May 3, 1999
Craft to carry DNA into deep space from Kourou
By Todd Halvorson
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A starship destined for deep space soon
will be boarding at a South American spaceport, and anyone with
$60 can hitch a ride.
Genetically speaking, that is.
In a bizarre but potentially lucrative business venture, a
spacecraft carrying the DNA of up to 4.5 million people will
be launched in 2001 on a mission aimed at making contact with
an alien civilization.
About 50,000 people - including famed science-fiction author
Arthur C. Clarke and Alan Ladwig, NASA's chief of plans and
policy - already have signed up. The company staging the
flight expects that number to soar.
After all, you don't need a travel agent or a lot of money to
book passage. A mere $49.95, plus $9.95 shipping and handling,
"There is an intense amount of public interest in space, and
when you add the element of being part of the mission, that's
really the charm of it," said Charles Chafer, president of
Encounter 2001 LLC, the company sponsoring the flight.
"An awful lot of people just like the notion of making a
statement, of reaching out and knowing there's at least a
small chance they'll be the ones to make first contact with
The aliens, meanwhile, might be laying in wait.
As part of the deal, the company will beam up a hailing signal
from a Ukrainian radio telescope on May 24, 1999.
Targeted at distant stars that might harbor habitable planets,
the high-power transmission will include greetings from those
who have signed up for the flight. It will be repeated in
February, 2000 and February, 2001.
"The cosmic calls are sort of a precursor to the mission itself,
messages of introduction," Chafer said. "In effect, we're saying,
`Ready or not, here we come.'"
The so-called "Milliennial Voyage" will set sail from
The cruise ship will be a small spacecraft that will carry the written
messages, drawings, photos and DNA - in the form of
human hair samples - on a journey out of the solar system.
First stop will be a transfer orbit 22,300 miles above Earth.
A European Ariane rocket will haul the tiny emissary there
after launch from Kourou Space Center.
Next will be a two-year journey to Jupiter. Caught up in the
gravity of the giant planet, the 337-pound spacecraft ultimately
will be flung on an unguided trajectory out of the solar system
and into the unknown beyond.
"It becomes kind of a cosmic message in a bottle at that point," Chafer
said. "And I think there's a lot of charm in not knowing
exactly where it's going, other than it's leaving the solar system
with as many as 4.5 million of our closest friends on board."
Peculiar space projects are nothing new to the Encounter 2001
group. The company is an offshoot of Celestis Inc., the Houston
company that staged the world's first "space burial" in 1997.
For $4,800 each, Celestis launched the cremated remains of 1960s
pop guru Timothy Leary, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and
22 others into low Earth orbit.
The Encounter 2001 mission might prove to be even more
Market studies done by the company indicate that somewhere
between 1.5 million and 4.5 million people might take part in
The upper-end estimate would generate about $225 million.
"I can tell you the entire mission, spacecraft and launch costs,
will be well under $20 million," Chafer said. "So it could be a
very profitable business."
Encounter 2001 is billing the flight as "the first interstellar
mission for everyone who believes that intelligent life exists
beyond the solar system."
To take part, customers pay $49.95, plus shipping and handling
for a poster, a membership card, a flight reservation certificate,
a lapel pin, an "archival form" for a photograph and message, and
a DNA sampling kit.
The DNA kit is nothing more than a small plastic bag for hair
samples, which are a fertile source of DNA, the fundamental
building block of all life on Earth.
The painful part: plucking six strands of hair, root and all.
"You have to get the root, that's the little bulb on the end,
because that's where the best DNA is contained," Chafer said.
"We've got a great picture of someone doing that to Arthur
The hair samples are bagged by the customer and sent back to
the company. A California lab then will use an 11-step process
to dry, preserve, and package the roots in batches of 10,000.
Flying along with the hair samples will be the content of all
the archival forms, which will be scanned onto a CD hardened to
The single-page documents contain the customer's name, address,
country, planet, date of birth, gender, signature, and mug shot.
There also is space for poetry, prose, musical scores, and
artwork or the type of written message penned by Clarke:
"Fare well, my clone!"
Presumably, any advanced civilization that intercepted the
Encounter 2001 spacecraft might be technically capable of
extracting and cloning the DNA samples.
And perhaps it's the shot at interstellar immortality that
explains why customers are clamoring to join the Encounter
2001 flight crew.
"The response has been phenomenal," said company spokeswoman
Susan Schonfeld. "People are just fascinated with space and
space travel, and this truly is a way for the general public
Make sure you read the fine print, though.
The company is negotiating with zoos around the world, so the
essence of your humanity might end up commingled with the DNA
of lions and tigers and bears. [Oh my!]
"We're hoping to have the animal kingdom represented on the
flight, too," Schonfeld said. "It will be almost like a Noah's
Ark from Earth going into deep space."
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