The indigenous Navajo Nation has voiced opposition to a planned lunar burial service by two private companies, citing concerns over transporting human remains to land they consider sacred. As the rocket launch date nears, the incident has sparked controversy and prompted last-minute negotiations with the White House.
Companies Plan to Send Cremated Remains to the Moon
The Texas-based companies Celestis Inc. and Houston-based Elysium Space have partnered to launch a rocket carrying cremated human remains to the moon on January 9th. Their Peregrine Mission One is slated to be the first ever private lunar lander flight and aims to establish a memorial for individuals who pay to have a symbolic portion of their cremains launched into space.
The onboard payloads represent a diverse clientele, including space enthusiasts, aerospace engineers, scientists, artists, and even celebrities. Notable individuals include:
- Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek creator
- Timothy Leary, psychologist and counterculture figure
- Charles Oren Bennett, aerospace innovator
- Esther Dyson, technology analyst
The cremains will be carried aboard Astrobotic Technology’s Griffin lunar lander, launched by United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket. The Griffin will make a soft landing on the nearside of the moon, in the lunar region known as Lacus Mortis. Once landed, the Peregrine payload will remain on the moon in a specially designed capsule.
Navajo Voice Opposition Over Lunar Burial
As launch day drew near, Navajo Nation president Buu Van Nygren issued a statement decrying the mission’s intent to land human ashes on the moon, calling it “harmful and offensive.” The Navajo reservation spans parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico and is the largest Native American territory in the U.S.
Nygren stated: “The Navajo people have a deeply rooted spiritual and emotional connection to the moon. Placing the remains of loved ones permanently on the moon is equivalent to desecrating the sacred sites and burial grounds of Indigenous people here on Earth.”
He also cited the lack of consultation with Native tribes: “This is without proper discourse with Tribal Sovereign Nations and without a proper cultural sensitivity consultation that is needed whenever remains are disturbed.”
White House Holds Emergency Meeting with Navajo Leaders
In response to rising pressures, White House officials held an emergency in-person meeting with Navajo Nation leaders over the weekend. Also present were executives from Elysium Space, Celestis, and other stakeholders.
After several hours of intense debate, attendees reached a compromise solution. Elysium Space CEO Tom Civeit stated: “We want our memorial spacecraft to unite people in honor, not divide them. We are working closely with community leaders to find the best path forward.”
While exact details remain undisclosed, inside sources say the Peregrine Mission One will still launch on Monday as planned. However, some portions of human ashes will be removed from the payload out of respect to Navajo cultural beliefs.
Mixed Reactions Among Native Groups
Since Nygren first issued objections earlier this week, many other Native American organizations have voiced their support. A broad coalition of tribes signed a letter backing the Navajo Nation’s stance, saying: “We stand with the Navajo people in requesting NASAdelay approval of this project to launch human ashes without proper consultation and respect for culture and religion.”
However, reactions aren’t unanimous across all indigenous groups. Some spokespeople have adopted a more neutral posture, acknowledging Navajo cultural sensitivities but stopping short of demanding the mission’s cancellation.
As S.E. Williams, member of California’s Morongo Band of Mission Indians, stated: “Our tribe does not oppose space burial for those who believe this is a fitting way to memorialize their dead. We simply request proper discourse beforehand with all affected Nations out of common decency.”
Launch Still Scheduled for Monday
Despite swirling controversy, NASA and United Launch Alliance confirmed the Peregrine Mission One is still scheduled to lift off Monday evening from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
The launch was pushed back two days to allow for negotiations over the weekend. Barring any further delays, the rocket will take off at precisely 5:25 PM EST carrying the Griffin lunar lander into space. After achieving orbit, the Griffin will make its way to the moon over the next 4-5 days.
UAL chief Tory Bruno stated that while the Navajo Nation’s concerns were valid, stopping the launch was not feasible this close to liftoff: “We are deeply sympathetic, but given all the prep work done over years for this mission, the train has essentially left the station.”
What Comes Next
In the wake of objections by the Navajo Nation and other tribes, the incident has ignited debate around balancing cultural sensitivities with commercial space exploration. It presents complex questions of how to mediate conflicting viewpoints as the space industry advances.
While the Peregrine Mission One has averted disaster thanks to productive last-minute talks, experts say the close call represents a teaching moment for private space companies seeking to expand operations beyond Earth. More transparency and early consultation will be key going forward.
Mark Jernigan, a cultural astronomer at UC Berkeley, commented: “As we enter a new era of people routinely accessing space, we need to rethink a long history of ignoring marginalized voices and work harder to make exploration inclusive for all groups.”
The successful launch of the Griffin lunar lander this week may only mark the beginning as debates around memorial space travel will likely continue. But with open communication channels and proper protocols established upfront, tousled relations between Native tribes, celestial burial companies, and government space agencies may have a viable path to coexistence.
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