Entrepreneur Back in the Space Services Business

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After an ownership shakeup that saw him lose the company he founded, longtime space entrepreneur Charles Chafer is back in the business of launching cremated human remains into orbit.

Houston-based Space Services Inc. is set to launch the ashes of 175 customers aboard a Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Falcon 1 rocket that is due to lift off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base in the months ahead. Among the dearly departed already manifested for the so-called spaceflight memorial is actor James Doohan, who played Scotty on television’s original “Star Trek” series.

The launch, which is expected to occur in early 2006 , would be the sixth such flight since Celestis Inc. launched the ashes of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, LSD guru Timothy Leary, Princeton University physicist and space visionary Gerard O’Neill and 24 lesser known individuals aboard an Orbital Sciences Taurus rocket in 1997.

Chafer temporarily lost control of Celestis when the company’s main investor-turned owner shut it down in May 2003 along with Team Encounter, another Chafer venture aimed to launch a solar sail spacecraft on an interstellar mission carrying the personal tidings, photographs and DNA samples of several million paying customers. The investor, whom Chafer said he is contractually bound not to identify, sunk more than $7 million in the two businesses before pulling the plug.

Team Encounter, now defunct, is still owned by the anonymous investor. But in September 2004, Chafer and his partners in Space Services were able to reacquire for an undisclosed sum Celestis and its backlog of space memorial service customers.

Chafer said the upcoming launch will be the company’s biggest to date, with at least 175 and perhaps as many as 200 customers paying between $1,000 and $5,300 to have one to three grams of remains put into orbit.

SpaceX President Elon Musk said he is glad to launch the parcel of ashes for Space Services, noting that as far as secondary payloads go, it could not be simpler.

“It’s an easy payload with low demands,” Musk said.

And while it is not a major source of revenue for SpaceX, which advertises the Falcon 1 at $5.9 million per launch plus range fees, he said that could change if demand for Space Services’ spaceflight memorials continues to grow.

Chafer said Musk and his Falcon 1 were a godsend for Space Services’ spaceflight memorial service, which had been struggling to find launch accommodations ever since Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. decided to stop making room for cremated human remains on their mostly government-funded launches.

Chafer said Space Services intends to make frequent use of secondary payload accommodations aboard SpaceX rockets, assuming the vehicles are a success.

Acknowledging that SpaceX has yet to conduct its first launch, Chafer said Space Services is looking at other launch opportunities should the Falcon rockets not pan out.

“We are looking at other ones,” Chafer said. “We have looked overseas and we have looked at other domestic providers. We are in some early discussions about alternatives, so I am confident that we will find pathways to space.”

But Chafer said SpaceX is a good fit, both because of the company’s openness to commercial space ventures and because it intends to launch out of California and eventually Florida.

“That’s where most of our customers want to go to see a launch,” Chafer said. “It’s hard to talk about Kazakhstan” or other remote destinations where cheap launches can be had.

In addition to the Celestis space flight memorial service, Space Services is operating two other business lines — Name a Star and Advanced Systems.

For as little as $19.95, according to a pitch on the Space Services’ Web site, customers can name a star as “an imaginative and symbolic gift” for someone special (Space Services acknowledges that “no star naming service is recognized by the scientific community”).

Under Space Systems’ Advanced Systems business line, Chafer is still dreaming of doing a solar sail mission.

The company recently was awarded a $300,000 contract by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to spend five months studying whether the U.S. government’s next generation of solar storm monitoring spacecraft might feasibly be commercially owned and operated.

Space Services’ teammates on the study effort include Tustin, Calif.-based space inflatables manufacturer L’Garde; Pasadena, Calif.-based Ecliptic Enterprises; the Boulder, Colo.-based Southwest Research Institute; Fairfax, Va.-based microsatellite technology firm SpaceQuest; the Houston-based Legacy Equity Group; and Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems, Aurora, Colo.

Chafer described the study as a “costing and financing exercise” to see if a commercially-operated solar sail spacecraft could also provide solar storm warning for NOAA.

“If we can come back and tell NOAA that this is a better deal than building your own satellites then there is a decent chance that we will get a ‘go forward’ out of it,” Chafer said. “That decision won’t be made any earlier than March when we turn in our study.”