December 21, 2004 4:30 AM PST

Space: Final frontier is final resting place

At the end of February, SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket will make its maiden voyage with some 125 civilian passengers.

But the rocket won't be carrying astronauts--instead, it'll convey the cremated remains of people from a half-dozen countries. While the rocket's main payload will be a naval communications satellite for the U.S. Department of Defense, SpaceX has granted payload space for canisters of these ashes to tag along for the ride.

"If you had to check off where you wanted your ashes to go?space would be the coolest option," said Elon Musk, the Internet entrepreneur who started SpaceX after founding PayPal and selling it to Ebay. Musk started SpaceX in hopes of one day transporting passengers into outer space. Before that can happen, the company's business will center on using its rockets to transport military and commercial satellites.

With the successful launch of Paul Allen and Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne this year, interest in human space travel is rekindling. Once the domain of defense contractors, the military and NASA, outer space is now opening up to private investors with dreams of exploration and the drive to turn concepts from science-fiction novels into reality.

British entrepreneur Richard Branson has already signed an agreement to license the design of SpaceShipOne to one day send a few high-paying customers into the outer atmosphere. Organizers of the Ansari X Prize for a reusable space vehicle, which was won by SpaceShipOne, are expected to launch more contests to foster a commercial space industry.

Houston-based Space Services is the company offering the chance to send ashes into the earth's orbit. At a cost of between $995 and $5,300, depending on weight, Space Services will store ashes into the aluminum canisters that will travel in rocket payloads.

Space Services loads individual canisters of ashes into a larger capsule in the tip of the rocket. Once the communications satellite launches, the final stage of the rocket containing the capsules remains in orbit until gravity eventually drags it down into the earth's atmosphere, where it incinerates on re-entry. The orbit lasts more than 10 years, according to Space Services.

The company has already sent its cargo into space four times, including one trip to the moon. Some of the famous ashes that have taken the ride include those of "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry and '60s activist Timothy Leary. This time around, the cargo will include the remains of Mareta West, an astrogeologist who mapped the moon for lunar landings; and John Meredyth Lucas, one of the original writers and directors of "Star Trek." The payload includes ashes from the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Germany and Russia.

After dispersing some of his ashes off the coast of Southern California, Lucas' family decided to include the Hollywood producer's remains with the Falcon 1 to commemorate his adventurous spirit.

"He loved to travel when he was alive, so we figured why should death slow him down?" his son Michael said in a phone interview.

SpaceX is combing over last minute details to ensure a successful take-off.

While SpaceX is slated for three more launches, tensions are high for its first real test.

"If this was a software package, imagine having a very complex release and you can't do a bug fix when it launches," Musk said in a phone interview. "The first time when it really has work as an integrated system is on its first flight."


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Isn't there enough junk in space already?
It's incredible. There are systems monitoring space debris continuously because it can take out operational devices (and manned crafts), and these guys are adding ashes of dead people to it?

If these parts are light enough and get enough speed, they will never drop down, but stay in orbit forever. We are creating a new environmental problem out of our atmosphere for the decadency of some. But what else is new...
Posted by Steven N (487 comments )
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Earl, where are you??
I'm certain we'll agree on this one!
This is worse than useless.
I've often wondered what is stopping somebody from designing a device that can move space debris into an orbit that send it into the sun for disposal. Probably costs... Although, if people keep throwing their trash into space, it may become a necessity.
Posted by David Arbogast (1709 comments )
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Well the problem with disposing of orbital debris is that you both have to match the objects velocity and trajectory before altering it (some of the stuff up there is moving fast enough to punch through a tank without slowing down). Then it has to expend more fuel to alter the objects trajectory out of orbit (or deeper into orbit to make it burn up).

Even with ground based solutions like lasers it would take a significant amount of energy to sufficiently alter an objects trajectory at the velocities required to maintain planetary orbit.

That kind of technology would cost millions to develop.. not to mention the energy required to operate would cost nearly as much again.

Its just more cost effective to track and try to avoid the stuff up there right now. If theres no profit to be made from cleaning it up.. why should those with the resources and authority to do so care?
Posted by Fray9 (547 comments )
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