Think of it as the trip of a lifetime — even if it is coming a bit too late — or the perfect sendoff for that relative from whom you could never get far enough away.
Despite easy jokes, the founders of Lexington-based Mesoloft think they have a service that could become popular as more Americans choose cremation over burial: The company uses high-altitude balloons to scatter ashes more than 75,000 feet above Earth and make a video of it for loved ones.
Since working out systems design and logistics on 10 test flights two years ago, the company has scattered the ashes of four paying customers.
“We’re positive there is a market here, although we may be in it a little early,” said Alex Clements, noting that cremations are soon expected to outnumber burials in the United States. “Plus, we’re learning a lot, because none of us have any experience in the (funeral) industry.”
Mesoloft was the brainchild of Chris Winfield, an engineer who has started several Kentucky technology companies. He and four young engineers — Clements, Chris Mitchell, Alan Beaven and Rachel Nevill — began the company out of a fascination of high-altitude balloons and tiny GoPro video cameras.
When they began offering the service two years ago, they got some initial publicity in People magazine and on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” where the comedian had a lot of fun with the concept.
Here’s how it works: Up to three pounds of ashes are put in an urn with a trapdoor that is covered by a decorative origami shroud. It hangs from a metal bar, which has a parachute, three GPS systems and a GoPro camera on each end. That rig is hooked below a big latex balloon filled with helium.
As the balloon approaches the mesosphere, the urn’s trapdoor is opened and atmospheric pressure sucks out and scatters the ashes. They slowly drift down until they are caught by jet stream winds that can carry them literally around the world for several months. Eventually, ashes may return to earth as rain or snow.
Once the ashes are released, the urn and camera rigging detaches from the balloon, which keeps rising until it disintegrates. The rigging falls, and at about 10,000 feet a parachute is deployed to bring it gently to Earth. Before each flight, Mesoloft’s partners use weather data and computer modeling to predict where the balloon will rise and where the rigging will land.
“We haven’t lost one yet,” Clements said. “We’re still using the same GoPros. But logistically it’s pretty challenging.”
So far, all of Mesoloft’s launches have been done from private land in Bourbon County, but if business grows the partners would like to schedule a few launches a year from some of the vast open spaces in Colorado or New Mexico to make retrieval easier.
One of Mesoloft’s biggest challenges has been keeping the GoPro cameras working in the extreme cold of near-space, Clements said. To do that, the engineers developed small heaters and insulation to keep the batteries warm.
Clements acknowledges that the company is operating in a “gray area” legally. While there are restrictions about scattering cremated remains from aircraft, Mesoloft is literally flying above the regulations, which are mostly designed to protect against water pollution.
“Our whole deal is that the ashes are scattered everywhere,” he said. “If (regulators) could measure that they’ve landed somewhere, I would be very impressed.”
Mesoloft’s packages, which range from $4,500 to $7,500, include video of the entire trip. Family members also can attend the launch or watch a live stream of the flight, although the company doesn’t provide a memorial service.
The company has had limited success marketing directly to the public, so it is now approaching funeral home companies about partnership opportunities. “People are not quite ready to buy a service like this online,” Clements said.
About 2.6 million Americans die each year, and nearly half of them are cremated. So Mesoloft’s partners figure there is a lot of potential for growth. And, so far, they don’t know of any other company offering this service.
“If we could do 100 of these a year, the percentage of the market would be tiny,” Clements said. “But 100 would keep us very busy.”