For 24 Dearly Departed, a Rocket Trip Around the World
By Frank Ahrens
For the cremated remains of “Star
Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, riding a rocket into
orbit and burning out gloriously on reentry is a fitting
gesture. For the ashes of LSD guru Timothy Leary, it’s
one final, far-out trip. For the remains of 22 others scheduled
to ride around the globe next month, it’s a way of
dipping a toe in the cosmos. Beats getting eaten by worms.
Consider it the Space Age version of a Viking
funeral, when grieving Norsemen set their deceased on fire
and pushed their floating biers out into the unknown sea:
off to Valhalla, strapped inside the top of a solid-fuel
Later this month, 24 lipstick-size containers
of cremated human remains will hitch a ride into orbit inside
a rocket carrying a satellite. The moneymaking venture ($4,800
per person) is being marketed and organized by Celestis
Inc., a Houston company.
“There are probably millions of people
who would love to go to space in their lifetimes but can’t
get there,” says Celestis founder Charles Chafer.
“They want to make some symbolic statement. They want
to, in a small way, kind of rejoin the universe.”
Death and space have much in common. Both
involve leaving this world. Both are black. Both are infinite.
We wonder if there is life in either. Maybe the launching
of human remains into the heavens is like a trip across
a threshold and into Heaven.
Majel Barrett Roddenberry, “Star Trek”
actress and widow of the television visionary, hopes that
people can se life, not death, in the coldness of space.
Space “is where life is going to go,”
said the actress who played Nurse Chapel on the television
series. “This may be your final frontier. It’s
a symbolic gesture, but it’s a celebration, more than
anything. You ask yourself ‘What did a person love
the most?’ If there is a spirit hanging around, where
would he be the happiest? I know where Gene’s would
be the happiest.”
It’s always good press to have an
appropriate celebrity or two on your ship’s maiden
voyage. Chafer, a long time “Star Trek” fan,
asked Roddenberry for some of her husband’s remains
to ride aboard the first flight. A “Star Trek”
fan paid for Roddenberry ticket.
For a lifelong publicity-seeker like Timothy
Leary, this launch is also one final time onstage, one final
flicker on the marquee. Carol Rosin, a friend of Leary’s
since the ‘60s when he turned her on to LSD, was with
Leary for the last six months of his life and, just before
he died last May, showed him the Celestis sales pitch on
videotape. He had told her he wanted to, somehow, end up
in space after he died.
“When I showed the video to Timothy,
he was sitting in his wheelchair,” said Rosin, who
found out about Celestis by calling NASA. “When he
saw the burst of light that occurs when the rocket reenters
the atmosphere, he was literally jumping up and down in
his wheelchair. He was saying, ‘Finally, I will be
the light! Everyone will know I am the light!’”
What Leary was watching on the tape was
the sun peeping over the Earth’s horizon. But we see
what we want. Donations from friends paid for Leary’s
“This is not a technology being launched,”
said Rosin, who worked in the aerospace industry for several
years. “This is about freedom and love and joy and
heart. This is what space is all about.”
Chafer started Celestis in 1994 after spending
several years with Space Services Inc., the first private
firm to launch a rocket. To get his customers’ remains
into orbit, he bought space on a Pegasus rocket built by
Orbital Sciences Corp. of Northern Virginia, which assembles,
launches and tracks rockets and satellites.
The Pegasus, 56 feet tall and 4½ feet
in diameter, looks something like a cruise missile. Earlier
this month, the rocket was strapped to the belly of an L-1011
aircraft—a commercial plane somewhat smaller than
a 747—at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California,
near where the rocket was built.
In a few weeks, near the Canary Islands
off the African coast, the Pegasus will be released from
the airplane at 40,000 feet. It will fall for about five
seconds. Then, its engine will engage and the rocket will
streak out of the atmosphere. A little more than 11 minutes
later, the Spanish satellite—which will monitor the
Iberian environment—will be deployed at an altitude
of about 400 miles, if the launch succeeds. Trailing a few
miles behind will be a portion of the Pegasus rocket with
the sealed vials fastened inside. The ashes will not be
scattered; they will stay inside their containers.
Each vial contains about seven grams of
the approximately six pounds of remains that result from
a cremation. Each also bears an inscription. Roddenberry’s
reads: “WITH LOVE FROM MAJEL AND ROD,” his wife
and son. Leary’s reads: “PEACE LOVE LIGHT YOUMEONE.”
Roddenberry’s remains are boldly going
where they have gone once be fore: In 1994, three years
after he died, a portion of his remains were carried aboard
a space shuttle. But those made it back whole. These will
The orbit will last between a fewmonths
and six years, Celestis predicts, and describe a pole-to-pole
path, slashing across the equator on each pass. The rocket’s
third stage will become one of the more than 8,000 items
tracked in Earth orbit by the U.S. Air Force Space Command.
Officially, it will be a “rocket body”—space
junk. Eventually, the Earth’s gravity will pull the
rocket’s third stage—and the attached remains—back
into the atmosphere, where everything will burn up. The
remains of the 24 voyagers will be cremated a second time.
Orbital has had mixed results with the Pegasus.
There was a failed launch in 1994 and again in 1995. There
were three successful launches last year, before a glitch
prevented a satellite from being deployed in a November
launch. Celestis has taken two vials of remains from each
customer. If next month’s launch fails, Celestis will
put the second vial on a scheduled July launch or refund
the money, Chafer said. Like all burial services in its
home state, Celestis is overseen by the Texas Department
of Banking; it monitors that holds the customers’
payment to Celestis until one orbit of the remains is verified.
From Egyptians buried in the pyramids to Californians buried
in their cars, humans have always sought appropriate entombment.
These monuments create a portal around the passage into
death, leaving a memorial—something solid-- the deceased
really was here for a time. Space is the definitive mausoleum
for some. Ashes to ashes, dust to space dust.
“If a survivor finds that the launching
into space [of remains] provides them with the solace and
meaningfulness they are searching for, by all means it should
be a choice…in the healthy resolution of grief,”
said Michael Kubasak, president of the Valley Funeral Home
in Burbank, Calif., spokesman for the National Funeral Directors
Association. “Who’s to say we won’t be
burying actual bodies in space. With the way things are
going? Maybe we’ll be launching a spacecraft that
may have room for 100 deceased persons on board under certain
environmental restrictions. Who’s to say we won’t
be providing actual burial on the moon or Mars?”
And if there’s any romance greater
than going into space, then it must be turning into a shooting
That’s how Bonita Hamlin sees it.
A portion of the remains of her husband,
Benson, will be aboard the Pegasus. Benson Hamlin was an
aeronautical engineer who helped design the Bell X-1--the
first aircraft to break the sound barrier. Fifty years ago,
the X-1 was launched from underneath an aircraft in the
same fashion that Hamlin’s remains will be.
Hamlin died in September at 81. One clear
night a few days after his death, Bonita Hamlin couldn’t
sleep. Her husband had said he wanted to be cremated but
never said what should be done with his remains, which were
now in her Seattle condo. She lay in bed and looked out
her window at the stars, the black sky and the magnificent
“I was wondering, ‘What comes
Finally, something clicked—her husband
belonged up there, somehow. She told this to her son, who
showed her an item in a magazine that mentioned Celestis.
She researched the company and, convinced, paid the fee
and offered up a portion of her husband’s remains.
“When [astronauts] started going into
space, he was too old,” she said. “He always
said he was born too soon.”
But doesn’t it bother her knowing
his remains won’t be up there forever?
“Not at all,” she said. “At the time of
reentry there’s a shooting star and you never know
which shooting star- it might be. So, in my mind, he’ll
be up there forever.”