HOUSTON — With as little prelaunch fanfare as possible, 17-year-old Celestis Inc. achieved an important milestone of its own as the Falcon9/Dragon mission lifted off in the Florida predawn of May 22 on the first U.S. commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station.
Locked in the Falcon 9 second stage was a container holding the individual cremated remains of 320 “passengers” – a including a few well-known names such as Mercury 7 astronaut L. Gordon Cooper and actor James Doohan, who portrayed chief engineer “Scotty” on the iconic television series “Star Trek.”
The manifest, which included cremains from 18 nations, was the largest flown in the company’s 11 missions. And if Celestis CEO and co-founder Charles Chafer is correct, the funeral industry is poised to become a steady, easy-to-integrate secondary payload for the commercial launch industry. Individual 1- and 7-gram containers of ashes were clustered in an 18-x-6-in. aluminum cylinder secured to the Falcon 9 second stage.
“We’re at a tipping point of commercial space,” Chafer says. “The Falcon 9 launch inaugurated a more routine launch capability, and it will spur others to want to fly with us. We have finally achieved the necessary matchup between market and capability to fly. We’ve always believed our business is among the best in commercial space, if we could get those two things synced up.”
Cremation rates in the U.S. are expected to eclipse 50% by 2025, according to the Cremation Association of North America, though Chafer believes economic forces may accelerate the trend.
“In a short amount of time, we will start to see two to three missions a year,” predicts Chafer, who believes the demand for space burials could reach 10,000 annually. “Our belief is there are at least as many people on the planet that walk out on a starry night and say ‘that is where I belong’ as the number that say ‘please scatter me at sea.’”
Celestis was cautious in its prelaunch comments about the Dragon mission because the Houston-based company did not want to draw attention from SpaceX’s achievements, he says.
The nine-day test mission, flown under the banner of’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, was the first to reach orbit with Celestis cremains since 1999. The company’s three most recent previous missions were launched in 2011, 2010 and 2009 from Spaceport America in New Mexico on UP Aerospace, Inc. aboard suborbital rockets as secondary payloads. Three missions with Celestis cremains have failed.
As best as Chafer can determine, Celestis is alone in the space burial field. About two-thirds of his clients inquire via the company’s website. The rest ask a traditional funeral home to make the initial contact.
Celestis’s inaugural flight was launched in April 1997 aboard an. Pegasus rocket from the Canary Islands. The payload accompanied a Spanish satellite and rocketed into orbit with the ashes of 24 people, including “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and Timothy Leary, the 1960s LSD guru.
For the SpaceX/Dragon launch, the family and friends of Celestis’s “passengers” gathered in Cocoa Beach, Fla., at a pavilion in Jetty Park to watch the liftoff. The guest list dropped from 325 to 90 as the launch slipped from late April. But for those who were called away, Celestis offered a webcast of the launch.
The Dragon capsule, boosted by the two-stage Falcon 9, is scheduled to depart the space station early May 31, re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and make a parachute descent into the Pacific Ocean off the southern California coast for recovery by SpaceX.
The Falcon 9 second stage and its cremains, however, will make their fiery re-entry in about a year.