Indigenous | NASA

‘Ignorant and arrogant’: Maramataka expert opposes moon burials


Maramataka Māori practitioner and expert Heeni Hoterene is calling on Māori to oppose a move to allow human remains to be buried on the moon.

“As indigenous people and as Maori, we must support Navajo ... and we need to look at actually withdrawing our support to NASA,” Hoterene told Te Ao News.

NASA’s Peregrine Mission One has successfully launched to the Moon and will transport 66 memorial capsules containing cremated remains and DNA to the lunar surface.

Hoterene was shocked when she first heard about human remains being taken to space.

“Ko te kūare me te whakahīhī hoki tērā - That is ignorant and arrogant,” she said.

This just indicates how removed non-indigenous people are from the respect of life, death and the planet. The moon is sacred and we do not dig on it. It will upset the mauri (lifeforce) of the moon,” Hoterene maintained.

The move prompted a last-minute meeting with Navajo Nation president Dr Buu Nygren at the White House, asking the administration to delay the commercial moon mission sponsored by NASA, which has two private companies Celestis and Elysium Space carrying out lunar burial services.

The Celestis service is being promoted as the “Tranquility Flight”, and according to the company’s website it is “a permanent tribute to the intrepid souls who never stopped reaching for the stars.”

The Elysium Space company website said its “lunar memorial” was “helping to create the quintessential commemoration.”

Despite the backlash, it’s understood the uncrewed spacecraft (on the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket) successfully launched on Monday evening New Zealand time (2:18am Eastern Time zone on Monday) from Florida’s Cape Canaveral space force station.

Astrobotic is the company behind the Peregrine lander technology. Confirming with Te Ao News it is now flying solo on its way to the Moon, where it will attempt a lunar landing on February 23, 2024. Peregrine could become the first commercial lander, and the first American lander in over 50 years, to land on the Moon.

To date, the U.S. space agency NASA has paid Astrobotic $108m to develop the space craft and carry science experiments to the moon.

Peregrine Mission One will mark the start of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, which allows the space agency to outsource the launch and transport of its lunar cargo to private companies. According to media reports this will be the start of a lunar economy even though regulations to the moon are still evolving.

The space agency also developed the Artemis Accords, a document that outlines what should and shouldn’t be allowed on the moon. This has been signed by the U.S and 32 of its allies, including New Zealand in 2021.

Hoterene said lunar burials contravene NASA’s policy of collaboration with indigenous peoples.

“Obviously their actions in terms of giving permission to these people ... that doesn’t support the actual policies in place. This is white privilege to think that they can bury human remains on the marama (Moon) now. No one owns the marama,” Hoterene said.

“Just because Americans landed and put their flag on it does not give them the right to inter human remains on the moon. I suspect there are later plans for more raweke (meddling) such as mining. For me it just really indicates a total lack of respect,” she said.

Dr Nygren called lunar burials an affront to Navajo and many indigenous cultures who revere the moon.

“The moon holds a sacred place in Navajo cosmology. The suggestion of transforming it into a resting place for human remains is deeply disturbing and unacceptable to our people and many other tribal nations,” Nygren said.

Nygren claimed the mission is a repeat of an incident over 20 years ago when NASA’s Lunar Prospector mission in 1999 deliberately crashed a spacecraft into the moon carrying the remains of former astronaut Eugene Shoemaker.

At the time, NASA issued a formal apology and promised consultation with tribes before authorizing any further missions carrying human remains to the Moon.

Te Ao News has requested a response from NASA and the private companies involved.

Celestis CEO Charles Chafer rejected the assertion that the memorial spaceflight mission desecrates the moon.

“It is a touching and fitting celebration for our participants — the exact opposite of desecration, it is a celebration,” he said.

Astrobotic Technology CEO John Thornton said he was disappointed “this conversation came up so late in the game” as notification of its first payload manifest was made in 2015 and again in 2020. Thornton hopes to find a path forward with Navajo Nation.

Joel Kearns, Deputy Associate Administrator for exploration at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate said while they take Navajo concerns seriously some communities “may not understand that these missions are commercial and they’re not U.S. government missions.”