Last week, Navajo Nation decried an unmanned space mission that would deposit cremated human remains on the moon. The mission, chartered by the private company Astrobotic, carried the remains on behalf of the companies Celestis and Elysium Space, which offer space burials.
“The moon is sacred: It is in our songs, it’s in our stories, it’s in our creation,” Navajo Nation president Buu Nygren told CNN on Saturday. There are serious concerns over the prospect of moon burials “because a lot of us pray to the moon,” he added.
The moon occupies a central part of Navajo cosmology. “The sacredness of the moon is deeply embedded in the spirituality and heritage of many Indigenous cultures, including our own,” Nygren wrote in a statement published January 04. He told CNN, “We’ve used the moon as a place that we’ve looked to for hundreds of years to make sure that we continue to exist.”
The payloads were aboard the Peregrine Lunar Lander—but the flight wasn’t smooth. The lander experienced a propellant leak after its launch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on January 08. The leak cast doubts that the Peregrine lunar landing would be successful. On Wednesday morning, Astrobotic confirmed the spacecraft would not reach the moon.
The Peregrine also carried scientific instruments from NASA, who sponsored the private mission. CNN reports that Celesitis’ lunar payload included 66 “memorial capsules” to remain permanently on the moon. Additional capsules were sent into deep space via Celesitis’ “Enterprise Flight,” which launched on the same rocket as the Peregrine. Deep space burials included “trace cremated ashes” from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and three actors in the popular sci-fi series, as well as DNA from the first US President George Washington and two of his successors.
“We’re very unique,” says Nygren of human beings. “We’re created here on earth, and we should continue to exist here on earth as we move along out of this life.” He described the cosmo-burials—which cost at least $12,995 apiece via Celesitis—as “a profound desecration of this celestial body revered by our people.”
Nygren says NASA’s support of the Peregrine mission “disregards past agreements and promises of respect and consultation between NASA and the Navajo.” Navajo Nation previously objected to using the moon as a burial site in 1998, after an ounce of the cremated remains of Eugune Shoemaker, the founder of astrogeology, was buried in a capsule on the moon. Nygren says NASA made a promise to consult his community over any future plans to lay the ashes of humans to rest in space. A polycarbonate vial containing Shoemaker’s ashes was believed to have been pulverized on the moon’s south side in 1999. Its carrier, NASA’s Lunar Prospector, crashed into a crater.
NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration, Dr. Joel Kearns, said the organization took the Navajo Nation’s concerns “very, very seriously.” But Kearns stressed that this week’s mission was commercial, privately-led, and outside of the agency’s purview. NASA remained the Peregrine’s primary customer, paying to send its own cargo to the moon.
“We’re saying be respectful. We’re turning the moon into a graveyard, and we’re turning it into a waste site,” the executive director for the Navajo Nation’s Washington Office, Justin Ahasteen, told CNN. “At what point are we going to stop and say we need to start protecting the moon as we do the Grand Canyon?”
Celestis CEO Charles Chafer said that the memorials, now at least temporarily imperiled, would not desecrate the moon but represented “a touching and fitting celebration” of those whose families had paid for the ashes of late loved ones to forever orbit the earth.
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“Just as permanent memorials for deceased are present all over planet earth and not considered desecration, our memorial on the moon is handled with care and reverence, [and] is a permanent monument that does not intentionally eject flight capsules on the moon,” he told the network. “No one, and no religion, owns the moon.”
On its website, Elysium says that a lunar memorial “delivers a symbolic portion of remains to the surface of the Moon, helping to create the quintessential commemoration. Through the everlasting splendor and soft illumination of the Moon, this majestic memorial is with you and your family forever.”
The Astrobotic space lander successfully launched on Monday, but it was unable to achieve a “stable sun-pointing orientation” due to the “propellant leak” that meant there was “unfortunately, no chance of a soft landing on the moon,” the company said in a series of posts on X.
The mission was the first moon landing attempt from the US since the final Apollo mission in 1972. The renewed interest in travel to the moon, a remnant of a planet thought to have been destroyed by volcanic eruptions three billion years ago, has brought the wider legal and ethical principles of who can send what to the moon into wider focus.
“The fundamental principle is that the exploration and use of space is free for all,” Michelle Hanlon, a space law expert at the University of Mississippi, told Scientific American. The global 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space, but there are few other cast iron controls in place. “If everybody starts sending stuff up,” warned Hanlon, “then the moon is going to get really trashy really fast.”