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Navajo Nation objects to a plan to send human remains to the moon

This photograph taken on December 27, 2023, shows the last full moon of the year, also known as the "Cold Moon," behind New Year's decorations in Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia.
Robert Atanasovski
AFP via Getty Images
This photograph taken on December 27, 2023, shows the last full moon of the year, also known as the "Cold Moon," behind New Year's decorations in Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia.

Updated January 8, 2024 at 9:28 AM ET

A plan to deposit some human remains on the moon as part of a rocket launch that blasted off early Monday morning is prompting criticism from the head of the Navajo Nation, who says it would be a desecration of the celestial body sacred to many tribes.

Buu Nygren, president of the Navajo Nation, urged NASA or other government officials in a statement last week to address the tribe's concerns before the launch.

"The moon holds a sacred place in Navajo cosmology," he wrote. "The suggestion of transforming it into a resting place for human remains is deeply disturbing and unacceptable to our people and many other tribal nations."

The mission is not being run by NASA but rather a private company, the first time an American firm would land a craft on the moon.

Peregrine Mission One launched into space on a United Launch Alliance rocket transporting a lunar lander made by the company Astrobotic, which itself will carry multiple payloads to the moon.

The Peregrine lander is expected to touch down on the moon on Feb. 23.

NASA is sending five payloads on the mission. Also on board are payloads from Celestis and Elysium, two companies that allow people to pay to send their loved ones' cremated remains into the cosmos on what are called "memorial spaceflights."

Celestis said it is sending the remains of nearly 70 people as well as a DNA sample from the scientist and writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

"Honestly, while we respect everyone's beliefs, we do not find Mr. Nygren's concerns to be compelling," Celestis CEO and co-founder Charles M. Chafer said in a statement.

Chafer said he believed religious objections shouldn't be permitted to derail humanity's endeavors in space, and that the company's clients consider their memorial spaceflights "an appropriate celebration — the polar opposite of desecration."

Elysium did not immediately reply to NPR's request for comment.

NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration Joel Kearns said in a press call Thursday that, although the agency takes the concerns from the Navajo Nation and others "very very seriously," it has little oversight over a mission run by the private sector.

"Those communities may not understand that these missions are commercial, and they're not U.S. government missions," he said.

Kearns said an intergovernmental team was looking into the matter and setting up a meeting with the Navajo Nation.

"American companies bringing equipment and cargo and payloads to the moon is a totally new industry," he added. "It is an industry where everyone is learning, as we have set this up in the past few years, how it's going to operate."

Nygren emphasized that the Navajo Nation was not opposed to space exploration, but rather that the tribe was simply asking to be consulted about the impending launch.

The White House scheduled an emergency meeting on the issue on Friday, which was scheduled to include members of NASA and the Department of Transportation, CNN reported.

In December, Nygren sent a letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and other federal officials asking them to delay the launch in order to speak with members of the Navajo Nation about their grievances.

The Navajo also objected in 1998 when NASA sent the ashes of planetary geologist Eugene M. Shoemaker to the moon.

Peregrine Mission One is part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, an effort by the agency to work with American companies to deliver payloads to the moon's surface.

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