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Some people are paying to deposit human remains on the moon. The Navajo Nation objects

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Tomorrow, United Launch Alliance is scheduled to launch a landing craft for the moon. It would be the first-ever private commercial mission to the moon, but Navajo Nation is protesting. From member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz., Bree Burkitt reports.

BREE BURKITT: Monday's mission is essentially a delivery service. It's carrying some NASA scientific instruments for future lunar exploration, alongside a soda can for brand promotion. And two companies have sold space on the lander for memorial flights, which will leave cremated human remains on the moon for a minimum price of about $13,000. That's not a first. In 1998, NASA sent the ashes of geologist Eugene Shoemaker to the moon. The Navajo Nation protested then, and is doing so again now. Buu Nygren is the Navajo Nation president.

BUU NYGREN: Our stance was the same as it was in the '90s because time and promises do not expire.

BURKITT: NASA promised to consult with tribes after the 1998 launch, when the Navajo said placing human remains on the moon was insensitive to the beliefs of many Native Americans who hold the moon sacred. But President Nygren says that didn't happen and asked NASA to delay the mission until the tribe's objections are addressed. He says the tribe is not against space exploration.

NYGREN: We're not trying to claim the moon. We're not trying to claim the sky or the universe or anything like that, but you should do it in respect.

BURKITT: NASA program manager Chris Culbert says the agency can't do anything about it, though, because it's a commercial mission and out of their control.

CHRIS CULBERT: They don't have to clear those payloads with us. These are truly commercial missions that it's up to them to sell what they can sell.

BURKITT: Celestis and Elysium Space are sending small portions, no more than three grams, of the cremated remains of a combined 95 people and one dog. Loved ones are invited to attend the launch and track the lander's progress online. Navajo Nation President Nygren met with representatives from NASA and the White House Friday, but the launch is still scheduled to go on as planned, with the human remains on board. Nygren says the agency again pledged to consult with the tribe in the future. NASA's Joe Kearns (ph) again confirmed that is agency policy.

JOEL KEARNS: We take concerns like the expressed from the Navajo Nation very, very seriously, and we think we're going to be continuing this conversation.

BURKITT: The ULA's Vulcan Centaur rocket is scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after 2 a.m. Eastern time Monday. The landers are supposed to reach the moon on February 23.

For NPR News, I'm Bree Burkett in Flagstaff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bree Burkitt