Pioneering and poetic — or borderline macabre, whichever way you want to view it — but burials in space seem set for a starry future.
Since the cremated remains of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the TV sci-fi series Star Trek, rocketed into the cosmos a decade ago, the ashes of more than 300 other deceased have followed suit.
They include Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto, US astronaut Gordon Cooper, "Star Trek" actor James Doohan and comet-spotter Eugene Shoemaker, whose ashes were buried on the Moon.
But celebrities of the space age are not the only ones whose last journey has taken them to the final frontier rather than the local cemetery.
Of more than 300 "celestial burials" that have taken place since 1997, most concern lesser-feted men and women who during their life fell in love with the heavens, and whose loved ones believe a space send-off is the most fitting tribute of all.
By 2012, as many as 10 000 such burials could be conducted each year, says a Houston, Texas aerospace company, Space Services Inc., the vanguard in an unusual but highly promising… err… undertaking.
"Baby-boomers are making different decisions about how to memorialise themselves and their parents," says Charlie Chafer, Space Services’ chief executive officer.
"The days of the sort of solemn service — of being buried next to grandma in the churchyard — that still appeals to a lot of people. But an awful lot of people these days want to celebrate and memorialise places and things and activities that were significant to them during their lives."
"So we are not all surprised about the success. Space is a global interest, it’s so appealing to people."
Off to space
To be clear, what is being sent into space is not the full remains — just a symbolic thimbleful of ashes, typically weighing a few grams, which are encased in a small capsule. There are no bodies or body parts.
The capsules are then loaded into a small scientific or commercial satellite that has a bit of spare payload for sale.
Under the company’s "Earth Return Service," the ashes are sent in a sub-orbital loop, reaching an altitude of some 115 kilometres before the craft parachutes back to Earth for recovery. The cost: $495 for a gram, $995 for seven grams.
"We return the flight capsule in a nice case with a certificate, so that people actually have a keepsake that shows dad, mum or their cousin has been put into space and has then returned to Earth," says Chafer brightly.
For $1295 a gram, the company will place your ashes into low-Earth orbit, where they will encircle the planet for between 10 and 200 years depending on altitude.
Eventually, orbital decay will bring the spacecraft to within the grasp of Earth’s gravitational tendrils — and it, and the ashes, will be consumed in a streak of fire through atmospheric friction.
Six flights have been organised so far, and a seventh, carrying the ashes of 300 people, is due in October. Customers include Americans, Canadians, Britons, Germans, Japanese and Austrians.
Plans are afoot for deep space burial, in which a spacecraft "coffin" would orbit the Sun, like a comet, for millions of years to come.
This lucrative niche market, started up by Space Services’ forerunner Celestis, is starting to draw competition.
A Canadian company, Columbiad Launch Services, is taking orders for a launch service provided by an Earth-bound ballistic gun, which fires a missile-shaped vehicle to a height of up to 250 kilometres, at which point the ashes are scattered into space and allowed to drift to Earth.
The cost: $12 500 for the full "cremains," or up to three kilos of ashes.
One question hanging over space burials is whether they add to the growing hazard of debris that face satellites and the International Space Station (ISS).
Even a speck of human ashes can inflict bad damage, as the collision occurs at thousands of kilometres per hour.
At the moment, that’s not a problem, says Nicholas Johnson, chief scientist at the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office.
If the remains are packed aboard a satellite which is launched in accordance with international guidelines and disposed of carefully at the end of its life — either sent to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere or parked in a distant orbit where it cannot be a danger — "their presence won’t make any difference," he says.
Ultimately, the issue is whether a burial in space is to your taste.
Some cultures and faiths balk at cremation and the division of remains, and some people prefer the traditional, solemn way to go rather than the roar of a rocket engine.
Jean-Francois Clervoy, a French astronaut who is a veteran of the US space shuttle, is a fan, for philosophical reasons.
"I like the idea that we are born of stardust and, like stardust, will fall back to Earth."