NASA will consult with American Indians before it rockets any more human ashes to the moon, a spokeswoman for the space agency pledged this week.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration quickly apologized after the president of the Navajo Nation complained of insensitivity to traditional Navajo religious beliefs.
NASA’s Lunar Prospector spacecraft blasted off Jan. 6 and started orbiting the moon Sunday. Inside the 650-pound craft is a 2-inch-long capsule containing an ounce of the cremated remains of renowned planetary scientist Gene Shoemaker of Flagstaff.
In a tribute to Shoemaker, his remains are to be the first ever laid to rest on another celestial body.
Navajo President Albert Hale learned of the plan over the weekend as he emerged from the customary four days of seclusion that follows a Blessing Way ceremony.
“I read this, and I was appalled and upset,” he said. “The moon is revered and it regulates life cycles, according to Navajo traditions and stories. To send something like that over there is sacrilege.”
Traditional Navajos avoid the dead to the point of not mentioning the names of deceased relatives. Some observe the custom of abandoning a home in which someone has died.
“It is one thing to prove, to study, to examine and even for men to walk upon the moon,” Hale said in a statement issued Sunday. “But it is sacrilege, a gross insensitivity to the beliefs of many Native Americans, to place human remains on the moon.”
NASA meant no disrespect, said Peggy Wilhide, the agency’s director of public affairs.
“None of the scientists on the program were aware that this would be insensitive,” she said in apologizing on behalf of NASA.
“I give my commitment that if we ever discuss doing something like this again, we will consult more widely and we will consult with Native Americans.”
Hale said he appreciated the agency’s apology. But he said even scientists unfamiliar with Navajo beliefs should have known better than to scatter the dead on “something as sacred as the moon,” he said.
He noted that President Clinton, early in his first term, ordered federal agencies to consult with Indian nations before taking actions that affect tribes.
University of Arizona planetary scientist Carolyn C. Porco conceived the tribute to Shoemaker when she read his obituary and learned he would be cremated. Shoemaker died in a July car wreck.
His widow and longtime research companion, Carolyn, watched the launch in Florida last Tuesday.
Reached at her Flagstaff home, she said she was “completely astonished” to hear the space mission disturbed Navajos.
“One reason it would never have entered my mind that they or anyone else would be offended is just knowing Gene’s feelings about going into space, and particularly about going to the moon. It’s almost a religious thing with him,” she said.
The Shoemakers are best known as part of the team that discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, the vast ball of ice that crashed into Jupiter four years ago. But Gene Shoemaker, an astronomer and geologist, also conducted important studies decades earlier of Northern Arizona’s Meteor Crater.
“He always said that every crater was a sacred site to him,” Carolyn Shoemaker recalled. “I think he felt that same way about the moon because he had studied it so much and had yearned to be there so much. It was just an important part in his life, and he would never have thought about desecrating it.”
Her husband’s ashes will hit the lunar surface a year from now as the spacecraft’s fuel runs out.
The ashes of the dead are not a new issue for the Navajo. Last summer, medicine men warned tribe members to stay away from the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff after they learned the sacred mountains had been defiled by people scattering cremated remains.
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