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Out-of-this-world gifts from space

For those still searching for the perfect holiday gift, how's this for an idea: a space funeral.
As little as a gram of cremated human remains may be put within these lipstick-size containers for launch into space.
As little as a gram of cremated human remains may be put within these lipstick-size containers for launch into space.Celestis
/ Source: Reuters

For those still searching for the perfect holiday gift, how's this for an out-of-this world idea: space burials.

Celestis, a Houston-based firm that in 1997 arranged the launch of 1960s pop icon Timothy Leary's remains, is planning an April send-off in Russia for as many as 150 ash-filled capsules as part of the cargo on a Kosmos 1 satellite.

The containers, filled with customers' choices of 1 or 7 grams (0.03 or 0.25 ounces) of remains, will share space with data transmission equipment and will orbit the Earth for as long as 156 years before re-entering the atmosphere as a shooting star. Costs range from $995 to $5,300, depending on the capsule size.

Can't make the April launch? Reservations are being taken for later flights.

If that doesn't send your sweetie's heart racing, Celestis can arrange for a deep space radio message to be sent to a star you've previously named, for only $24.95.

"The Cosmic Call is very popular," said Celestis president and co-founder Chan Tysor. "We do 50 percent of our annual sales in December."

For $12,500, Celestis offers moon "burials," in which capsules are carried on lunar mission spacecraft. In 1998, the NASA Lunar Prospector transported a portion of the remains of scientist and comet discoverer Eugene Shoemaker in its strut, which disintegrated upon landing.

The packages are becoming more popular with those in search of a one-of-a-kind gift, for space enthusiasts or for those eager for an alternative to conventional Earth-bound interments.

"Think Dad would rather have a tie or be immortalized as a space pioneer?" The Celestis Web site asks gift givers.

Celestis plans to send its capsules on two or three satellites in 2004, up from one each in 1998 through 2001. The rockets, which have included Pegasus and Taurus, usually take off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, though they have also been sent from the Canary Islands and Russia.

‘One more big adventure’
"Instantly, I knew this was it," said Susan Young, a mother of four whose husband Peter Smith died in a crash in his own plane eight years ago. "This puts him where he wanted to be -- it's the only choice that makes sense for him."

The family, who paid $995 for a "symbolic" 1-gram capsule, is planning to travel to Kazakhstan to see the April launch of the Dnepr rocket carrying Kosmos satellites from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, known for launching Sputnik 1, Earth's first artificial satellite.

Clients can have their capsules inscribed with the deceased's name and a personal message. Some have included "With our love, go in peace" and "One more big adventure."

Fay Chandler of Pasadena, Calif., is planning ahead for herself and her husband, Claude, who died of Alzheimer's disease complications 18 months ago. Claude had worked at the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, developing instruments for human moon landings.

"We have to wait until I die, and then we'll both go to the moon," she said. "I was comforted by this thought during the last terrible months of his illness."

The couple had hoped space technology would have allowed them to fly to the moon during their lifetime, but the capsule will have to do. Chandler said she will send a small portion of her husband's remains with a satellite launch in 2004, but the moon trip is the ultimate plan.

"My children laughed at me, but they weren't married to the love of their life for 51 years," she said.

There's still room on the Baikonur launch for those seeking last-minute gifts. Pet lovers need not apply, however.

"We do get the pet requests, but we haven't done it yet," said Tysor. "It's a bit of a sensitive issue."