Can’t get to outer space in this lifetime?
For $12,500, you can send a gram of your cremated remains blasting onto the moon or have them shot out into deep space.
It costs about $5,000 for a “burial” in low-Earth orbit, where a travel-shampoo-size urn can spin for years at 17,000 mph until it gradually descends into the white-hot re-entry atmosphere. That’s what was done with bits of “Star Trek” entertainment franchise creator Gene Roddenberry, and famed writer and psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary.
A thimble of ashes or DNA can be shot to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere for about $1,000.
These mostly symbolic services are widely viewed as oddities catering to highly imaginative nerds. But business is better than ever. Hundreds of Americans have already ordered space burials this year.
And the first privately funded payload to the moon is set to launch by early next year carrying ashes among its many other packages.
Houston-based Celestis launched the remains of dozens of people into Earth orbits in 2015 and 2016. CEO and founder Charles Chafer said it will deliver many more times that amount this year to orbital and deep-space destinations — up to 500 urns.
Celestis, the U.S. market leader for space burials, is able to accommodate more customers because of new technologies and affordable commercial rocket ships.
“We’re in the tsunami phase of new space activities,” Chafer said.
The company just partnered with Torrance-based Argos Funeral Services to provide more personalized space burials across Southern California.
Last year, Argos became the first funeral provider to score permission from the California Department of Public Health to send cremated remains to space on the first privately funded lunar mission led by Moon Express.
A small portion of that customer’s ashes will join dozens of others on a rocket ship that blasts off from New Zealand late this year or early next year destined for the moon.
A robotic lunar lander built by Moon Express will carry the ashes and DNA to the surface, along with science projects designed to test Albert Einstein’s general relativity theory and to create a better map of the moon.
Together, Argos and Celestis are selling space burials to anyone who “ever longed to travel in space or stepped outside on a starry night and felt at home,” according to the Celestis website.
“It’s not all that different from scattering ashes at sea,” Chafer said. “Everybody dies. So it’s a huge market.”
‘Next logical step’
Space-science pioneers and science-fiction fans have been purchasing otherworldly “burials” since the 1990s.
But the rapid growth of commercial space investment is giving the niche service providers a boost.
USC space tourism and entrepreneurism expert Greg Autry said increasing interest in space burials is a symptom of a wider change taking place.
“Just a few years ago, getting anything into orbit pretty much had an entry price of over $100 million. SpaceX entered the market at $80 million and has now dropped to $65 million” per launch, Autry said. “They are well on their way to getting to prices of $40 million or less. The big satellite pays for 90 percent of the cost of launch, and you can easily throw a few other projects in the trunk.”
Space burials don’t bring value back to the economy, such as moon mining and satellite communications, however.
“I think space is similar to the way the internet was in driving an economic boom,” Autry said. “The internet wasn’t just about routers and cables and TVs, it was about new retail methods and new ways of interacting. The initial drivers in markets tend to be something that may not be important later.”
Hawthorne-based SpaceX was named last week by Equidate as one of the world’s most valuable privately held businesses, worth about $21 billion.
In Long Beach and in the Mojave desert, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is working to be the first provider of short tourist outings to space.
Its small-satellite-launching spinoff, Virgin Orbit, will land a flying rocket-launch platform called Cosmic Girl at Long Beach Airport at 4 p.m. Monday. The company has suffered a series of failures, but is gearing up for tests of its LauncherOne rocket that will be deployed from Cosmic Girl.
Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’ commercial space brand Blue Origin is planning a city on the moon, which industry experts believe could begin development within the next few decades.
Last week, longtime government space-service provider United Launch Alliance partnered with Pittsburgh-based Astrobotics for a 2019 moon mission that will bring science — and human ashes — to the cratered surface.
“For those in the know, who understand space, this is the next logical step,” said Astrobotic CEO John Thornton. “But if you walked down the street and told some strangers: ‘I’m building a payload service to the moon,’ they might not believe you.”
Robots sent to the moon will be initially focused on exploration and mining. But the commercial expansion into space also is opening doors for new scientific research. A dizzying number of discoveries are taking place on Earth as a result of breakthroughs with genome editing technology and better microbiological understandings that are actively being tested in microgravity on the International Space Station.
Celestis and Argos Funeral Services have built scientific research and environmental sustainability into their business models. The orbiting urns are always attached to larger satellites so they won’t clutter up the skies with nonessential “space junk” that could wreak havoc by slamming into satellites.
And all Celestis missions have scientific components. When legendary geologist Eugene Shoemaker’s ashes were shot onto the moon’s surface in the summer of 1999, the resulting impact on the moon’s south pole was used to search for evidence of water.
“The science done there was to look at the spectra at what was scattered by the impact,” Chafer said. “That was one of the first discoveries of water on the moon. It was fitting he was a part of that.”
The growing business possibilities in space are opening up opportunities to those willing to take the risk.
Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries helps space-burial providers and small satellite companies reserve space on larger launch missions.
“We used to exclusively buy excess capacity on (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rockets, but now we (expanded to include) Indian and Russian launchers,” Spaceflight Services President Curt Blake said. “It’s like filling up a bus when everyone wants to go to the same destination.”
Judah Ben-Hur, founder of Argos Funeral Services and a card-carrying Trekkie, had a vision two years ago when he moved into an office in Torrance the size of a studio apartment. He imagined a cemetery on the moon complete with plots and ceremonial adornments.
“Every time it’s a full moon you can look up in the sky and you’ll always see your loved one,” Ben-Hur said. “When I finally pass away, I plan on having my cremated remains — or, if possible, I would like to have my full body — shot straight into space so that the Borg from “Star Trek” can take my body and re-energize it into something else. So I can finally be captain of my own starship.”
But, beyond having a quirky vision, Ben-Hur realized he was clued into a market that’s potentially on the cusp of a big payday.
“I’m one of the few aggressively pursuing this,” Ben-Hur said. “I’m a geek. But it has to start someplace.”
Before becoming a low-cost funeral provider of in-space and at-sea burials and cremation services, Ben-Hur worked as a “mad scientist,” developing a communications antenna that failed to get enough investor attention for development. He also wrote a manifesto about overhauling the American political system that’s still in circulation online.
Since then, he said he found his calling delivering funeral services at affordable rates with all-digital paperwork, online bulk-rate purchasing, and only word-of-mouth advertising.
Now, he’s working on becoming his own cremation-launch provider like Celestis.
Most space deliveries are still done for NASA research missions. But small companies, including Tyvak Nano Satellite Systems in Irvine, are increasingly getting space on launch vehicles for their products.
“People are starting to come up with new ideas, like asteroid mining. I think there will be a whole bunch more like that,” said Blake of Spaceflight Industries. “What that does is make for a very strong space industry.”
Orbital Memorials sells spaceflights just outside the Earth’s atmosphere for thimbles of cremated remains, but doesn’t offer the range of services that Celestis does.
Meanwhile, Elysium Space is gearing up to challenge Celestis in the space-burial marketplace, where others have previously tried and largely failed.
Earlier this year, the San Francisco-based company said it would be the first to launch a Falcon 9 rocket filled entirely with human remains from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc. It has 100 customers signed up and is taking reservations now, starting at $2,490.
Celestis has four space-burial missions scheduled in the coming 18 months (though launches are routinely delayed). The company hosts three-day launch events for each of its space burials.
Chafer said he expects to see more interest in all sorts of symbolic celestial events.
“Humans will take all their celebrations and memorial services and everything they do with them as we move off the planet,” he said. “This includes some sort of disposal, post-death. I would love to see an international cemetery on the moon in five years. But, I have a T-shirt that says ‘Space is hard.’ And, therefore, I think we may be a decade away from that. But I hope not.”
In 2012, a San Pedro family sent a portion of Allyson Diana Genest’s remains into orbit with Celestis after she lost her life to cancer at 38 years old. The woman had been a lifelong “Star Trek” fan. Her remains shared the rocket ride with the ashes of James Doohan, who played Scotty on the iconic 1960s television show.
Robert Genest, her father, said he thought it was a crazy idea when she initially asked for it, saying it seemed like “the biggest crackpot idea.”
But when the family gathered at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to watch the launch, they were spellbound.
“It lit up the whole place,” Genest said. “It was so much ‘her’ in its imagination and in its pushing the envelope.”