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The Moon sets over sandstone formations on the Navajo Nation.
Enlarge / The Moon sets over sandstone formations on the Navajo Nation.

Science instruments aren’t the only things hitching a ride to the Moon on a commercial lunar lander that is ready for launch on Monday. Two companies specializing in “space burials” are also sending cremated human remains to the Moon, and this doesn’t sit well with the Navajo Nation.

The Navajo people, one of the nation’s largest indigenous groups, hold the Moon sacred, and putting human remains on the lunar surface amounts to desecration, according to Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren.

“The sacredness of the Moon is deeply embedded in the spirituality and heritage of many Indigenous cultures, including our own,” Nygren said in a statement. “The placement of human remains on the Moon is a profound desecration of this celestial body revered by our people.”

Last month, Nygren wrote a letter to NASA and the Department of Transportation, which licenses commercial space launches, requesting a postponement of the flight to the Moon. The human remains in question are mounted to the robotic Peregrine lander, built and owned by a Pittsburgh-based company named Astrobotic, poised for liftoff from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on top of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.

This is the second time a US spacecraft has gone to the Moon with human remains aboard. In 1998, NASA’s Lunar Prospector mission launched with a small capsule containing the ashes of Eugene Shoemaker, a pioneer in planetary geology. NASA intentionally crashed the spacecraft into the Moon in 1999, leaving Shoemaker’s ashes permanently on the surface.

At that time, officials from the Navajo Nation objected to the scattering of Shoemaker’s ashes on the Moon. NASA promised to consult with tribal officials before another spacecraft flew to the Moon with human remains. A big part of Nygren’s recent complaint was the lack of dialogue on the matter before this mission.

“This act disregards past agreements and promises of respect and consultation between NASA and the Navajo Nation, notably following the Lunar Prospector mission in 1998,” Nygren said in a statement. He added that the request for consultation is “rooted in a desire to ensure that our cultural practices, especially those related to the Moon and the treatment of the deceased, are respected.”

An oversight

Officials from the White House and NASA met with Nygren on Friday to discuss his concerns. Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Nygren said he believes it was an oversight that federal officials didn’t meet with the Navajo Nation at an earlier stage.

“I think being able to consult into the future is one of the things that they’re going to try to work on,” he told reporters Friday. While Nygren said that was good to hear, he added that “we were given no reassurance that the human remains were not going to be transported to the Moon on Monday.”

Removing the human remains would delay the launch at least several weeks. It would require removing Astrobotic’s lunar lander from the top of the Vulcan rocket, taking it back to a clean room facility, and opening the payload fairing to provide access to the spacecraft.

“They’re not going to remove the human remains and keep them here on Earth where they were created, but instead, we were just told that a mistake has happened, we’re sorry, into the future we’re going to try to consult with you,” Nygren said.

“We take concerns expressed from the Navajo Nation very, very seriously,” said Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s science directorate. “And we think we’re going to be continuing this conversation.”

Buu Nygren, president of the Navajo Nation.
Enlarge / Buu Nygren, president of the Navajo Nation.

Astrobotic’s mission is different from Lunar Prospector in one important sense. The Peregrine lander is privately owned, while Lunar Prospector was a government spacecraft. NASA has a $108 million contract with Astrobotic to deliver the agency’s science payloads to the Moon as a commercial service. Astrobotic’s mission is the first time a US company will attempt to land a commercial spacecraft on the Moon.

While Nygren argues that NASA’s role as Astrobotic’s anchor customer should give the agency some influence over decision-making, the government’s only legal authority in overseeing the mission is through the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA is responsible for ensuring that commercial launches, like the Vulcan rocket flight on Monday, don’t put public safety at risk. The launch licensing process also includes an FAA review to ensure a launch would not jeopardize US national security, foreign policy interests, or international obligations.

“For our own missions … NASA works to be very mindful of potential concerns for any work that we’ll do on the Moon,” Kearns said. “In this particular case … NASA really doesn’t have involvement or oversight.”

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