When a commercial rocket blew up seconds after lifting off the Virginia coast in 2014, no one got hurt, and NASA replaced the necessary supplies bound for the space station.
Few people realized then, though, the cascading fallout of that explosion. The future of human-led Mars exploration hung in the balance: Without that rocket, NASA’s Langley Research Center no longer had a ride for testing its $93 million inflatable heat shield in space — the hardware under development for landing astronauts on Mars in the 2030s, Joe Del Corso, the project manager at Langley, told Mashable.
“We got shut down,” he said.
But someone outside of the U.S. space agency had been paying attention. Bernard Kutter, then-chief technologist for rocket builder United Launch Alliance, offered a solution to keep the experiment afloat. Now the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator — LOFTID for short — is expected to launch on a ULA Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base as early as Nov. 9. Though it’s not the only reason for this launch — a new weather observatory for tracking storms worldwide is also on board — NASA will be able to use the flight to perform a crucial demonstration for the Martian landing hardware.
“This only happened because he approached us right after Orb-3 [exploded] and said, ‘I got an idea. We can use this. If we give you a ride, can you show it works?'” Del Corso said. “We said, ‘We’ll do it.'”
NASA will test its $93 million inflatable heat shield project, hardware that could help land astronauts on Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA / Greg Swanson
Kutter, an engineer who many in aerospace technology have described as a visionary, died on Aug.12, 2020, before he could see through the mission. His family never got clear answers on why his heart suddenly stopped that morning. He was 55.
Little-known to the public, the NASA inflatable heat shield test that will soon travel around Earth over the North and South poles will also fly some of Kutter’s cremated remains, fulfilling one of his lifelong dreams to travel in space. The Latin words ad astra, meaning “to the stars,” are written on the capsule holding his ashes.
Kutter will be among the few people whose ashes have traveled in space, sometimes referred to as a “space burial.” Sixteen years ago, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft lifted off on the first journey to Pluto with the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the man credited with discovering it a century ago.
“‘If we give you a ride, can you show it works?'”
But as the commercial space economy expands with more companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, space memorials could become a lot more common, particularly if the cost of spaceflight continues to drop, said Charles Chafer, CEO of Celestis, a private company that has conducted 18 such missions since 1997. Celestis has provided these services for about 1,500 deceased individuals, including the late Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and expects that number to rise to 2,000 by the end of this year.
The ashes hitch rides on rockets as secondary payloads, meaning they aren’t the main reason the mission is flying. Celestis used to average one flight every 1.5 years. Now it has five flights scheduled in the coming 14 months. Chafer attributes the surge in demand to the increased ease in accessing space and the steady growth in cremation as a burial alternative.
The company serves people who usually fall into at least one of three groups: They love space, they have a spiritual desire to become one with the cosmos, or their families want to give them a gigantic send-off.
“What I tell people is you’ll never see as much cheering and high-fiving at a funeral as you do at our services,” Chafer told Mashable.
“What I tell people is you’ll never see as much cheering and high-fiving at a funeral as you do at our services.”
Bernard Kutter, former chief technologist for United Launch Alliance, is credited with saving NASA’s inflatable heat shield project by offering the experiment a rideshare on a rocket. Credit: United Launch Alliance
A suborbital flight that would bring the ashes back to surviving family members starts at $2,500, and a flight into Earth’s orbit, which would end with the contents eventually vaporizing upon re-entering the atmosphere, starts at $5,000. A mission into deep space would run upward of $12,500, according to the company’s website.
Celestis has never “released” ashes into space the way sailors scatter them at sea, nor does it want to.
“We are space-sustainability freaks here, if you will,” said Chafer, emphasizing their aversion to introducing more debris in space. “Once you start releasing stuff in orbit, it’s all going 17,000 miles an hour, so it can do a lot of damage.”
For Kayla Kutter, NASA and ULA’s tribute to her father will mean attending her first rocket launch. Despite his career in rockets, she and many of her family members have never been to one before. Kayla, her husband, brother, mother, uncle, and grandmother plan to be in California for the event to see off the mission that also has been formally named after Kutter.
When her dad was three, he watched the television broadcast of the first Apollo moon landing with his mother. Not understanding the unprecedented significance of the moment, he asked her if she had ever been there before. Of course, she told him she hadn’t. From then on, he had his heart and mind set.
“His dream was to take his mom to space,” she said.
Why an inflatable heat shield
The inflatable heat shield is composed of a stack of inner-tube-like rings strapped together. Its synthetic material is 15 times stronger than steel and able to withstand temperatures over 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit. Credit: NASA / Greg Swanson
Before Kutter died, his work concentrated on finding new ways to make space travel more affordable. From afar, he watched what NASA’s Langley was doing with the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, or HIAD project, knowing it could be a valuable technology for ULA.
Since the first uncrewed Viking mission to Mars over 50 years ago, engineers have used the same rigid heat shield to land spacecraft on the Red Planet. Even NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, which landed in 2012 and 2021, used a hard shell for their heat shields, a design limited in size by the rocket’s nose cone.
But the bigger the heat shield, the more drag it can pull out of the Martian atmosphere to land heavier loads of cargo — and, one day, astronauts — on the surface. That same technology could help ULA achieve its goals of bringing back heavy cargo from low-Earth orbit and salvaging some of its most expensive hardware.
If an inflatable heat shield could allow the company to reuse rocket engines, Kutter knew that would be a gamechanger. He had already started penciling in where an inflatable heat shield would go on the new Vulcan engines the company was using, Del Corso said.
As Kutter mulled how to lead the company into the future cislunar economy, the evolving marketplace between Earth and the moon, he rarely talked about such things with his family. At home, he was more focused on how to support his children and their interests.
“He was always very present with us,” Kayla said. “Whatever role he had at ULA or his job or stressors, he didn’t bring that to us.”
This story has been updated to reflect the LOFTID mission’s new launch window. It will not launch on Nov. 1 as previously planned.