NASA won’t scrap launch sending cremated remains to the moon, despite Navajo complaints

After learning that an upcoming mission to the moon will include cargo holding cremated human remains, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation and NASA voicing the concerns of the Navajo people.

“The placement of human remains on the moon is a profound desecration of this celestial body revered by our people,” Nygren said in the December letter. “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 called for a delay in the launch and asked for a consultation with NASA, the White House and the USDOT. He noted that the Biden Administration’s Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and the Memorandum of Understanding Regarding Indigenous Sacred Sites were ignored in the scheduling of the launch. 

In response, officials from the White House, NASA U.S. Department of Transportation, the FFA, and other partners held a brief consultation with Nygren on Jan. 5. 

After the briefing, Nygren said that proper tribal consultation should have happened and they should have been notified in advance rather than days before the scheduled launch. 

“If we didn’t issue the letter, these discussions wouldn’t have been happening,” he said at a press conference on Friday.

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During the consultation, Nygren said that he shared his concerns with officials, highlighting how the moon holds an “integral” part in the way of life among the Navajo people, which is why it is a concern to have human remains “constantly floating around the earth as we continue to exist.” 

Nygren said that he hopes officials will consider the Navajo Nation’s concerns and consult with them on any future missions that may have human remains aboard so that they have more than just a few days to respond.

The launch will continue as scheduled on Jan. 8.

The United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket is set to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It will be carrying Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander as well as the Celestis and Elysium memorial payloads, which contain cremated human remains and DNA.

“This will mark the first commercial robotic launch to the moon surface,” NASA Public Affairs Specialist Antonia Jaramillo said during a media conference on Friday

Jaramillo added that recent teams with NASA and Astrobotic confirmed that all NASA payloads are ready for launch.

“While I acknowledge the excitement and progress associated with the first commercial lunar payload services flight, the Navajo Nation holds profound concerns regarding the lack of oversight and regulation of non-NASA commercial payloads, particularly when such payloads include human remains,” Nygren said in a statement issued on Thursday.

“As stewards of our culture and traditions, it is our responsibility to voice our grievances when actions are taken that could desecrate sacred spaces and disregard deeply held cultural beliefs,” he added. 

Before the scheduled Jan. 8 launch, the only ashes sent to the moon were of former geologist and planetary scientist Eugene Shoemaker as part of NASA’s Lunar Prospector mission in 1998. 

Celestis provided the Luna service of Shoemaker’s remains upon the request of NASA, according to their website

The launch on Jan. 8 will be Celestis’s second Luna service mission, known as the Tranquility flight, a service with 66 participants. The cost for Celestis’s Luna services starts at $12,995.

“The Celestis memorial capsules carrying cremated remains and DNA will remain on the Moon as a permanent tribute to the intrepid souls who never stopped reaching for the stars,” their website states.

Nygren expressed his objection to the launch in his initial letter, stating that the sanctity of the moon holds deep spiritual and heritage meaning for several Indigenous cultures, including the Navajo. 

“I stand by the position that both NASA and the USDOT should have conducted consultations with Indigenous tribes before contracting with or issuing payload certificates for missions that involve the transport of human remains to the moon,” Nygren said. 

Launching the Vulcan Centaur is not a NASA-run mission. Rather, it is part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which works with private companies to deliver science and technology to the lunar surface. 

“These lunar missions are the company’s commercial mission,” said Chris Culbert, CLPS program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in a press briefing on Jan. 4. “These are not NASA missions.” 

The mission is a private commercial launch by the United Launch Alliance and Astrobotic Technology made possible by the CLPS program, meaning that NASA does not have a say over what payloads will be included in the mission. 

“They don’t have to clear those payloads with us; these are truly commercial missions and that is up to them to sell what they can sell,” Culbert said. “We don’t have the framework for telling them what they can and can’t fly.”

Celestis CEO and co-founder Charles Chafer emailed a statement to Space.com regarding the Navajo Nation’s stance against cremated human remains going to the moon.

“The regulatory process that approves space missions does not consider compliance with the tenets of any religion in the process for obvious reasons,” Chafer said. “No individual religion can or should dictate whether a space mission should be approved.”

Nygren said the Navajo Nation is not opposed to space exploration or scientific progress. Still, he said he believes that the Navajo Nation deserves the respect of being consulted, especially when agreements have been made to do so.

“We’re not trying to claim the moon,” Nygren said. “We’re not trying to claim the sky or the universe or anything like that.

“Our 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.”

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