Space Burials: a Cosmic Conclusion to Our Earthly Existence
Last Updated: June 16, 2023
Many of us wish to go to space before we die, but know that even with the current state of space exploration, this may not be a possibility (at least financially) within our lifetime. But what about after we die?
Can you or some small part of you be “buried” in space? Is it a possibility today? Is it legal? How much would it cost? Let’s dive into space burials!
What are space burials?
Very simply, a space burial is defined as the launching of (human) remains into space/ off Earth. They were first proposed by the science fiction author Neil R. Jones in his novella “The Jameson Satellite” in 1931 and later proposed as a commercial service (i.e. something that could be purchased by the average person) in the 1965 movie The Loved One and by Richard DeGroot in The Seattle Times newspaper on April 3, 1977.
Why would you want a space burial?
While there are many possible answers, one obvious one is the desire to have some part of you reach space, even if it’s not within your lifetime. Family members or friends may also choose to bestow this honor upon their lost loved one who loved space and wished to go.
There have also been many discussions lately about the cost of funerary services (more on this later) as well as the environmental and social impacts of overcrowded cemeteries. Many feel that space burials provide a unique and interesting way to honor a loved one at a potentially similar price.
But is it legal?
All after-death procedures (embalming, burial, and cremation) are regulated, including specific ones regarding if ashes can be scattered. For outer space, legal requirements include:
- Ashes must remain in a container; you cannot spread the ashes in space as you can in the sea
- Only a portion of the ashes may be included so the container is not large
- The container cannot cause harm to a person or property
Has anyone been buried in space?
In 1992, the NASA Space Shuttle Columbia (mission STS-52) carried a sample of Gene Roddenberry’s cremated remains into space and returned them to Earth, making it the first space burial.
The first space burial performed by a private company (Celestis) was in 1997, containing sample remains of 24 people into an elliptical orbit, orbiting the Earth once every 96 minutes until re-entry in 2002. Famous people on this flight included Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, and Timothy Leary, an American writer, psychologist, psychedelic drug advocate and Harvard University professor. Celestis and other companies have continued offering this service.
Let’s delve into a few details that are important to note when considering space burials both in the past and today.
A sample of remains
First and foremost, space burials are not sending a coffin into space. In addition to the legal requirements listed above, small samples of remains are launched to minimize the cost of launching into space, thereby making these services more affordable.
While ashes are typically chosen, some companies allow other options such as DNA samples, hair, etc. To prevent contamination in space, remains are sealed until the spacecraft burns up upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, if the family chooses to unseal them after the remains are returned to them, or until they reach their extraterrestrial destinations if they impact a surface or burn up.
The sample is returned to Earth
While this is no longer always the case, the fact that the sample returns to Earth might be unexpected with our traditional understanding of burial and could be considered a misnomer because of that detail.
In general, space burial missions, or memorial spaceflights as they are often called, go into orbit around the Earth. Suborbital flights briefly transport them into space by crossing the boundary of space without attempting to escape orbit, then return to Earth where they can be recovered. These are a cost-effective method of space burial and the remains do not burn up and are either recovered or lost in space.
But not always
As will be discussed further later, samples aren’t always returned to Earth, at least not in this way. For example, some memorial spaceflights launch them into orbit, without a planned return to Earth. However, these orbits will eventually decay, sometimes within a few years, and sometimes not for thousands of years, and when they do, they will burn up in the atmosphere upon re-entry.
More recently, packages have appeared that launch remains to extraterrestrial bodies, such as the Moon, or farther into space.
How much does it cost?
Now that we know space burial is legal and has been an option since 1997 commercially, how much does it cost? Similarly, just because there are currently companies that can send private citizens into space, does not mean that it is financially available to everyone. So, how much would a memorial spaceflight set you back?
Before we delve into the cost of a space burial, let’s use a baseline of funerary costs in general to compare.
- The 2021 national median cost of a funeral with a viewing and burial in the US is $7,848 while the median cost of a funeral with cremation is about $6,971
- According to the 2022 Cost of Dying Report from the UK, a funeral in 2021 was 4,056 pounds, or about $4,905 USD
Celestis offers three main packages:
- Earth Rise: launch to space and return to Earth
- Earth Orbit: launch into Earth orbit
- Luna: launch to lunar orbit or surface
- Voyager: launch to deep space
Earth Rise starts at about $3,000, Earth Orbit starts at about $5,000, and both Luna and Voyager start at about $13,000. Celestis offers numerous features and add-ons to commemorate your loved ones in different ways such as different capsule sizes, in-person and webcast launch and memorial services, a certificate of authenticity and mission details, the recovered capsule, a professional video of the mission, and other keepsake options. $3,000 appears to be the standard for most memorial spaceflight companies though Beyond Burials offers limited packages starting at $1,500.
Considering the average funerary costs as well as the cost to go into space as a living human, a space burial is approximately the same or even cheaper than typical funerary costs, making it a possibility for families to send a sample of their loved ones’ remains into space and then still hold a memorial service.
Current Space Burial Organizations
As of June 2023, current space burial or “Memorial Spaceflight” businesses include:
Official NASA space burials
- First space burial: On October 22, 1992, some of the ashes of Gene Roddenberry launched into Earth orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia and then returned to Earth.
- First and only current burial on the moon: Gene Shoemaker an American geologist and astrogeologist, who co-discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, is the only person whose remains have been placed on any celestial body outside Earth. He helped create the first geological map of the moon, found the field of astrogeology, and train the Apollo astronauts for the geological aspects of their mission.
- Launched from Earth on January 6, 1998, some of his ashes were carried to the Moon by the Lunar Prospector space probe which impacted the solar polar region on July 31, 1999.
- Celestis provided the service at NASA’s request commercially, making Shoemaker’s ashes the first private delivery to the lunar surface.
- The brass foil wrapping of Shoemaker’s memorial capsule is inscribed with images of Comet Hale–Bopp, the Barringer Meteor Crater, and a quotation from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
- Pluto-Finder launched to his discovery: On January 19, 2006, a small portion of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes launched aboard the New Horizons spacecraft headed to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the astronomical body and “third zone” of the Solar System that he discovered. His is the first sample of human cremated remains that will escape the solar system.
Most recent NASA space burial: On December 5, 2014, a sample of the remains of Lockheed-Martin engineer Patrick O’Malley was launched into Earth orbit on the Orion spacecraft. The aeronautical engineer had worked on the spacecraft for over a decade but died before the launch, prompting his coworkers to request NASA for permission that a sample of his remains could be on the spacecraft.
A few other notable individuals who had a space burial
- Star Trek actor James Doohan (“Scotty”):
- Originally scheduled for a spaceflight burial in Fall 2006; delayed until April 2007 for suborbital flight and return to Earth
- August 3, 2008: the same portion of ashes was launched for low Earth orbit but the rocket failed
- Some of his ashes are hidden under the floor of the ISS Columbus module (smuggled aboard by Richard Garriott in 2008)
- May 22, 2012: a small urn with some of his ashes was flown into space on Falcon 9 rocket as part of COTS Demo Flight 2, burning up in Earth’s atmosphere a month after initial orbit insertion
- Leroy Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, Jr.:
- Exact same schedule as Doohan’s except for the 2008 and 2012 flights
- Gerard K. O’Neill (1927–1992), space physicist; Krafft Ehricke (1917–1984), rocket scientist
- Future space burials:
- Leiji Matsumoto (1938–2023): Japanese creator of anime and manga series
- Majel Barrett (1932–2008): American actress who played Christine Chapel in the original Star Trek series and wife of Gene Roddenberry
- William R. Pogue (1930–2014): American astronaut
- Luise Clayborn Kaish (1925–2013): American sculptor and painter
- Nichelle Nichols (1932–2022): American actress known for her role as Nyota Uhura in Star Trek
Discussion regarding space burials
As you might imagine, the topic of space burials has spurred lots of discussion. There are currently many articles reporting this option is growing in popularity, but there is also pushback against it. Is it a frivolity? Is it littering space? Will it actually reduce funerary costs since a cremation or burial is still required and only a portion of the remains go to space?
As we’ve discussed here, there are measures in place to eliminate the “debris” at least in suborbital launches, but these questions are still being discussed for the lunar and deep space memorial spaceflights. All of these arguments, as well as others, have been made against space burials, adding to this conversation.
While there is continued, ongoing discussion about space burials, space burials have been performed in a variety of ways since the late 90s and continue today with growing interest. These memorial spaceflights are legal and have been performed both officially by NASA and commercially by a variety of companies with various packages to choose from, potentially at prices that are within your funeral budget.
If you are interested in a space burial for yourself or someone else, as we’ve discussed, there are many options available to you, allowing you or them the chance to go into space, even if it is after death.
Sarah Hoffschwelle is a freelance writer who covers a combination of topics including astronomy, general science and STEM, self-development, art, and societal commentary. In the past, Sarah worked in educational nonprofits providing free-choice learning experiences for audiences ages 2-99. As a lifelong space nerd, she loves sharing the universe with others through her words. She currently writes on Medium at https://medium.com/@sarah-marie and authors self-help and children’s books.
Wow! There's more to read 🚀
There are three main reasons why astronauts may have difficulty walking on land after spending so much time in a microgravity environment.