Navajo Nation President Asks for Delay of Moon Mission Carrying Human Remains

The commercial launch, scheduled for January 8, is slated to carry human remains to the lunar surface, which the Navajo Nation president calls a “desecration of this sacred space”

Photo of the moon from space
An image of the moon taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft on December 7, 1992. Payloads on next week's commercial mission to the surface include NASA scientific instruments, as well as human remains and DNA launched by private companies.  NASA / JPL / USGS

The president of the Navajo Nation, Buu Nygren, has called for the delay of an upcoming moon mission carrying human remains, among other payloads, to the lunar surface, Arizona Public Radio reports.

The private companies United Launch Alliance and Astrobotic are aiming to launch the first commercial mission to the moon’s surface on Monday, January 8. Among scientific instruments from NASA, the flight will also include human remains and DNA in memorial payloads from the companies Celestis and Elysium Space, writes’s Brett Tingley.

“It is crucial to emphasize that the moon holds a sacred position in many Indigenous cultures, including ours,” Nygren wrote in a December 21 letter to NASA and the U.S. Department of Transportation. “We view it as a part of our spiritual heritage, an object of reverence and respect. The act of depositing human remains and other materials, which could be perceived as discards in any other location, on the moon is tantamount to desecration of this sacred space.”

The scheduled launch is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. For this initiative, NASA contracts with a commercial partner (for this launch, Astrobotic) that “provides the launch and lander,” per NASA. The launch window opens at 2:18 a.m. Eastern time on Monday, and the mission is slated to take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The mission’s scientific goals include studying the moon’s atmosphere, radiation and magnetic fields, as well as examining the thermal properties and hydrogen abundance of its soil. It will carry a number of payloads from NASA, such as various spectrometers, a laser retroreflector array and navigation doppler lidar.

Elysium Space and Celestis, meanwhile, are private companies that launch portions of human remains to space as symbolic memorials for loved ones. Celestis has 69 “participants” launching on Astrobotic’s mission, including the deceased Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke.

In 1998, then-Navajo Nation president Albert Hale criticized NASA for sending the ashes of scientist Eugene Shoemaker to the moon, according to Arizona Public Radio. Afterward, “NASA issued a formal apology and promised consultation with tribes before authorizing any further missions carrying human remains to the moon,” Nygren writes in his letter.

In a January 2021 memorandum, the Biden administration also re-committed to consulting with Tribal Nations when developing federal policies that impact them, Nygren notes.

“We believe that both NASA and the USDOT should have engaged in consultation with us before agreeing to contract with a company that transports human remains to the moon or authorizing a launch carrying such payloads,” Nygren writes in his letter.

During a pre-launch briefing on Thursday, NASA highlighted that the mission is being conducted by private companies—the space agency just has a contract for sending its scientific payloads to the moon, writes

“We don’t have the framework for telling them what they can and can’t fly,” said Chris Culbert, the program director for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, per the publication. “The approval process doesn’t run through NASA for commercial missions.”

Celestis says in a statement that “we respect all cultures’ right to engage in religious practices, but no single culture or religion should exercise a veto on space missions based on religious tenets,” per the Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Joel Kearns, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration, told reporters Thursday that although the agency does not have control over private companies’ payloads, a team has arranged a meeting with the Navajo Nation, reports the AFP. “We take concerns expressed from the Navajo Nation very, very seriously, and we think we’re going to be continuing on this conversation,” Kearns said, per the publication.

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