Concerning Launch Schedules and Closure

by Charles M. Chafer

Charles Chafer
Charles M. Chafer, CEO, Celestis, Inc.

Tom Petty is one of my favorite artists, and I’m often reminded – especially because I’m in the space business – of his words, “the waiting is the hardest part…”

As the Co-Founder and CEO of Celestis, Inc., I’m sometimes asked questions such as “can I get an exact launch date for my service?” or “why has my launch been delayed?” or “why can’t you give me more details about the launch services provider?”

These questions – coming from people who are considering or have already purchased our space funeral service – are completely understandable. The Celestis Memorial Spaceflight service is a compelling and special way to celebrate a life – by launching a symbolic portion of cremated remains or DNA sample into space, into Earth orbit, to the Moon, or into deepest space. Because it is such a compelling service its anticipation can be a bit overwhelming, when juxtaposed against the reality of the challenges of actually achieving space travel.

The notion of a final memorial space journey has been with us at least since the dawn of the Space Age, and I’ve even traced the concept back to the 1930’s era of “pulp fiction” science fiction novellas. The very first space burial was conducted by NASA in 1992 when astronaut James Weatherbee carried a symbolic portion of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s ashes aboard Space Shuttle Columbia STS – 52.

Launch Pad tour
Remembering a loved one during a Celestis launch pad tour at Spaceport America, New Mexico

But it wasn’t until Celestis conducted its first mission – the Founders Flight in 1997, which also included Mr. Roddenberry as a participant – that the option of launching ashes into space as a final tribute became a reality for all of us.

Since 1997, we’ve conducted 14 memorial spaceflight missions. No other company has successfully completed even one – some have tried. We’ve (symbolically) sent more people into space than all Earth’s nations combined have sent astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts (Chinese astronauts), and tourists.

We’ve been able to achieve this impressive record despite the fact that – even after 55 years of spaceflight – space launch events are rare, expensive, and remain difficult to successfully accomplish. There are only approximately 45 global commercial space launches conducted PER YEAR, with only a small (but increasing) percentage of those hosting commercial secondary payloads, including Celestis. Most commercial space missions involve satellites valued in excess of $100m and require the full capability of the rocket to ensure proper orbital placement, leaving no opportunity for secondary payloads. By comparison, note that globally there are more than 100,000 commercial air flights EVERY DAY, with plenty of available cargo capacity.

Celestis has negotiated flights with proven providers of space launch services including Orbital/ATK, SpaceX, NASA, and UP Aerospace. We are one of the very first companies to contract with launch companies for small, “ride along” payloads, and we continue to find innovative ways for our participants to fulfill their final wish for a memorial spaceflight. We’ve proven again and again that we understand the complexities of providing flight ready secondary payloads without disruption to the primary mission – a matter of paramount importance to our hosts.

How We Choose a Launch Service Provider

As we consider which flight opportunities to pursue on behalf of our clients we assess three factors prior to proceeding to contract negotiations with a space mission provider. Each is important, and each requires the kind of expertise we’ve gained over 35+ years of commercial space operations – remember Celestis’ parent company Space Services launched the first-ever private rocket into outer space in 1982. When we select a mission provider, you can be assured that we have made a careful choice on your behalf.

Conestoga 1 launch
Space Services’ Conestoga 1, Sept. 9, 1982 — the first-ever private rocket launched into space

1. Affordability – The only way memorial spaceflights can remain within the reach of the average person (our Earth Rise and Earth Orbit services are priced at less than the average cost of a US funeral) is by purchasing secondary space on a rocket or spacecraft. Very few of us could afford to buy an entire rocket for ourselves!

2. Reliability – This is a key consideration. We want to give our participants the best possible chance of success on their memorial spaceflight mission. As the commercial space industry blossoms and new entrants begin to offer new launch and mission services, we are encouraged that very soon commercial secondary payloads such as Celestis will enter an era of abundant availability. But we are not there yet.

As Smithsonian pointed out in 2014, “Commercial spaceflight is off to a slow start. This makes sense, of course – going to space is hard: it’s dangerous, it’s expensive, it’s technologically challenging, and it’s a whole new legal frontier. Few nations, let alone companies, have successfully left planet Earth.”

Moreover, as new entrants emerge there is always a “proving” period during which systems are not yet fully mature and are subject to an elevated level of development delays and even inflight failures. For example, in 2003 Virgin Galactic – the “space tourism” company founded by Sir Richard Branson – announced their initial flight scheduled for 2007. In 2016 that first mission is still at least two years away, with over 700 customers waiting for one of six seats per flight once the SpaceShip 2 system is declared operational.

Branson and SpaceShip Two model
Sir Richard Branson with a model of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two. Image Credit: Pinterest.com

This is not an atypical development cycle in aerospace. I should also note that as a rule Celestis will not place one of our spacecraft on the first mission of a new launch vehicle conducted by a new launch team. We have witnessed two instances of companies that were seeking to compete with Celestis placing their payload of precious remains aboard the first flight of a new rocket – in both instances the flights failed. While missions can always fail for a variety of reasons, we believe that first missions are subject to a higher failure rate than missions employing a proven launcher and/or team – hence our avoidance of first flights.

3. Launch Location and Scheduling – As I mentioned – and as everyone who has attended one knows – Celestis launch events are perhaps the most compelling memorial services on (or off!) the planet. Many families and friends travel from all over the globe to be at the launch of their loved one into space. We’ve launched from all over the world, but our most popular missions fly from one of three US launch sites, so we tend to favor those launch sites.

Memorial Service scene
A family praises the Celestis team at a Celestis memorial service. View video of their testimonial.

Often our contract negotiations with mission providers, which often involve multiple departments within very large aerospace companies, are governed by very strict Non Disclosure Agreements (NDA’s). For a variety of valid reasons these service providers desire to tightly control the public release of information about their partnerships and customers. We understand these reasons and abide by all of the provisions of any NDA we sign – even including, on rare occasions, silence right up to the launch itself. Of course, in these extreme instances we use private means of communication to keep the family members and friends of our participants informed.

Once we’ve reached agreement with a launch services provider to host a Celestis payload, the next step in getting to a launch is called “manifesting,” which means committing the Celestis payload to a specific launch or spacecraft.

The Nature of Launch Countdowns

Space shuttle launch
The majority of NASA space shuttle missions experienced launch delays.

When a Celestis launch is manifested and scheduled, and the Celestis payload is integrated onto the rocket or spacecraft, the countdown to launch commences. For some of our missions – especially the Earth Rise Service – the count is smooth, the launch date predictable, and there is overall relative schedule certainty. For others – for a variety of reasons – the schedule is much less predictable. Again, this is not uncommon in the space business.

For example, NASA’s Space Shuttle – one of the most expensive launch vehicles ever developed – launched on schedule about 40 percent of the time. A 2008 analysis by the Associated Press found that of the 118 Shuttle flights that had flown at the time, only 47 lifted off on time. So even with the best technology NASA can generate, launch schedules in the modern era are at best estimates of projected launch dates.

All of this may seem rather daunting, but it shouldn’t be. Memorial spaceflights are meant as celebrations, achievements, and the fulfillment of dreams. Who can put a schedule on reaching these amazing goals? Part of the reason the waiting is so difficult is that the reward is so special.

The first president of Space Services, astronaut Deke Slayton, was originally scheduled to be on the second Mercury orbital flight in 1962. Deke was grounded by a heart murmur and had to wait 13 years and visit countless doctors before he was able to launch into space aboard Apollo-Soyuz in 1975 – it was that important to him.

James Doohan
Star Trek actor James Doohan has flown on several Celestis memorial spaceflights. Image Credit: Pinterest.com

Fortunately, no one has had to or ever will wait that long for a memorial spaceflight. The current incredible growth of commercial space activities guarantees that more and more, the choice to commemorate someone’s life with a memorial spaceflight is an achievable goal. With Celestis, one can be assured that even though we are still in the “Wright Brothers era” of commercial spaceflight, we will continue to offer our uniquely compelling memorial service through an ever increasing number of providers, offering ever more choices for people all over the world.

What is more appropriate as we become a multi-planet species than to take our rituals, memorials, and remembrance practices along with us? Celestis is the pioneer, but the families of Celestis participants – often patiently waiting for the next flight – are the real reason why we are able to offer this most compelling memorial service. That’s the reason we keep each family fully informed of the latest launch news, take the time to answer each family’s questions, and provide families a truly memorable launch experience — whether they attend the launch and related activities in person or online. In short, our mission is to help families fulfill their departed loved ones’ dreams of spaceflight. While launch schedules may change, in the end making spaceflight dreams come true is what our service is all about.

Celestis in National Museum of Funeral History

Celestis participant James Doohan
This photo of Celestis participant James Doohan (Star Trek‘s “Mr. Scott”) is part of the permanent Celestis display at the National Museum of Funeral History.

Celestis is part of a permanent exhibit at the National Museum of Funeral History, which is located in Houston, Texas.  The exhibit honors Celestis and some of the past notable figures Celestis has flown into space, including Mercury 7 Astronaut L. Gordon Cooper, Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry and Star Trek actor James Doohan who played “Mr. Scott.” On display are pictures and replicas of the flight containers that carried these celebrities’ cremated remains in space, engraved with their names and flight messages.

The Celestis exhibit provides an overview of our memorial spaceflight services and features a model of the SpaceLoft XL launch vehicle, built and flown by UP Aerospace, that flies our Earth Rise Service missions into space from Spaceport America, New Mexico. The museum decided to honor Celestis as we are the only private company to have conducted memorial spaceflights.

Called “Thanks for the Memories,” the exhibit honors not only Celestis, but also iconic figures in history such as Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “Thanks for the Memories” is dedicated to capturing and highlighting the magnificent and interesting ways society has bid farewell to some of the world’s most famous figures.

“The National Museum of Funeral History has been grateful for the working relationship with Celestis Memorial Spaceflights,” said Genevieve Keeney, President of the museum. “It has allowed us to enhance the exhibit with the artifacts of some of our most well-known space icons: James Doohan, Gordon Cooper and Gene Roddenberry.”

Part of the Celestis exhibit at the National Funeral Home Museum
Part of the Celestis display at the National Museum of Funeral History, which chose Celestis as the only company that has conducted memorial spaceflights.  Shown here are a model of the UP Aerospace’s SpaceLoft XL launch vehicle, a photo of a Celesits launch from Spaceport America, and replicas of the Celestis flight modules that have flown the cremated remains of Gene Roddenberry, James Doohan and L. Gordon Cooper into space.

Continue reading “Celestis in National Museum of Funeral History”

Watch Our Video About The Celestis Experience

The Conestoga Flight Video

We invite you to watch this beautiful video showing what families and friends of those on board Celestis’ Conestoga Flight experienced as they fulfilled their departed loved ones’ dreams of spaceflight at Spaceport America in October 2014.  You’ll see the non-sectarian memorial service where families and friends of those on board the mission shared their memories of their departed loved ones.  You’ll see the families touring the launch pad and mission control.  You’ll see the launch from the striking setting of the New Mexican desert.  And you’ll see families reacting to the launch they’ve just witnessed. Continue reading “Watch Our Video About The Celestis Experience”

Celestis in Pop Culture

Majel Roddenberry with Celestis, CEO Charles Chafer
Star Trek‘s Majel Roddenberry with Celestis CEO Charles Chafer

Being the only private company to have conducted memorial spaceflights — with over 1,000 participants flown so far — Celestis is widely known for its unique service for honoring departed loved ones.  As a result, Celestis has often been featured in popular culture.

Celestis gained worldwide notice with its very first memorial spaceflight — The Founders Flight, which was launched into space in April 1997.  Major media outlets around the world covered the story.  See, for example, the New York Times‘ front page article.  The New Yorker magazine published a cartoon about the launch.  Pop culture icon Timothy Leary, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and 22 others were on board this mission.  The flight was recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records, and was even added to the popular board game Trivial Pursuit.

Star Trek star Patrick Stewart is planning a funeral fitting his sci-fi past – he wants to be launched into space. The 64-year-old actor has already decided how he wants to depart the earth, and he plans to use his links with the hit show to make sure his send off is a spectacular one. — ContactMusic.com, Jan. 17, 2005

Amelie movie poster
Poster for the 2001 French movie Amelie, which includes a reference to the Celestis space burial service

With the many Celestis missions flown since the Founders Flight, Celestis has gained high profile endorsements over the years.  Noted personalities from U.S. Senator John Glenn to actress Susan Sarandon have recommended Celestis to friends and constituents.  Actors including Jonathan Frakes, Patrick Stewart, and Tom Hanks have announced their own interest in a space funeral.  Star Trek actor James Doohan has flown on three Celestis missions, and will be on a future Celestis Voyager Service mission into deep space. Joining him on that mission will be Star Trek‘s Gene and Majel Roddenberry.  Movies, including the award winning French film Amelie, have made references to the Celestis Memorial Spaceflight service.  Popular music from country and western to electronica has been composed and released highlighting the Celestis service.  Our CEO, Charles Chafer, even appeared on the popular game show To Tell the Truth.

But you don’t have to be a celebrity to use the Celestis service.  The overwhelming majority of Celestis memorial spaceflight participants were everyday people who typically had an interest in space exploration, science fiction, astronomy … or just lived life to the fullest!  For more information about arranging a memorial spaceflight for yourself or a loved one, contact us today.

Can I prearrange a space funeral?

Couple holding hands on a beach
© Can Stock Photo

You’re fascinated with the idea of arranging to have your ashes launched into space, but you’re asking, “Can I prearrange a space funeral?”  The short answer is, “Yes!”

Prearranging a funeral is a smart choice.  You ensure that your wishes will be honored.  Prearrangment also relieves your family of anguishing over what would be the most appropriate way to honor your life.  With a preneed space funeral contract you lock in the price of your space burial: You need not worry about future price increases.  What’s more, it’s simple to arrange.  Prearranged funerals and memorial services are an increasingly popular option.

With Celestis, you can arrange to have your cremated remains launched into Earth orbit, to the Moon, or into deep space.  Celestis can even fly your ashes into space and parachute them back to Earth: Your cremated remains will be returned to your family, still encapsulated in the spaceflight hardware that flew in space.

Celestis provides a preneed contract for each of its space burial services.  You can download the contract from the Celestis website.  Carefully review the contract with your family: This is a good way to ensure your family will clearly know your wishes when the time comes.  You might also want to express your wishes for final disposition in your will.

A 10-20% deposit locks in the price of the memorial spaceflight service you choose.  You can make periodic payments toward the balance of the contract, use insurance to pay for the balance of the service, or your estate can pay the balance owed at the time of need.  Celestis offers a 10% discount for veterans. You can cancel at any time.  Your money is deposited into a Trust account with the Houston branch of ClearPoint Federal Bank & Trust.  This account is audited annually.  In fact, Celestis received the highest ranking from the Texas Department of Banking, which audited Celestis’ preneed account on April 7, 2014.

Finally, consider attending a Celestis memorial spaceflight launch!  Celestis launches from a variety of locations.  Bring your family and friends and experience the excitement of liftoff!

For more information, contact Celestis at celestis.com/contact.asp.

The Goddard Flight’s Namesake

Robert Goddard
Robert Goddard

The Goddard Flight, Celestis’ tenth memorial spaceflight, was named in honor of Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard, who is considered to be the father of modern rocket propulsion, and who conducted much of his pioneering research near Roswell, New Mexico. A physicist of great insight, Goddard also had a unique genius for invention.  Given Celestis’ innovative use of rocket technology to launch cremated remains into space from Spaceport America, it is only fitting that we paid tribute to this aerospace pioneer and longtime New Mexico resident.

Born October 5, 1882 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Goddard developed his interest in space and astronomy at an early age, inspired in part by H.G. Wells’ sci-fi classic, War of the Worlds, and by his parents, who provided young Robert a telescope and otherwise encouraged him to pursue a scientific career.  Goddard studied at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Clark University, earning his Ph.D. in 1911.  In 1914, Goddard received two U.S. patents. One was for a rocket using liquid fuel. The other was for a two or three stage rocket using solid fuel.  Note that The Goddard Flight carried the ashes of Earth Rise service participants into space on board a solid fuel rocket.

Goddard in group photo in NM
Standing in front of the rocket in the launch tower near Roswell, New Mexico on September 23, 1935, are (left to right): Albert Kisk, Goddard’s brother-in-law and machinist; Harry F. Guggenheim; Dr. Robert H. Goddard; Col. Charles A. Lindbergh and N.T. Ljungquist, machinist. Charles Lindbergh, an advocate for Goddard and his research, helped secure a grant from the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation in 1930. With that money Goddard and his wife moved to Roswell, New Mexico, where he could conduct research and launch rockets while avoiding the scrutiny and criticism of his colleagues and the press. Photo Credit: NASA

At his own expense, Goddard began to make systematic studies about propulsion provided by various types of gunpowder. His classic document was a study he wrote in 1916 requesting funds from the Smithsonian Institution so that he could continue his research. This was later published along with his subsequent research in a famous January 1920 report to the Smithsonian Institution entitled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes.”  In this treatise, Goddard detailed his search for methods of raising weather recording instruments higher than sounding balloons. In this search, he developed the mathematical theories of rocket propulsion.

Robert Goddard
Dr. Robert Goddard and his liquid oxygen-gasoline rocket in the frame from which it was fired on March 16, 1926, at Auburn, Mass.

Towards the end of his 1920 report, Goddard outlined the possibility of a rocket reaching the moon and exploding a load of flash powder there to mark its arrival.  The press picked up the story and severely criticized Goddard. For example, in its January 13, 1920 issue, The New York Times tore into Goddard, arguing that he, “… does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react…. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”  The widespread public ridicule culminated in his being nicknamed “The Moon Man.”

By 1926, Goddard had constructed and successfully launched the first rocket using liquid fuel. Indeed, the flight of Goddard’s rocket on March 16, 1926, at Auburn, Massachusetts was as significant to history as that of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk.

Goddard’s greatest engineering contributions were made during his work in the 1920s and 1930s. He received a total of $10,000 from the Smithsonian by 1927, and through the personal efforts of famed American aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, he subsequently received financial support from the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation, which financed his research in New Mexico.  Goddard spent a dozen years near Roswell, New Mexico with the support of the Guggenheim Foundation, further developing and testing his rocket designs.

While Goddard’s rocket work made little impression on American government officials of the 1920s and 1930s, German rocket scientists paid close attention: Goddard’s research largely anticipated in technical detail the later German V-2 missiles, including gyroscopic control, steering by means of vanes in the jet stream of the rocket motor, gimbal-steering, power-driven fuel pumps and other devices.  Indeed, Goddard inspected several captured V-2’s in 1945, confirming that the Germans had used his designs.  Goddard died later that same year from throat cancer.

Robert Goddard’s contributions to missilery and spaceflight would make a lengthy list.  Here are some of Dr. Goddard’s firsts:

  • Explored the practicality of using rocket propulsion to reach high altitudes and even the moon (1912)
  • Proved that a rocket will work in a vacuum, that it needs no air to push against
  • Developed and demonstrated the basic idea of the “bazooka” two days before the Armistice in 1918 at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
  • Developed and launched a liquid fuel rocket (March 16, 1926, Auburn, Mass.)
  • Launched a scientific payload in a rocket flight (1929, Auburn, Mass.)
  • Used vanes in rocket motor blast for guidance (1932, New Mexico)
  • Developed a gyro control apparatus for rocket flight (1932, New Mexico)
  • Received U.S. patent in idea of multi-stage rocket (1914)
  • Developed pumps suitable for rocket fuels
  • Launched a rocket with a motor pivoted on gimbals under the influence of a gyro

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the Goddard Crater (located on the Moon’s eastern limb) and The Goddard Flight are all named in honor of this hero of space history.


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