Updated Jan 5, 2024 - Science

Navajo Nation fights sending human remains to the moon

A full moon rises over Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

A full moon rises over Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Photo: Tony Savino/Corbis via Getty Images

The Navajo Nation, one of the nation's largest Indigenous tribes, is asking that human remains not be placed on the moon as planned by two private companies scheduled next week.

The big picture: The moon holds a sacred place among Navajo people and other Indigenous tribes. Navajo Nation president Buu Nygren said private companies placing cremated human remains violate tribes' religions and traditions.

Quick catchup: United Launch Alliance and Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic are scheduled Monday to launch Peregrine lander toward the moon, becoming the first private lander ever to reach the lunar surface, if successful.

  • Among the lander's load are sets of human DNA and remains collected by two private companies, Celestis and Elysium Space. The remains will be placed on the lunar surface.
  • After the Navajo Nation learned about the mission, Nygren filed a complaint with NASA and the U.S. Department of Transportation over a move that he calls "an act of desecration."

Details: NASA has no oversight over payloads that are included in commercial flights as part of the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

  • "We don't have the framework for telling them what they can and can't fly," said Chris Culbert, Commercial Lunar Payload Services program manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, per space.com.
  • White House officials also met with Navajo Nation officials on Friday.
  • Nygren said the federal government has an obligation to consult with Indigenous tribes about missions involving human remains on the moon.

What they're saying: "I know that there's another mission that I was informed of that will possibly have human remains into the future. So we've got months to prepare on this and to work with other tribes," Nygren told reporters on Friday during a Zoom call.

  • "We're not trying to say, 'don't do exploration, don't go to the moon and don't do those types of scenarios.' All we're just saying is this is the one part that we feel like there should be some sacredness to it."

The other side: Celestis CEO and co-founder Charles M. Chafer dismissed Nygren's concerns in a statement to USA TODAY.

  • "No individual religion can or should dictate whether a space mission should be approved ... we do not and never have let religious beliefs dictate humanity's space efforts," Chafer said.
  • Elysium Space did not return a message from Axios.

Or note: The founder of astrogeology, Gene Shoemaker, is the only person to date whose ashes have been buried on the moon.

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