Last Flights

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."

Celestis has also been concentrating on building a distribution base, which means convincing funeral home directors to sell the service to the public for a per-sale commission fee. Marketing-wise, the company has a presence in five states now, and hopes to be up and running in more than 20 by the time of its inaugural flight. Chafer says selling the idea to funeral home directors -- who are generally perceived as possessing neither progressive sympathies nor humor -- isn't as tough as you might think.

"What we've noticed," he says, "is that the funeral home directors who are interested in working with us are all under 50. Many of them haven't come into it from the family lines, they've come into it from other industries. They're looking for services they can offer."

As for the customers, Chafer says they're choosing cremation; he's got numbers suggesting that the cremation rate in the U.S. will almost double by the turn of the century, and he's especially excited about areas with high aerospace awareness like California, Florida and Texas. "There are half a million cremations in this country every year," he observes, "so we really don't need a very big percentage." And it's competitive, since Celestis' $4,800 price, added to an average cremation cost (a little under $1,000), falls in the ballpark of a standard burial funeral that Chafer estimates to average in the $5,000 to $6,000 range.

Once your mortal coil has been reduced to ash, Celestis will pack your ashes into their capsule, the capsule will be fitted into a honeycomb framework incorporated in the rocket's second stage, and off you'll go. When the rocket fires its payload -- usually a commercial satellite -- the second stage, honeycomb and all, falls into an orbit that lasts anywhere from one to ten years, depending on the particular rocket you ride and a bunch of scientific considerations. Upon re-entry, honeycomb, capsules and ashes all burn to nothing and you go out with an environmentally sound bang.

Sticklers and rocket buffs even have options. They can be launched via a Taurus rocket, a baton-shaped vehicle that lifts off from the traditional launch pad. Or they can be dispatched via the Pegasus, a nondescript tube launched from the belly of a Lockheed L-1011 airplane. Whichever way you want to go.

And since memorial services are for the living more than the dead, there's an assortment of bonus packages and funerary gewgaws available. You still have pounds of ash, so you can get a little bronze urn in the shape of a lumpy anthropoid stretching its arms toward Heaven. You may choose to have your name sculpted into a memorial wall that Celestis is planning. And each and every paying customer gets a videotape of the launch to watch when you're feeling blue.

Celestis' Founder's Flight will be launched from a Pegasus, and it's almost full. In an irony worthy of Thomas Pynchon, one of Leary's companions on his last trip will be seven grams worth of Dr. Kraft Ehricke, who was a member of the Werner Von Braun-led team that developed the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany. Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry already had his ashes flown on a Space Shuttle mission, but his widow is sending up a second round on the Founder's Flight, and has scheduled yet a third flight so they might go up together when she finally passes on. Also onboard in December will be what's left of former Princeton physicist and space colonization advocate Gerard O'Neil.

Leary, Chafer says, learned of the service only weeks before his death, and there's a framed piece of paper hanging in Chafer's office that he says is the last thing the honorable Dr. Leary ever signed. It's the form dictating the words that Leary will have engraved on the outside of the capsule containing his ashes. In little boxes that look like a classified ad contract, Leary has spelled out "Peace Love Light youmeone."

At first you think Leary has made yet another effort to pass off typography for philosophy with that cummings-esque run-on at the end, but Chafer knows the real meaning of Leary's message to the heavens. "You only get 25 characters," he explains.  

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