Navajo President Nez Requests Delay of NASA’s Peregrine Mission
The Navajo Nation has voiced strong objections to NASA’s plan to send cremated human remains to the moon on an upcoming mission, requesting that the space agency delay the launch.
On January 2nd, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez sent a letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson urging the agency to suspend its contract with the private company Celestis Inc. to transport cremated remains on the Peregrine 1 lunar lander mission, currently scheduled to launch later this month.
President Nez argued that sending human remains to the moon violates Navajo cultural beliefs and amounts to desecration of sacred lands.
“The Navajo people have a deep respect for life and we strongly believe that human remains should be allowed to rest in peace and not disturbed under any circumstances. Transporting the cremains of loved ones to rest on the moon violates that principle and could harmfully alter the sacred nature of the lunar surface.”
Cultural Significance of Moon for Navajo and Other Tribes
The moon holds special cultural and spiritual significance for the Navajo Nation and other Native American tribes. According to their traditional beliefs, the lunar surface represents sacred ground.
“The Navajo and other tribes share a common understanding that the moon is a living, sacred entity – not just a rock floating through space,” said Navajo medicine man Harrison Huma. “Distributing ashes on the moon risks desecrating it and threatens the balance of life in our worldviews.”
Several other major Native American groups, including the Cherokee Nation and United Indian Nations, have also raised ethical and religious objections to sending human remains to space. They argue any objects left on the moon would represent a form of “space litter” with lasting impacts.
Celestis Space Burials Violate Sacred Sites Executive Order
In his letter, President Nez further contended that transporting human ashes to the moon would directly violate a federal executive order issued in 2022 to protect Indigenous sacred sites:
|Protecting and Conserving Tribal Culture
|Requires federal agencies to avoid adversely affecting sites with religious, ancestral, and cultural significance to tribes when taking federal action.
“Sending human remains to rest permanently on the moon clearly threatens sites of religious and cultural significance to tribes,” Nez stated. “This Executive Order implies NASA should be preventing – not enabling – that outcome.”
Under the contract, NASA agreed to transport a robotic lunar lander built by Celestis with a payload including symbolic amounts of cremated remains from over 200 individuals along with DNA samples in a “Lunar Cemetery” module.
Celestis sells spaceflight services that send human ashes into orbit or eventually to the moon or deep space. The company has touted its planned Peregrine mission as the first funeral flight to “extend memorials beyond Earth’s atmosphere.”
Peregrine Mission Faces Calls for Delay Despite Tight Launch Window
The Peregrine 1 launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket is currently targeting no earlier than January 26th from Cape Canaveral, with only a brief 2-week launch period in late January.
Despite the extremely narrow launch opportunity, President Nez implored NASA to halt the mission unless changes are made:
“I respectfully request that NASA refrain from any further enabling of this project unless appropriate consultations with Tribal Nations occurs and common ground can be found to address the issues outlined,” his letter stated.
So far, NASA leadership has remained committed to launching on schedule while pledging to hear out the objections. The agency plans to hold talks with Navajo Nation representatives next week, but claims there may be insufficient time to make major mission changes.
Outgoing NASA administrator Bill Nelson defended the agency’s decision in a statement:
“NASA has sought to build relationships with Tribal Nations. As NASA continues scientific discovery of the solar system, we welcome thoughtful discussions with Tribal Nations regarding our scientific activities.”
Indigenous Coalition Supports Navajo Stance Amid Ongoing Controversy
A large coalition of tribes and Indigenous rights groups has rallied around the Navajo position, pressuring NASA through letters of their own.
The groups argue that exploitation of Native culture by private space companies has become a disturbing pattern. They point to previous actions like Blue Origin naming its first passenger rocket “New Shepard” after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, who popularized a common Native slur.
“We fully support the Navajo Nation’s objection to this violation of Indigenous culture and beliefs,” said Chief Lynn Malerba of the Mohegan Tribe. “Transporting human ashes to commodify the sacred lunar landscape for profit represents outright exploitation. We call on NASA to reverse this offensive project.”
Ethical Concerns May Impact Growing Space Burial Industry
The brewing controversy around Peregrine 1 threatens to undermine public trust in the emerging market for shooting cremated remains into space.
Several private memorial spaceflight companies like Celestis, Elysium Space, and Ascending Memories offer similar lunar services. While they emphasize the symbolic spiritual quality of space burials, critics see it as leadings to the commercialization of human death.
The coalition of opposed tribes argues that profiting from Native cultural concepts violates ethical norms:
“Indigenous spirituality does not belong to these companies to twist for financial gain or publicity stunts,” their joint letter to NASA stated. “We cannot allow our sacred narratives to be appropriated to enable the defilement of sites like the moon that our teachings demand we preserve in natural states.”
In response to rising scrutiny, companies selling space memorial flights will likely need to implement stricter guidelines around upholding cultural standards. The outcome of the talks between NASA and Navajo leadership could set important precedents.
Next Steps: Mission Delay Possible but Uncertain
With the narrow Peregrine 1 launch window fast approaching on January 26th, it remains unclear whether delays over the Navajo Nation’s objections are feasible.
Some compromise solutions floated include placing the human ashes in some enclosed structure on the moon instead of direct burial. However, Navajo leaders may continue pushing for the cremated remains to be left entirely off the mission.
Most experts assess that while adjusting the mission’s payload on such short notice poses challenges, NASA still has enough leverage over private launch contracts to enforce changes or even postponement if it chooses to take a strong stance affirming Indigenous concerns.
Over the next week, intensive discussions between NASA and Navajo representatives could yield an agreement on a path forward. But for now, the launch continues advancing amid a conflict between NASA’s launch commitments and Native American calls urging those plans to honor sacred culture.
The objections raised by the Navajo Nation and other tribal coalitions have brought ethical dilemmas around commercial exploitation of Indigenous spirituality to the forefront. As space burial enterprises continue expanding, balancing respect for cultural norms and autonomy over Native concepts with emerging off-Earth memorial services will raise complex questions.
For NASA’s part, while the agency aims to maintain relations with Indigenous communities, its contractual obligations and launch scheduling pressure may still supersede those considerations. Upcoming dialogues and the ultimate fate of the Peregrine 1 mission could set influential standards on addressing Native viewpoints for NASA and the private space industry alike.
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