Bring Your Ashes to the Edge of Space
Releasing cremated ashes from the edge of space. Photo by Mesoloft.
by Ira Woods
In 2016 we published an info graphic entitled The Wide World of Cremation Urns, which evoked a great deal of curiosity and comments from readers. The infographic was a pictorial representation of cremation urn options and uses and has become a useful tool for ash urn buyers. The Cremation Association of North America thought it useful enough to tweet it out to its Twitter followers. Creating the infographic was directly inspired by our customers who contacted us with questions trying to make sense of the immense number of cremation urns available online.
In the lower left of the infographic was an option for “Scattered into Outerspace” along with some other unconventional memorials. Space burial is a real thing that has already been done. The first person to be taken into outer space was Gene Roddenberry who created Star Trek. NASA let his ashes hitchhike a ride on a Columbia Shuttle mission in 1992, and then brought his ashes back to earth.
Then in 1999 NASA sent off a moon probe with Eugene Shoemaker, who’s ashes ended up scattered on the moon’s surface. Shoemaker was part of the team who made us aware of the spectacular Shoemaker-Levi comet that hit Jupiter in 1994.
Most dazzling was the space burial of the scientist who discovered Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh. With some of his ashes aboard NASA's New Horizons space craft, not only did his ashes soar past Pluto, but he’s now on his way to reach the cryptically named “2014 MU69”, an object orbiting about 1 billion miles away from Pluto. Talk about going the distance!
Let’s face it, how many of us are going to get invited by NASA to have our ashes loaded on a space vehicle going out into the far reaches of space? Hope exists, though, for anyone who dreams of such a thing. One company, Celestis, has already completed many successful launches since 1997. They even took a sampling of Roddenberry’s ashes for his second flight to space. On such flights only a few grams of cremation ash are allowed and a number of ash samples are taken at the same time to keep costs down.
Okay, maybe the far reaches of outer space, or a moon landing are too extraterrestrial. But how about having ashes scattered from the very edge of space? A company by the name of Mesoloft is now making that possible. Rather than depending on the expense and engineering of rocket technology, Mesoloft uses high-altitude balloons. Imagine silently rising high in the sky to the point where the earth's curvature and darkness of space are visible. From that vantage point, a person’s ashes are released into the atmosphere. The ashes are then carried by the earth’s air currents, for what may be several months, before landing somewhere on the planet. Mesoloft offers this dramatic possibility to honor a loved one today.
That is only part of the Mesoloft offer. Mesoloft developers have also engineered a way to video the release from on high, and recover the video afterwards. The result is a memorialized send off that can be watched now, or by future generations. For a little extra cost, they will create a full memorial video from the footage with additional stills. Check out this brief video of an actual atmospheric ash scattering done for a couple by the Mesoloft team:
Mesoloft is the visionary creation of engineers in the aerospace industry. They saw the potential for an exciting way to have ashes scattered by high altitude weather balloons. Their first paid launches hit the news in 2014, and they’ve been hard at work perfecting their services ever since. To date (June 2017) they’ve completed over 25 successful test and real launches combined. More launches are being scheduled for July and August this summer. Currently, each launch is exclusive to the family or individual organizing the memorial enabling the journey to be highly personalized. Up to three pounds of a person’s ashes take the trip and are released into the atmosphere more than 75,000 feet above the earth. The cremated ashes of an average adult usually weigh around four-to-six pounds. The remaining ashes (over the three-pound limit) can be kept in an urn for ashes or a cremation keepsake.
I spoke with Alex Clements, one of Mesoloft’s founders. “The testing we did to make this foolproof was exhaustive,” said Alex. “It included getting camera set up and angles just right, perfecting the proper release of the ashes and polishing the reliability of video recovery.” When Alex described their testing, I developed an appreciation for the engineering feat they’ve accomplished.
Once the ashes are released, the urn and camera need to detach from the balloon and come back to earth to be easily recovered. This requires use of weather data and various applications that predict where the balloon will rise and where the rigging that holds the video will land.
Mesoloft’s scattering memorials range from $4,500 to $7,500. The fee includes a video of the entire trip. Family members can attend the launch, or watch a live stream of the flight. The Mesoloft option has far less moving parts than a rocket, and though every launch so far has been successful, no one controls the weather. The unexpected can happen, which is why I liked the fact that Mesoloft offers a full money back guarantee if the flight is not successful. This shows great confidence in their ability to manage this without problems.
Some people have expressed concern that the Mesoloft option of scattering ashes may create harmful pollution. Cremated ashes result from intense heat and pulverization, and the remains are not at all toxic. Ash scattering is allowed in many areas and has not been considered harmful to humans. Additionally, from that height, the ashes are so widely scattered over the globe that they will simply mix with and become indistinguishable with all the other dust particles descending on earth. In response to an inquiry from The Washington Post about this concern, the Environmental Protection Agency said it "does not have a policy" on the aerial scattering of human ashes. (The agency does, however, have a policy on burials at sea.)
One of the Mesoloft customers had a son’s ashes released into the atmosphere. She expressed her satisfaction that wherever she stood on earth he could be there too. It’s a remarkable legacy to have your ashes simultaneously on Mt. Everest, by the Eiffel Tower, or on the plains of Kansas.
If you are interested in learning more, navigate to the Mesoloft site for information and contact numbers. Mesoloft is still taking bookings for the July/August launches if you are drawn to organizing a quick turn around.
Although in the future it may be common to have our ashes dispersed on Mars or launched into the sun, right now we can be spread around the earth along with all the other stardust.
Ira Woods is the founder and president of OneWorld Memorials. His inspiration behind creating this business comes from the experience of having lost a spouse to cancer and searching for bereavement products online.