Space burial

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File:TaurusVandenbergAFB12May2000TimeExposure.JPG
Taurus Missile launch (Time Exposure)

Space burial is a burial procedure where a small sample of the cremated ashes of the deceased in a lipstick sized capsule are launched into space using a rocket. As of 2004, samples of about 150 people have been "buried" in space.

Technical and economical aspects

The effort and cost of launching an object into space is very high. Furthermore, the cost is directly related to the payload, i.e. the mass of the object. Therefore various measures are taken to reduce the mass of the burial, which usually include:

  • The corpse is cremated, reducing the mass of the remains to about 5% of the initial mass (a few kilograms).
  • Only a small sample of the ashes is included, typically only 1 g or 7 g. The remainder of the ashes can be buried conventionally in the earth or in the sea.

Other measures to reduce cost include:

  • No rockets are specially launched for this purpose, the samples of the remains are just part of the payload.
  • Multiple remains are buried with the same rocket, although usually the remains are in separate capsules.

The capsules are kept together in a flight container, e.g. attached to the upper stage engine of the rocket, to avoid additional "space debris".

The second factor greatly influencing the cost includes the target location of the payload. Most burials do not actually leave the gravitational field of the earth but only achieve an orbit around earth. The capsules containing the samples of the remains circle the earth, until the upper layers of the Earth's atmosphere have slowed down the capsules, and they reenter the atmosphere. The capsules burn up upon reentry similar to a shooting star, and the ashes are scattered in the atmosphere. The time between launch and reentry depends on the orbit of the satellite, and can vary widely. The first burial reentered after only 5 years, but other burials are not expected to reenter in less than 250 years.

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NASA’s Lunar Prospector

There are a number of alternative options if a reentry into the earth atmosphere is not desired. All of them are more complex and expensive than a burial in earth orbit. If an object leaves the gravitational field of the earth, it enters the gravitational field of another body in space. The closest object near the earth for that purpose is the moon. Although the moon is technically also in the gravitational field of the earth, it will not hit the earth within any human timeframe. A service is available for space burial on the moon. As of 2005, the only person buried this way is Dr. Eugene Shoemaker, (April 28, 1928 - July 18, 1997), best known for co-discovering the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.

If the moon is still too close, it is possible to launch the remains into outer space, although this is the most costly space burial currently available. As of 2004, nobody has been buried yet in outer space, although some companies accept reservations for this procedure.

History

The practice of space burials is a very recent practice due to the technical difficulties involved in launching an object into space. The very first space burial Earthview 01: The Founders Flight was launched on April 21, 1997. An aircraft carried a modified Pegasus rocket containing samples of the remains of 24 people to an altitude of 11km (38,000 feet) above the Canary Islands. The rocket then carried the remains on a elliptical orbit with an apogee of 578 km (361 miles) and a perigee of 551 km (344 miles), rotating around earth once every 96 minutes until reentry on May 20, 2002, northeast of Australia. Famous people buried on this flight were Gene Roddenberry and Timothy Leary.

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Taurus launch from Vandenberg AFB

The second space burial was the burial of a sample of the remains of Dr. Eugene Shoemaker on the moon by the Lunar Prospector probe, launched on January 7th 1998 by a three-stage Athena rocket. The probe containing scientific instruments and the ashes of Dr. Shoemaker impacted the moon near the lunar south pole on 4:52 a.m. Central Daylight Time, July 31, 1999.

The list of space burials to date:

Outlook

Currently, only one company, Space Services Inc., offers space burials. Space Services took over the assets of Celestis, Inc., which launched four flights from 1997 to 2001. As science progresses it is expected that the cost and difficulties of space burials will be reduced, and other companies may enter the market.

As of 2005, only cremated remains have been buried. Burial of a complete body is possible, but prohibitively expensive due to its weight. However, this is likely to change in the future.

Though there have been requests, no pets have yet been buried in space.

Religious aspects

Most religions do not provide special instructions for space burial due to the procedure being only a recent development, and only around 150 people have been buried in space so far. As only a small portion of the remains are buried, a regular funeral and burial ceremony can be performed according to the beliefs of the deceased, and only a small part of the remains are diverted into space. Due to the infrequency of the flights, the sample of the remains have to be stored until the next launch. Also, not all religions allow the bodies of deceased to be cremated, as is often done in space burial. It should be noted that at least one service for burial in space was planned. As part of the contingency plans for the Apollo 11 mission, if the astronauts were unable to return from the lunar landing, a funeral service would be held for them on earth, similar to the service for burial at sea, with references to the ocean omitted and replaced with "the deepest of the deep."

Famous people buried in space

Launched to Earth orbit on April 21, 1997

Launched to Earth orbit on December 20, 1999

Planned to launch to Earth orbit on December 6, 2005

Buried on the moon on July 31, 1999

Fictional characters buried in space

In science fiction, dead characters are sometimes buried in space, by analogy to the naval tradition of burial at sea.

  • Captain Spock, fictional character from Star Trek, was buried in a photon torpedo and fired onto the rapidly forming Genesis planet, which initiated his rebirth
  • Captain Future, hero of the Edmond Hamilton stories with the same name, received a space burial. However, later it turns out that Captain Future is still alive, and a Doppelgänger has been buried instead.
  • Ovaron, a character of the Perry Rhodan series, is buried in space in Volume 722: "A Message for Ovaron".
  • Breckcrown Hayes, a character of the Perry Rhodan series, is buried in space in Volume 1048: "Atlan's Return".
  • Frank Poole, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, although he is revived by science in 3001: The Final Odyssey.
  • A space burial for Phillip J. Fry, delivery boy, appears in Futurama episode The Sting, but only in another character's extended dream sequence.
  • Phillip J. Fry, first person on Mars in Futurama episode The Luck of the Fryrish. Named after his uncle, listed above. However, note that his burial was in a conventional graveyard in a space station named Orbiting Meadows National Cemetery.
  • Lieutenant John Kelly, a minor character on Star Trek: Voyager. He was the commander of the ill-fated Ares 4 mission to Mars. Lieutenant Kelly disappeared on October 19, 2032, captured by a graviton ellipse and died on board his spacecraft on October 25th. Kelly's body was retrieved by the crew of the USS Voyager and buried in space circa stardate 53301.2 in 2376.
  • Numerous other Star Trek characters have also been buried in space.
  • Christopher "Maverick" Blair, in the original Wing Commander, is given a space burial if killed during a mission.
  • Kane, from the movie Alien is buried in space, being the first human killed by the creature.
  • In Babylon 5 multiple characters are given space burials by having their caskets sent into a star. (Quote: "From the stars we came, to the stars we return. We commit this body to the deep.")
  • S.R. Hadden, owner of Hadden Industries is buried in space after dying of Cancer on Mir in the film Contact. This is different from the book the movie is adapted from. In the book, Hadden is not terminally ill and voluntarily chooses to leave earth in a space-bound "casket" while still alive. The "casket" is actually a small spacecraft capable of leaving Earth orbit for deep space, although the lack of any kind of superluminal propulsion means Hadden will undergo cryogenic hibernation to allow him to survive the thousands of years needed to cover interstellar distances.
  • The entire crew of Red Dwarf following the radiation disaster (unseen). The first burial shown on the show was George McIntyre.
  • Dizzy Flores, a character from Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, is buried in space with full military honors after dying from a bug attack.
  • A military space funeral parlor is depicted in Enemy Mine in which human remains from Human-Drac wars are routinely and irreverently disposed of.

Space disasters

The list of space disasters shows that 14 astronauts and 4 cosmonauts have perished in flight as of 2004; 3 bodies had a normal landing, one victim crashed into Earth, 7 bodies were recovered in a mostly intact cockpit after an explosion shortly after take-off, and 7 in a disaster in the atmosphere and thus must have burnt and vaporized. Thus no remains of these victims are or have been in space.

Animal remains in space

A number of animals have died in space; see Animals in space. Not clear is whether there are still animal remains in space.

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