved ones ashes returning to earth at some point in the future as rain or snow provides families with a loving memory which can last for their lifetime.” The memory picture.
Jeff Jorgenson, who founded Elemental Cremation & Burial in Seattle, told me that because the relative percentage of families that chose space memorials is so small, it doesn’t affect the industry at all. “As far as the logistics are concerned, it's of zero consequence to us as funeral directors what happens with an apportionment of cremated remains—scatter it in the river or shoot it into deep space—doesn't impact our lives at all,” he said.
Once families have the cremains, unless they want a memorial service from the funeral home, it’s out of directors’ hands.
“Because memorial services, by definition, do not have a body present, we aren't seeing a lot of what is actually happening out there with alternative services,” Jorgenson said. “While we would all love to have involvement in that financially, the real loss is being able to see what they are up to! People come up with some amazing stuff. And there's no rhyme or reason to what they do!”
We asked John Troyer, director of the Center for Death and Society at University of Bath, for his perspective on space memorials. Troyer’s father was a funeral director, so he grew up watching different trends and what he called “fashionabilities” in the funeral world come and go. Now, he studies how things like death and technology interact and influence one another. He said these questions often come down to what to make of the “method of final disposition,” or the body’s final state.
“It’s like, of course people are doing that,” he said. “Anything we can move, human remains are gonna go in it at some point... So as far as space goes, of course! In fact, I’m surprised there’s not more of it.”
It wasn’t until fairly recent history that families were allowed to choose the music to be played at a funeral, Troyer noted—and the Catholic church still has strict rules about what’s acceptable funerary music. Cremation, nowadays viewed as fairly commonplace, was once strictly taboo by many organized religions (and still is, for some).
But like custom-made memorial DVDs and caskets shaped like race cars, personalization sometimes wins over tradition.
“If you make it available, people will do it, because it’s just one way to try to make it more meaningful or certainly different in a way... Don’t ever downplay the cool factor of it,” Troyer said.
“Like, I get that. Why go to one of those companies that sells fireworks where the person’s remains are packed into the firework? It’s like, Well, that’s kind of cool, actually.”
“OMG, THIS IS SO AMAZING”
Some people sign up for a space memorial flight because their dead loved one was a space nut, or worked in the industry in some way, or had a familial connection to spaceflight. Kristina vanMeter’s husband loved Star Wars and space exploration, but she didn’t choose a rocket memorial because he was an astronaut or an astronomer, like some of the other Starseeker participants. She did it for herself, and for her kids. And yes, because to them, it was just cool.
Dan vanMeter died just two months before the Starseeker launch. A member of law enforcement in a small town, he’d gotten a community-wide funeral service, complete with flag-folding ceremony for Kristina. The whole town showed up to mourn this loss. As many traditional funeral services are, the day was, in some ways, for everyone else—the family still in a haze of grief, moving through the motions.
This was not the lasting memory of their father Kristina wanted for her kids. “I had to kind of erase that, that horrible way he was in those last two weeks.” So she contacted Celestis, got the last spot available in the Starseeker mission, and booked flights to New Mexico.
“Now, that's what the kids remember. The kids remember going to New Mexico, and having that experience that was provided for us, and feeling that connection with other people and seeing a beautiful sunrise at five, six o'clock in the morning over the mountains. And that was the excitement and the release that they needed.”
Kristina reflected on what drew her to pack up her kids and trek across the country to memorialize their father. She likes to think that he’d be happy with her choice.
“Part of healing after grief is, is not doing the same thing,” Kristina said. “As much as it's comforting to do those same things as before—it’s really stepping out of your comfort zone and letting in new experiences, that heals.”
At the moment of the launch, Julia was by her mother’s side at the viewing area. Her son Ben, she’d later learn, found his own viewing spot, posted up near the control room at Spaceport, an area they’d toured earlier in the trip.
As the rocket went up, its contrails twisted into what looked, to the little girl and then to the rest of the crowd gathered there, like three letters: OMG.
“I asked her, ‘What did you think? What did that mean to you?’” Kristina recalled. “And she said, ‘I just looked up and I was like, ‘Daddy is probably saying, Oh my god, this is so amazing. I'm in space.’”