United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic are about to make history.
On January 8, a ULA rocket will send Astrobiotic's Peregrine lander toward the moon. If it lands successfully, Peregrine will become the first private lander to reach the lunar surface. The mission will also mark the debut of ULA's new Vulcan Centaur rocket.
Riding on Peregrine is a vast array of scientific instruments developed by NASA that will pave the way for future lunar exploration as part of the agency's Artemis program. But also in the mission statement are collections of human DNA and human remains, which will be lifted on commemorative spaceflights offered by two different companies, Celestis and Elysium Space. Celestis will send its commemorative payloads to the final frontier of deep space, while Elysium Space will place its payloads on the Moon.
In response, Navajo Chief Beau Nygren filed a formal objection to NASA and the U.S. Department of Transportation over what he described as an act of desecration. “It is important to emphasize that the moon holds a sacred place in many indigenous cultures, including our own,” Nygren wrote in a letter dated December 21. “Anywhere else on the Moon is a desecration of this sacred space.” Nygren asked NASA to postpone the mission until the Navajo Nation’s objections were addressed.
At the pre-launch science briefing on Thursday (Jan. 4), NASA representatives addressed the controversy surrounding payloads containing human remains that were included in the mission, noting that the mission is a private commercial effort and that NASA had only contracted for its mission. Scientific payloads will be transported to the moon. “We don't have a framework to tell them what they can and can't fly,” said Chris Colbert, Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. “The approval process is not done through NASA for commercial missions.”
Related: The Navajo Nation objects to a private moon mission that would put human remains on the moon
Private companies launching payloads as part of the CLPS program “don't have to survey those payloads” before launch, Colbert added. “So these are really trade missions, and it's up to them to sell what they're selling,” Colbert added. “We don't have a framework to tell them what they can and can't fly.”
Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, acknowledged that these commercial missions could lead to more controversy.
“With these new opportunities and new ways of doing business, we recognize that some non-NASA commercial payloads could be a cause for concern for some communities,” Kearns said. “These communities may not understand that these missions are commercial and that they are not US government missions, like the ones we are talking about.”
Cairns added that some of these commercial payloads could be used for things like advertising, which could lead to further public outrage.
However, Kearns noted that these early missions will allow NASA and other agencies to learn more about how access to the Moon will be organized in the future. “We will learn through these first landings, and subsequent landings, all the different issues or concerns that arise from that. And I'm sure that over time, there will be changes in how we look at that, or how the industry itself can set standards or Guidelines on how to proceed.”
Representatives of the agencies added during the press conference that the US government has formed an interagency group to review the Navajo tribe's objections and request for postponement.
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