Biden Administration to Consult with Navajo About Human Remains on the Moon

Biden Administration to Consult with Navajo About Human Remains on the Moon

NASA said today the Biden Administration will consult with the Navajo Nation about its concerns that human remains are being placed on the Moon on landers developed through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. The Moon is sacred to the Navajo and putting human remains there is a sacrilege to them. Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander is a commercial mission, however, and NASA has no control over non-NASA payloads that are aboard. The chairman of the company sending the remains, Celestis, insists it is a service of celebration, not desecration.

Buu Nygren, President, Navajo Nation. 

As we reported on Sunday, the President of the Navajo Nation is asking for the Peregrine launch, targeted for January 8, to be postponed.

Celestis is one of Astrobotic’s 17 customers on this first Peregrine mission and is sending cremated remains, “cremains,” and DNA of dozens of people and one dog on what it calls the Tranquility Flight in capsules attached to the lander.

This is Celestis’s second mission to the Moon. The first, Luna 01, was launched in 1998 aboard NASA’s Lunar Prospector. The Celestis capsule contained the ashes of renowned planetary scientist Eugene Shoemaker. The spacecraft was deliberately crashed into the lunar surface in 1999 at the end of its mission and Shoemaker’s remains thus were deposited on the surface.

It was that event that sparked a rebuke from then-Navajo Nation President Albert Hale because depositing remains on the Moon is sacrilegious to the Navajo. NASA reportedly agreed to consult with them before doing anything similar again.

Last week, current Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren told Arizona’s NPR station that he had just learned that cremains would be launched on Peregrine and sent a letter to NASA asking for the launch to be postponed. He cited NASA’s earlier commitment as well as a Biden Administration pledge to consult with them on matters impacting the tribe, but no one consulted them about this mission.

During a weekly address today on Facebook, spoken mostly in Navajo, Nygren said in English: “At NASA they’re trying to send human remains to the Moon. As Navajo people we hold the Moon in such high sacredness and also respect that humans, animals, and insects and fish and all plants come from the Earth and they should be returned to the Earth.”

Peregrine is not a NASA launch, however, nor a government launch. It’s a commercial launch by Astrobotic.

NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program is a Public-Private Partnership where companies like Astrobotic build lunar landers to deliver NASA payloads to the lunar surface. NASA simply purchases delivery services. The companies build and own the landers and procure launch services, finding non-NASA customers to close their business cases. Several companies have CLPS contracts. Two others are scheduled to launch lunar landers this year, Intuitive Machines and Firefly.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander encapsulated into the payload fairing of ULA’s Vulcan rocket. Photo credit: ULA

As a customer, NASA has no control over what other payloads are aboard although NASA knows what they are. During a briefing today on NASA’s payloads on Peregrine, CLPS program manager Chris Culbert said “we have a reasonably good awareness about what payloads” are on all the CLPS missions, “but we don’t have a framework for telling them what they can and can’t fly.” NASA wants all the contractors to find other customers because the point is for this to be a sustainable, commercial endeavor. “They don’t have to clear those payloads with us. These are truly commercial missions. It’s up to them to sell what they sell.”

Customers on Astrobotic’s first Peregrine mission, targeted for launch on January 8, 2024. Credit: Astrobotic

Commercial launches are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST), part of the Department of Transportation (DOT). Whatever is being launched goes through an FAA/AST payload review to ensure regulatory compliance with safety, national security, and other requirements.

Joel Kearns, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration in the Science Mission Directorate, said at today’s briefing that the letter from the Navajo Nation was sent both to NASA and DOT. It requests “a tribal consultation to discuss deliveries to the Moon on non-NASA missions.”

An intergovernmental meeting is being set up with the Navajo Nation “that NASA will support,” Kearns revealed. Commercial lunar missions are a new industry and everyone is still in the learning phase. “We take concerns like those expressed by the Navajo Nation very, very seriously.”

In a statement to, Astrobotic pointed out that the payloads on Peregrine will not be deployed onto the lunar surface, so the cremains will not actually touch the Moon.

Astrobotic understands there are many differing beliefs concerning the lunar surface. While Astrobotic customers can answer further questions about their individual payloads, these payloads are not being deployed from the spacecraft. Astrobotic is fully compliant with planetary protection guidelines and adhering to all rules, policies, regulations, and laws for commercial space activity beyond Earth orbit. — Astrobotic

Charles Chafer, Chairman and CEO, Celestis.

In an interview with on Tuesday, Celestis Chairman and CEO Charles Chafer pushed back on the Navajo complaints and their characterization of his business..

“Nobody owns the Moon” and there is “no religious test for the conduct of space activities,” he insisted. While he has deep respect for the Navajo people and their culture, objecting to a space mission on religious grounds has no substance in law. Astrobotic passed the FAA/AST payload review process and “no one’s going to open the Astrobotic Peregrine lander” at this point. “We’re well founded in what we’re doing.” He said there was a public comment period when the launch license was under review where the Navajo could have raised their concerns.  “We know they’ve been tracking it for at least 20 years.”

“We reject the whole premise that this is somehow desecration. We handle these capsules reverently. We do not scatter them on the lunar surface. We object to the entire characterization of our service that I read in the letter. It’s the antithesis of desecration. It’s celebration.”

Celestis offers four types of “experiences” — Earth Rise (launch to space and return to Earth), Earth orbit, Luna, and Voyager (launch into deep space). Peregrine is launching on the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket and Celestis has one of its Voyager experiences attached to the Vulcan’s Centaur upper stage. Named Enterprise and carrying remains of Gene Roddenberry and others from the Star Trek franchise, they will travel deep into space after separating from Peregrine and enter orbit around the Sun.


Clarification: This article was updated to clarify that the statement about a public comment period during the launch license review was made by Mr. Chafer during the interview.

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