Hey Matt: I have a great idea to send coffins into Outer Space so they can travel for 1 million to 100 billion years. This way we will donate our bodies to science and let the aliens know there is other life in the universe when they find the coffins. I believe this is a GREAT idea, but would a coffin last 100 billion or more years for other life to discover it or would it disintegrate? How fast could we get these coffins to travel? Would this be a BAD idea in that the aliens would find the coffins and know that there is other life in the universe and want to destroy Earth? Get back to me on this. — Scott of El Cajon
I see a big backfire in your future, but it doesn’t have anything to do with attacking aliens. Earth men and women can’t even figure each other out, so I don’t hold out much hope for us to second-guess an alien. But your orbiting coffins have other, more fundamental problems. They begin with junk.
Junk drawer, junkyard, junk store, junk mail — the U.S. is one of the world’s junk champions. According to the EPA, each American generates four pounds of the stuff daily. The country as a whole spews out 250 million pounds annually. But one category of junk the EPA doesn’t include is space junk. Millions of pounds of everything from dead satellites and rocket boosters to flecks of paint and dust. Remember the space walker who was tightening a bolt on the Space Station when the wrench went flying off into the blackness? Now officially space junk. Some of this junk is traveling up to 22,000 miles an hour, fast enough for even a paint chip to cause damage to something it hits. NASA tracked the millions of pieces of space junk since the Russian Sputnik launch in 1957.
Now consider “space junk” the size of a coffin whirling at terrific speeds. The odds on getting permission from whatever powers that be are probably slim to none. Though it is true that, eventually, all this detritus will succumb to gravity and fall. It will either burn up in the atmosphere or maybe land on some poor slob’s roof. So, burial in space is not forever.
In spite of that, bigger minds than yours have been “burying” folks in space for a couple of decades. Space burials appear in those great ’50s sci-fi films. Today there are several private companies who’ll be glad to shoot you up there (or even onto the moon) for a relatively modest sum. A space burial can cost less than $1000, compared to the average $7000 full-body, in-ground burial with all the funerial bells and whistles. Celestia, in Houston, was one of the first companies in the field, still going strong. What they do is take a minuscule amount of cremated remains of your space-loving relative, place it in a vial about the size of a lipstick tube, hold it until they have enough to pay for the trip, put them inside a satellite-like shell, then rent a ride as a special payload on a planned rocket mission. Satellites are being shot into space by countries, cell-phone companies, TV stations, and GPS tracking systems. Some companies have developed their own burial rockets. Customers have a choice of a suborbital trajectory, a deep-space burial, or a moon landing. So far, famed astronomer Eugene Shoemaker is the only moon burial. Famous people who are dead in space include Gene (Star Trek) Roddenberry, astronaut Gordon Cooper, and James (“Scottie”) Doohan. Actually, Cooper was in space just a few minutes before he crashed back into New Mexico. Oops.
Surprisingly, burial space shots are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The companies have decided they’re just transit companies. The biggest headache they’ve faced came not from the feds but from state jurisdictions and the powerful lobbies of mortuary owners. Celestia was founded by an astronaut, engineers, and a whole boatload of morticians. So, Scott, maybe you’d better regroup and rethink this caskets-in-space thing. Trickier than it first seemed.
Heymatt: Not to be insulting or anything, but sometimes your answers are pretty long, even when it seems that you could have summed it up in fewer words. Not that I really mind, especially. But, anyway, have you ever answered a question in just one word? — Anonymous, via email
What?! Who? Me? Hah! Nope.