When I was in Seoul recently I met a tall French man named Thomas Civeit. The usual chatter popped up, “What are you doing?” I asked. “A start-up.” He replied. But he proceeded to tell me about his idea which is definitely the most unusual one I’ve ever heard. Rather than bury your deceased family in the ground, Thomas wants to launch them into space and allow you to track them with your smartphone. His start-up Elysium Spaceflights is an early stage start-up that plans to have a detailed flyer for funeral homes and customers this summer. Sound crazy? Oscar Wilde once said “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”

I interviewed Thomas to get more insight into this intriguing idea.

What is your background?

I am a former space systems engineer. I have been working for several space missions over the last 9 years: the Huygens interplanetary probe at the European Space Agency, then I moved to the US and worked for NASA’s FUSE (Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer), Hubble Space Telescope, and James Webb Space Telescope. I’m currently working for the SOFIA mission (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) at NASA Ames in the Silicon Valley. My small consulting company Deneb Aerospace provides engineering services to design and operate space systems.

What is the idea?

Elysium’s goal is to make Space Burial a reality by launching the cremated remains of a loved one into Earth orbit. Only *symbolic* space burial has been done so far by launching a few grams into orbit. We want to create a new experience to celebrate people’s lives, by having funerary urns orbiting the Earth.

Why are you doing it?

People think that space is out of reach and it would be too expensive to perform a genuine space burial. I thought about the experience using the current technology and cost and realized humanity could do it right now if someone could be brave enough to make it happen. Space is an exceptional place not only for science, space tourism is growing (see SpaceX/Bigelow recent deal) and I believe space is a unique and meaningful place for memorial services.

How did you come up with the idea?

Initially nothing related to funeral actually. I was working on nano-satellite (1-10 kg) operations and I realized that teams often had a hard time finding a launch vehicle because the payload is too light and launchers are mostly interested in heavy payloads (i.e. several tons). There are also constraints related to radio-frequencies and chemicals for instance. While I was thinking about these issues, the space burial idea came to my mind. A funerary urn is the simplest “space system” I can imagine and having many of them can make an interesting payload for launchers.

How does it work?

We will collect the entire cremated remains of the participants and place them into a specially designed memorial spacecraft. A rocket will launch the memorial spacecraft into orbit, where it will remain for decades (the exact duration will depend on the launch parameters). Eventually the spacecraft will re-enter the Earth atmosphere, vaporizing and blazing as a shooting star.

An essential feature is that people will be connected to the memorial spacecraft at any time using augmented reality. Nowadays it is possible to visualize spacecrafts orbiting the Earth by pointing your phone’s camera to the sky. AGI (a leader in space and defense software applications) provides the “Satellite AR” application for instance. Moreover, we will optionally send SMS notifications to people when the spacecraft will be visible from Earth. The best time to spot satellites is in general just after dusk or just before dawn.

How much will it cost to build?

The most significant expense is the launch. The cost will depend on the number of participants and the selected launcher. There is therefore no final answer but to give an order of magnitude it can easily cost $50-100M, as we plan to use the most reliable launch vehicles.

How much will you charge people?

We plan to charge around $200,000 per participant.

Who are you targeting?

Japan and North America are good places to start, although the service will not be limited to these countries. The cremation rate is about 99% in Japan and 40% in USA. It corresponds to about 2 millions of cremated people per year overall, and much more by considering cremations over the last 10-20 years. We need to reach a few hundreds of families, who are willing to have an exceptional and unique celebration and be part of human history.

When will you launch?

Once we will have enough participants. Companies offering launch services typically have a lead time of about a year or more once the payload is ready. If it goes really fast, the launch may happen by the end of 2013.

For people wanting a really unique way of burying their family or friends, it is hard to beat a space burial.

Jason is an Australian born Chinese living in Beijing, specializing in entrepreneurship, start-ups and the investment eco-system in China, especially in the tech and social area.

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