For 24 Dearly Departed, a Rocket Trip Around the World
For 24 Dearly Departed, a Rocket Trip Around the World
Washington Post, March 3, 1997
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 rocket.
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 see 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 launch.
“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 not.
The orbit will last between a few months 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 star.
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 lunar eclipse.
“I was wondering, ‘What comes next?’“she said.
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.”