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."