Space

How a Navajo Nation complaint nearly upended Monday's moon mission

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren said he has no issue with space exploration, but it's what's on board the lunar lander that raised concerns.

A United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
A United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Craig Bailey / Florida Today via AP
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American aerospace company United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur rocket took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida early Monday morning, marking the launch of a historic mission that plans to get the U.S. back on the surface of the moon for the first time in more than five decades. However, not everyone is rejoicing over the feat, with one group's objection leading to a last-minute meeting that nearly upended the entire mission.

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren said he has no issue with space exploration or scientific progress. But it's what's included in the lunar lander's payload that prompted Nygren to raise concerns.

When you pass away, there are many ways you can choose to be celebrated — from traditional funerals to being planted next to a tree to having your ashes spread in the ocean. But now there's another option: sending ashes into space.

Here's a funeral alternative: Send your ashes into space
Here's a funeral alternative: Send your ashes into space

Here's a funeral alternative: Send your ashes into space

As cremation becomes more popular, one company is seeing an increased demand for sending a loved one's ashes to space.

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Celestis Inc. is a company that partners with satellite and rocket companies to send individualized flight capsules into space and one of the company's capsules is on board the lunar lander with the goal of spreading the first human remains on the moon's surface. It's an act that Nygren sees as an insult to Native American culture and prompted him to send a letter to NASA and the U.S. Department of Transportation in effort to postpone the mission. 

"The sacredness of the moon is deeply embedded in the spirituality and heritage of many Indigenous cultures, including our own," Nygren said. "The placement of human remains on the moon is a profound desecration of this celestial body revered by our people." 

Charles M. Chafer, co-founder and CEO of Celestis issued a statement to Scripps News defending his company's involvement in the mission. 

"We are aware of the concerns expressed by Mr. Nygren but do not find them substantive," Chafer said. "The regulatory process that approves space missions does not consider compliance with the tenets of any religion in the process for obvious reasons. No individual religion can or should dictate whether a space mission should be approved. No one, and no religion, owns the moon ..." 

Company says moon landing attempt is in jeopardy due to engine problem
Company says moon landing attempt is in jeopardy due to engine problem

Company says moon landing attempt is in jeopardy due to engine problem

The problem was reported about seven hours after Monday's predawn liftoff from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

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Chafer added that he doesn't understand why we are allowed to memorialize the dead in millions of locations around Earth but shouldn't be allowed to do the same on the lunar surface. 

"While we respect everyone’s beliefs, we do not find Mr. Nygren’s concerns to be compelling," he said. "As we look to the future soon there will be a time when humans will live and work on the moon. Imagine not being able to care for the deceased ..." 

White House officials met Friday to discuss Nygren's complaints,  but the lunar mission was ultimately allowed to proceed as planned because it's technically not being run by NASA, despite receiving funding from the agency. 

Of the five capsules Celestis is sending to the moon, included are the remains of nearly 70 individuals, including DNA samples from Presidents George Washington, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy, per the New York Times. 

The spacecraft was scheduled to land on the moon on Feb. 23. However, a private company involved in the launch said later Monday that a fuel leak on the spacecraft has likely put the entire mission in jeopardy just hours after the successful launch.