CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (WXYZ) – A Detroit native who grew up in Birmingham is one of more than 100 people who by the end of this week will have a piece of their remains launched into space and onto Earth’s orbit.
“Space burials”, as they are often called, have become a growing segment of the space tourism industry, which has seen a boom in investment in recent years.
In the 1950s, the space race between the United States and the USSR was underway. He caught the eye of a young Gordon Browne and his younger brother Richard.
“We were both fascinated by the whole thing, but my brother really, really understood,” Richard Browne said.
Richard Browne remembers his brother’s love for space and how he saved his money to buy a telescope. After graduating from Birmingam Groves High School and Wayne State University, he left Michigan and eventually settled in Florida. He lived a few miles from Cape Canaveral.
“You could walk in and watch on TV as they had a launch, and then you could walk out into his front yard and see the rocket soaring into the sky,” Richard Browne said.
Sadly, Gordon Browne passed away in 2020. While at the funeral home considering burial options, the family was surprised to learn of a new option.
“Most of the time it’s the standard thing. ‘What kind of coffin would you like if you’re buried’ or ‘Do you want an urn with the ashes in it’ and ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got this other thing…'” Richard Browne said with a laugh.
The family was then told about Celestis, a company that could fly Gordon Browne’s ashes into space.
“They showed it to us and immediately all of our eyes lit up and we were like, ‘Oh, we have to do this,'” Richard Browne said. “This has his name written all over it.”
The Houston-based company has been in business since the 1990s, but has grown significantly thanks to rising cremation rates and access to space. With companies like SpaceX now launching almost weekly, space travel has become more affordable.
“Our business model is a fantastic business model, but there are two key aspects: you have to go to space and people have to want to be cremated,” said Colby Youngblood, president of Celestis, Inc. “Both have significantly increased.”
Celestis buys a secondary payload on these rockets, allowing them to charge an affordable price compared to other burial options. The cost ranges from approximately $3,000 for a launch and return to Earth, $5,000 to launch into Earth orbit, and $13,000 to send your loved ones’ ashes to the surface of the moon or to have them launch deep into space.
“To see the closure and the happiness that we can bring, it’s very reworded,” Youngblood said. “We like to say that if it wasn’t for us, there would be no access to space for ordinary people.”
Greg Autry is a former NASA employee who is now director and clinical professor of the Space Leadership Policy and Business Program at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, an innovative new program that began two years ago.
He says Celestis is a leader in space marketing internment, an industry he sees as a truly sustainable business.
“It’s an easy addition to almost any spaceflight…it’s a good payload to get a cheap deal,” Autry said of space burials. “As a commercial enterprise, I’ve seen it talked about for almost 20 years. With the commercial launch price coming down, it’s becoming a reality for the average person.”
Autry says the cost of flying something in space has dropped more than 90% in recent years, thanks in part to companies like SpaceX.
“They reduced the cost by several orders of magnitude, but they introduced a competitive environment,” Autry said. “Suddenly something that was the exclusive domain of inefficient governments is now a hyper-competitive market.”
The SpaceX launch that will carry Gordon Browne’s remains is scheduled for later this week and his ashes will then orbit Earth for approximately five to 10 years, where, according to the Celestis website, “they will remain until ‘they re-enter the atmosphere, harmlessly vaporizing like a shooting star in the final tribute.”
Gordon Browne’s family can track the location of his ashes in the sky, which is another reminder that their loved one is watching from above.
“He would be so excited. He would be overjoyed,” Richard Browne said of the launch. “It’s breathtaking to see how far the technology has gone – it’s just amazing.”
The remains of Gordon Browne will also be the subject of another launch next month at Cape Canaveral. This flight will also carry the ashes of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, as well as the DNA of former presidents George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
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