The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Human remains set for moon memorial to instead burn in Earth’s atmosphere

Astrobotic Technology's lunar lander lifts off from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 8 atop a rocket provided by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)
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When Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lander took off Jan. 8 on a doomed mission to the moon, it was not a passenger-free flight. The cremated remains and DNA of more than 70 deceased people, including science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, were on board the spacecraft, which is expected to burn up Thursday during reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere after a failure in its propulsion system.

The participants — as they are called by Celestis, one of the memorial spaceflight companies involved in the mission — were in capsules that were set to “remain on the lunar surface as a permanent tribute to the intrepid souls who never stopped reaching for the stars,” the company says on its website.

But once the extent of the propulsion problem became apparent, Astrobotic — in consultation with NASA and the U.S. government — “made the difficult decision to maintain the current spacecraft’s trajectory to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere,” the company said Sunday in a news release, adding that it believed this approach would present no safety risks on Earth or in space.

In a statement, Celestis said their clients “know in advance that a flight they or a loved one is on may not succeed,” and most understand “they are committing a very small amount of their or their loved ones’ precious remains to what is still today a very rare, special, and risky effort.”

Celestis sells memorial flights on spacecraft launched by other organizations. These include the “Earth Orbit Service,” which starts at $4,995, and the “Voyager Service,” beginning at $12,995, in which remains are launched into deep space.

Family and friends who had paid for the company’s Luna Service, which also starts at $12,995, for their loved ones’ remains to travel on the Peregrine lander took to a social media group to grieve. One woman in the group wrote a message of consolation, saying that their loved ones would still be among “the earliest adventurers to leave our lonely planet” even though they would not reach the moon.

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But not everyone was supportive of the moon memorial plan. To the Navajo Nation — which views the moon as sacred — placing the remains there was “tantamount to desecration.”

In a December statement, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren urged NASA and the Transportation Department to delay the launch. He said that the plan recalled the 1990s, when NASA sent the remains of astronaut Eugene Shoemaker to the moon. In response to the Navajo Nation’s objections at the time, NASA apologized and committed to consulting with Native Americans “if we ever discuss doing something like this again.”

“It is crucial to emphasize that the Moon holds a sacred position in many Indigenous cultures, including ours,” Nygren wrote in a Dec. 21 letter to NASA and federal officials. “We view it as a part of our spiritual heritage, an object of reverence and respect.”

The Navajo Nation did not respond to request for comment.

Deana Weibel, an anthropologist at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, likened the controversy to those at religious sites on Earth, as the moon has been sacred ever since humans could look at it.

Some cultures see the moon as linked to death, Weibel noted. She referred to Andrew Chaikin’s book “A Man on the Moon,” which details children in Nepal who were disconcerted to learn the moon had no inhabitants because some Nepalese people “believe the spirit of their ancestors reside” there.

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Alice Gorman, a space archaeologist at Flinders University in Australia, said that, like the Navajo, “there are people for whom the moon has a direct relationship to their existence as a human being,” a “very different class of relationship” than many in the West know.

Weibel added that there are also stark differences in how one treats something sacred. So while some say human remains should not be on the moon because it is sacred, for others, “that might be exactly why you want cremated remains on the moon,” she said.

Still, she said, the decision about what goes on the moon does not come down to morality or religious arguments: “It’s who has the power, who has the rockets.”

Weibel, who has done fieldwork with Celestis, said she noticed many of those booked on a Celestis flight she studied had died early and had hopes of space travel themselves.

“There’s this idea of a thwarted dream,” she said, adding that “what we do when we grieve is show how much we cared for the person.”