Last Flights

For Tim Leary and other notables, the final stop on the carbon chain is outer space. A Houston company wants you to join them later.

Celestis Inc. vice president Charles Chafer is decked out in nice cowboy boots, clean jeans and a spiffily striped Izod sport shirt, and he's sipping a 32-ounce Big Gulp soda while discussing the statistical "cremation densities" of various geographic areas -- about 22 percent in the United States, compared to almost 99 percent in Japan, he says. Chafer's interested in pinpointing those parts of the world where folks choose to have their carcasses burned into ash -- instead of, say, buried whole in the ground -- because he has a service to sell. For $4,800, Celestis will pack seven grams of human ash -- think seven packets worth of Sweet & Low -- into an aerospace-engineered capsule about the size of a .50 caliber antiaircraft round and have it sent into space on a rocket.

This is called a memorial service (not to be confused with an actual funeral, since the average cremation generates five to eight pounds of human ash), and even though Celestis has yet to enter the sales phase of its entrepreneurial life, Chafer and his two partners, Chan Tysor and Gary Gartner, have already sold 22 slots -- think 154 Sweet & Lows -- over the phone.

That phone is in a scrambled second-floor suite of an office building on Times Boulevard in the Rice Village. The walls are hung with commemorative photos of rocket launches and space posters. There's a new-model laptop searching the Internet on a desk and a high-dollar portable Bang & Olufsen boom box on the floor. There's paper lying around everywhere. From this site, Chafer and his partners have spent the last two years laying the groundwork for what is, for most people, the first commercially viable option, posthumous though it may be, for space flight.

Their work is about to pay off with a "Founder's Flight," scheduled for December, and Celestis already has earned a small measure of notoriety for the fact that its inaugural flight will be hauling the ashes of recently deceased inner-space traveler Timothy Leary.

Chafer doesn't know how far back the idea may go, but he's found legal wills specifying space-based ash-scattering dating back to the 1950s. As a practical matter, though, the concept of a commercial enterprise sending human remains into orbit began 12 years ago in Florida with two NASA engineers and a funeral home director. They called their fledgling company Celestis, and their failure to trademark the name was only one of many entrepreneurial oversights that kept the company from ever getting off the ground.

For one thing, the original Celestis group unwisely chose to ignore the tangle of state and federal regulation regarding "final disposition" of human remains (in some states, cremation itself is considered final disposition, but in environmentally goofy California, for example, you have to sign a release at the morgue stating the ashes' final resting place before they'll let you take your loved one home).

For another, the original Celestis didn't have a rocket lined up for the launch and tried to sell their service to the public on the speculative notion that as soon as enough people purchased a ride, Celestis could then afford to go get a rocket. Nobody bought that.

Charles Chafer knows all about this, because he was a member of the Space Services Inc. team, and had the original Celestis needed a rocket, they would have bought it from SSI, then a Houston-based company that got famous for launching the world's first private commercial rocket from Matagorda Island in September 1982.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- his undergraduate studies in foreign policy and political science, the 43-year-old Chafer believes that space is the next human frontier, and that as people move into the next frontier, they will take their rituals and customs, their whole social structure, along with them. He plans to be one step ahead of the crowd. "I want to live in space," he says. "I want to be there, and there are a lot of people like me."

With that in mind, Chafer, Tysor and Gartner were, Chafer says, "independently looking for something to do in commercial space that was truly a commercial business. We were looking for a mass consumer market that could drive a business that could be large enough to do space technology development."

And since there is no larger mass market than that generated by death, the partners, with backgrounds ranging from space technology to real estate, resuscitated Celestis, got the name for the asking and brought on John Cherry, a retired Florida funeral director from the original group, as a shareholder.

With about half a million in seed money, Celestis has spent two years taking care of the details its namesake neglected. What that means, Chafer says, is that Celestis is "spending an awful lot of time and money on lawyers."

It took six months to hammer out an arrangement with Orbital, a Washington, D.C.-based company that launches rockets with commercial payloads, under which Celestis rents otherwise unsalable "secondary space" on a per-launch basis. "The nice thing about it from the consumer point of view," says Chafer, "is they know they can fly. We'll fly two to three times a year, so there's no incredibly long waiting period. The nice thing about it, from a business point of view, is that we'll never fly and not be making a profit on it."

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