LOS ANGELES - Call it another giant leap for mankind.
Celestis Inc., which pioneered spaceflight memorials by launching cremated bits of ''Star Trek'' creator Gene Roddenberry and LSD guru Timothy Leary into the heavens more than three years ago, is now taking reservations to bury the dearly departed on the moon as early as next year.
A commercial rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base or Cape Canaveral will include a piggyback Celestis payload of lipstick-sized capsules containing cremated remains of about 200 people.
The four-day, 240,000-mile flight to the moon and then collision with its surface will run $12,500, about 2 times the cost of a conventional burial.
''We are trying to open the space frontier for everyone,'' Celestis co-founder Charlie Chafer said from the company's headquarters in Houston. ''The funeral industry is changing dramatically, from e-commerce to new and unique methods of memorialization. The Baby Boomers want to do things a little differently.''
Late lunar geologist Mareta N. West, part of a U.S. Geological Survey team that picked the Sea of Tranquility landing site for Apollo 11's Eagle lunar lander in 1969, has the first confirmed reservation on a flight late next year or early 2002. She was 83 when she died Nov. 1, 1998.
''A handful of people will embrace it,'' predicted Ron Hast, publisher of Mortuary Management magazine. But, he added, ''It definitely will not impact the general style of funeral services.''
Chafer is in discussions with two private firms planning moon missions to share space in their capsules. The transportation itself will be provided on Pegasus and Taurus rockets launched by Orbital Sciences Corp., one of the world's leading commercial space companies. NASA isn't involved in the ventures.
Each capsule contains about seven ounces of ash, a fraction of the five to seven pounds an average cremated body weighs. They are inscribed with the name of the deceased and an epitaph. ''What a magnificent view'' and ''My spirit roams the stars'' have been chosen before.
There is already precedent for such a mission.
The cremated remains of Dr. Eugene Shoemaker, co-discoverer of the Shoemaker-Levy comet, were stashed in a Celestis capsule and put aboard NASA's Lunar Prospector two years ago.
''Shoemaker impacted on the South Pole of the moon,'' Chafer said. The encounter with the surface was documented by scientists peering through telescopes and tracking devices, he said.
The Celestis moon burials will also likely be certified with telescopes and scientific equipment aboard Orbital's spacecraft. Impact may also be transmitted by a Webcam.
Some critics have voiced concerns - but not over the eccentricity the plan might present.
The Navajo Nation, which deems such burials religiously insensitive, received an apology from NASA after complaining about the Shoemaker lunar burial. Traditional members of the country's largest tribe, which has about 250,000 members, regard the moon as a sacred place.
''It's unfortunate that people have to come up with schemes any way they can just to make money,'' Navajo Nation spokesman Ray Baldwin Louis said from his office in Window Rock, Ariz.
''The Navajo people believe that everyone should return naturally to Mother Earth,'' he said.
Chafer said he was unaware of the Navajo's concerns or possible complaints Celestis was littering the crater-pocked moon, where NASA has left a variety of scientific instruments, a lunar rover and other debris.
''Small vials of ashes aren't going to do much,'' Chafer said.
A San Francisco spokesman for the Sierra Club, its mission to ''explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the Earth,'' said the environmental group's concerns haven't soared beyond this planet.
On Dec. 20, Celestis' millennial flight carried aloft portions of 36 people. The next Earth-orbit flight in January 2001 will carry the cremated remains of 76 people in a polar orbit from Vandenberg. The remains of Leary and Roddenberry were flung into orbit on April 21, 1997, the company's first flight.
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