CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Dec. 21 (UPI) -- Going into the funeral business was not exactly what Charlie Chafer and a team of commercial space pioneers had in mind when they sketched plans, raised money and built rockets to break the government's monopoly on access to space. After 15 years of pondering potential commercial space endeavors, however, they seized upon the ultimate mass market.
"Everybody dies," said Chafer, who has spent his entire professional career trying to open the space frontier.
Through Space Services Inc. of Houston, the entrepreneurs at last have made their mark. They launch cremated human remains into orbit around Earth.
"We think it's a good, sound business because you can grow it incrementally," Chafer told UPI's Space Race 2.
Chafer, a die-hard space enthusiast, finds nothing belittling about offering space launch services to the dearly departed. Despite the hoopla about space tourism, privately financed reusable rockets and other looming space businesses, Space Services' managers pride themselves on being the only commercial space company operating in the here and now. The sorry truth is, right now, for ordinary people to get into space, they have to be dead.
"We're giving people an opportunity to directly participate in a space mission," Chafer said.
For $5,300, Space Services will fill a capsule the size of a lipstick tube with about seven grams of cremated ash, pack it into a small canister and arrange to have it flown into space. Relatives are invited to attend the launch and participate in a group memorial service after their loved ones have been laid to rest, so to speak. The company even will provide a keepsake video of the launch preparations and blastoff.
Space Services also offers to entomb a gram of cremated remains in a container the size of a watch battery and fly it for $995. "We've try to keep our services right at or less than the cost of the average funeral in the United States," Chafer said.
Space Services, which formerly operated under the name Celestis Inc., has dispatched spacecraft containing cremated remains four times, though due to a rocket failure, the last flight in September 2001 did not reach orbit. The firm offered free reflights for families flying loved ones' remains aboard the botched launch.
After a three-year hiatus, the company is gearing up for is largest mission yet, with the remains of 125 people -- including 46 of the 50 flown in 2001 -- aboard on Space Exploration Technologies' debut rocket flight in early 2005.
Space Services' craft, a tiny secondary payload aboard the Falcon 1 rocket, was integrated onto the launch vehicle last week. Space Services hopes to parlay its relationship with SpaceX, a startup rocket launch company in El Segundo, Calif. -- founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk -- into regularly scheduled space memorial launch services three or four times a year.
Space Services has seen steady growth in customer demand for its space memorials, fueled primarily by aging baby boomers who eschew traditional funerals and services. International sales, particularly in Asia, also have contributed to the firm's success. Space Services has representatives in seven countries outside the United States: Argentina, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico and the United Kingdom.
The company's roots stem from a defunct firm in Melbourne, Fla., named Celestis Inc., which Chafer and his partners resurrected in the mid-1980s. In its earlier incarnation, Celestis was mired in battle with state and regulatory agencies that could not see eye-to-eye with a memorial services company that wanted to rocket miniature mausoleums into space.
The original Celestis partners had contracted with an upstart commercial launching firm in Houston called Space Services, which was being run by former Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton, who is now deceased. Celestis eventually folded, and Space Services was sold off, but the idea of launching cremated remains into space did not die.
Some of the rocket company's founding employees breathed new life into Celestis and signed a launch-services agreement with Orbital Sciences to carry cremated remains. About six months ago, Celestis took on the name of its original partner, Space Services, and struck a deal with Musk.
Musk's goal is to cut dramatically the costs of getting onto space. His company's Falcon 1 rocket launch for example, costs about $6 million, or less than half the price of similarly sized boosters. Musk also is developing a larger rocket, the Falcon 5, which will sell for about $12 million.
"We are pleased to provide Space Services with this flight opportunity," said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's vice president of business development. "The advent of affordable launch services will enable many new opportunities in space and we look forward to being a part of it."
So far, the orbitally entombed include "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry, LSD explorer Timothy Leary and space colony designer Gerard K. O'Neill. Others have made it into space through the kindness of friends: An ounce of the cremated remains of comet-hunter Eugene Shoemaker was packed aboard the Lunar Prospector spacecraft before it lifted off for a moon-mapping mission this month. Roddenberry's ashes actually traveled into the final frontier once before, when an astronaut pal quietly carried a bit of cremated ash into space during a 1992 shuttle mission.
"It's better for us when we fly just normal folks from all over the world," Chafer said.
No astronauts, nobody of famed wealth or gifted connection, just regular folks finally fulfilling a life-long dream to fly in space.
Space Race 2 is a series exploring the people, passions and business of sub-orbital manned spaceflight, by Irene Klotz, who covers space and aviation for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com