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The presence of payloads on the Peregrine carrying cremated remains prompted criticism from the Navajo Nation. (credit: ULA)

The sacred Moon: Navigating diverse cultural beliefs in lunar missions

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On January 8, 2024, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket successfully lifted off into space. Among its payloads was the Peregrine lunar lander, a spacecraft built by Astrobotic Technology. This was to be the first lunar landing not sponsored by a government agency, although the lander did carry some NASA payloads (Wall 2019) as well as a number of commercial payloads. The commercial items included tiny containers of cremated human remains, including those of celebrities associated with the 1960s television show Star Trek, submitted as payload by two space memorial companies, Celestis and Elysium Space (Wattles 2024). The Vulcan Centaur’s upper stage, headed to deep space, also contained human remains as part of another Celestis mission, most notably those of Gene Roddenberry, his wife Majel Barrett, and Star Trek actors Nichelle Nichols, DeForest Kelley, and James Doohan (Chang 2024).

Nygren explained in a statement that 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.”

The Vulcan Centaur blasted into space without incident. Peregrine, however, which was supposed to head toward the Moon after its separation from the rocket, then achieve orbit and set down on the lunar surface by February 23, 2024, encountered difficulties. A propellant leak was discovered in the lander, preventing it from ever reaching the Moon. Although Astrobotic made multiple attempts to salvage the mission, they eventually directed the craft to return to Earth and reenter the atmosphere. Reports indicate that it burned up during re-entry, somewhere over the South Pacific (Amos 2024).

This mission was of particular interest to me as an anthropologist of religion who studies religious aspects of space travel and exploration. I have previously written about the company Celestis, which, since 1994, has regularly sent symbolic portions of people’s cremated remains into outer space as a way to memorialize them, as payloads on existing missions. They offer such packages as “Earth Rise,” which sends ashes on a suborbital flight and recovers them (resembling a Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin launch, albeit without live passengers); “Earth Orbit,” which sends ashes up in a spacecraft that will orbit the Earth; “Luna,” which allows cremated remains to be sent as payload on an existing mission to the Moon; and “Voyager,” in which cremated remains are included on a flight not set to return. The Vulcan Centaur launched in January was the vehicle for both the “Tranquility” Luna mission and the “Enterprise” Voyager mission (Carney 2023). The mission I had studied previously, an Earth Rise mission called Aurora, was ultimately scrubbed (the “passengers’” cremated remains were recovered and assigned to future flights), but I was able to attend the Aurora memorial service and launch preparation in 2022 as part of my ethnographic research.

The concerns of the Navajo Nation

As preparations for the January 2024 launch of the Vulcan Centaur with its ill-fated Peregrine payload were underway, it became clear that the parts of Peregrine’s multiple payloads that included human remains—a very small portion of what it was carrying and far from its main reason for attempting a Moon landing—were creating controversy. The Navajo Nation, representing the Diné Natives of the American Southwest, expressed concern about the idea of human remains being left on the Moon, a celestial body considered sacred by the community. Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren explained in a statement released ahead of the launch that 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.” (Fisher 2024)

Nygren further argued that the Navajo Nation had first expressed their concern back in 1998 after the launch of the NASA Lunar Prospector mission, which would go on in July 1999 to crash-land a spacecraft on the Moon containing within it a portion of ashes belonging to astronomer and geologist Eugene Shoemaker, who had helped train the Apollo astronauts. At that time, NASA’s director of public affairs, Peggy Wilhide, apologized, stating “None of the scientists on the program were aware that this would be insensitive… 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.” (Volante 2011) Although Peregrine was not a NASA mission, given that NASA was cooperating with the agency and the lander was carrying some NASA payloads, Nygren believed the prior agreement remained relevant.

The CEO of Celestis, Charles Chafer, responded to Nygren’s comments with his own statement, arguing that just “as permanent memorials for deceased are present all over planet Earth and not considered desecration, our memorial on the moon is handled with care and reverence” (Chamlee 2024). Despite a last-minute White House meeting, the disagreement remained unresolved (Fisher 2024), and the launch went off as planned. Peregrine, however, because of the fuel leak mentioned above, never made it to the Moon.

The Moon as a sacred object or place

It is almost certain that as soon as Homo sapiens had anything resembling religion, the Moon has been seen as sacred. Sociologist Émile Durkheim studied ideas of the sacred and argued that at its most basic, sacred things were “set apart and forbidden” (Durkheim 1915). What could be more set apart and forbidden, at least until the landing of the Soviet spacecraft Luna 1 on the Moon’s surface in 1959 (Harvey 1996)? For the vast majority of human existence, the Moon shifted from glowing orb to shining crescent, bigger and more detailed than any of the visible stars, drawing curiosity and inspiring fantasy.

Do human remains “desecrate” sacred places, rendering them impure? There’s no universal answer to this question, even when it arises on Earth.

It makes sense that the Diné and some other peoples would see the Moon as inherently untouchable and in need of protection, but even among the many cultures that have seen the Moon as sacred, what that sacredness means varies widely. The ancient Greeks and Romans saw the Moon as a goddess, often as Selene or Luna, and associated other goddesses, like Artemis or Diana, with the celestial body (Mheallaigh 2021). Other deifications of the Moon include Khonsu, the Egyptian god of the Moon (Redford 2003); the Aztec deity Metztli (Trejo 1994); the Inuit God Aningaat (Spalding 1979); Tu’er Ye, the Chinese rabbit deity who lives on the Moon (Stepanchuk and Wong 1993); and the Polynesian god Avatea (Craig 1989).

Some religions use the Moon in sacred ways, more as a celestial timekeeper than as an entity. For instance, in both Judaism and Islam the cycles of the Moon determine the start and end dates to religious holidays. Both religions follow a lunar calendar, resulting in a year of 13 29.5-day month; like the 12-month Gregorian calendar, the lunar calendar must be adjusted periodically to make up lost days (Birth 2013). In Islam, the fasting month of Ramadan can only be broken when the new moon of the next month, Shawwal, is spotted on the 29th or 30th day, or after Ramadan’s 30th day comes to an end (“When Does Ramadan End?” n.d.).

In other religions the Moon is a place where the souls of the dead go, at least temporarily. In Plutarch’s Moralia, the essay “On the Face in the Moon’s Orb” suggests that the Moon is the place where souls of the dead go on their way to the afterlife (Plutarch and Babbitt 1928). In a strikingly similar account, Mike Dixon-Kennedy’s Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic Myth and Legend reports that the Slavic and Romany people have longstanding beliefs about the association between the Moon and the dead. In the entry about the god Dundra, Dixon-Kennedy writes, “The original name of the god of the moon, who later became known as Alako. According to legend, Dundra was sent to earth by his father, to teach the Romany people their laws and to serve as their protector. When he had finished his task on earth he ascended into the skies, where he became Alako. He watches over his people and carries their souls to live on the moon after death. One day Alako will return from the moon and lead his people back to their lost homeland.” (Dixon-Kennedy 1999)

The Moon is also associated with death in another entry about the traditional Lithuanian underworld, Dausos. Dixon-Kennedy writes, “Mysterious realm of the dead—possibly the moon—governed by Dievas. It was not a heaven or a paradise but simply a world that lay beyond the slippery high hill of the sky, which the dead had to climb. To stop themselves from slipping down again, the dead needed strong fingernails or claws like those of an animal. As the journey was believed to be very long, spirits were also said to have made the trip on horseback, in the smoke of cremation fires, by traveling along the Bird’s Way (the Milky Way), or in a boat such as that used by the Sun on his return trip to the east.” (Dixon-Kennedy 1999)

In Andrew Chaikin’s 1994 book A Man on the Moon, he reports in his epilogue that more contemporary beliefs about the association between the dead and the moon caused an embarrassing situation for astronaut Stu Roosa during a visit to Nepal. According to Chaikin:

In 1975, during a trip to Nepal with his wife, Joan, Stu Roosa visited a school to give a talk about his flight to the moon. Afterward, there were mysterious questions: “Who did you see?”

Roosa answered, “There is no one there.” A murmur went through the place. Again the students asked what he had seen. Roosa was adamant: “There is nothing there. Not even wind. There is nothing.”

Later, after the Roosas had gone, a teacher told the children, “You mustn't listen to him. He's wrong.”

The Roosas were distressed when they learned that some Nepalese believed the spirits of their ancestors reside on the moon. Roosa had essentially told them there was no heaven. Joan wished the American government had briefed them better for the trip. (Chaikin 1994)

This account demonstrates two things. First, it gives yet another example of a culture where the Moon is associated with death. Although Chaikin does not tell us what religion the children followed, and there are quite a few distinct religions practiced in Nepal, the belief described may be linked to the religious scripture known as the Chandogya Upanishad. This scripture describes the “path of the Moon” taken by souls who are good people but not yet ready to be liberated from earthly life. They wait on the Moon to have another lifetime on Earth. The account also serves as an example of another conflict of perspective, like the Navajo Nation’s opposition to the Peregrine lander, where a particular society’s understanding of the Moon seems at odds with the goals of American space exploration.

On the pollution or purity of human remains

In his January 4, 2024, statement expressing concern about Peregrine, Buu Nygren explained the danger, saying, “The sacredness of the moon is deeply embedded in the spirituality and heritage of many indigenous cultures, including our own. The placement of human remains on the moon is a profound desecration of this celestial body revered by our people.” (Nygren 2024) As vandalizing a synagogue or destroying an American flag would be seen as an affront to something deserving reverence, the sacredness of the Moon, in this interpretation, would be disrespected, and perhaps even lessened, by the placement of human remains on its surface. Do human remains “desecrate” sacred places, rendering them impure? There’s no universal answer to this question, even when it arises on Earth.

The fact that the Moon was unattainable has allowed it to symbolize the idea of the sacred untouchable.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her book Purity and Danger, talks about death as a form of symbolic impurity in many cultures, mostly because of the way it disrupts the normal social order. Mortuary rituals are a way for societies to feel a greater sense of control over death, with various practices serving to transform the recently deceased into an ancestor or assure the deceased a happier or more proper afterlife (Douglas 1966). Death happens either way, but it’s often easier to accept if it’s worked into the expectations and stories of the culture. Rules for what to do with the body of a deceased person are part of this. Certainly, the idea that human remains may be literally polluting isn’t difficult to understand, especially when certain types of death are contagious, human remains can draw scavengers, etc. The importance of limiting the potential damage a dead body can create is an important part of many ways of handling the dead, from burial to cremation and other approaches.

While the Diné may see human remains as a source of lunar pollution, many Zoroastrians see human remains as a danger to the Earth. The Zoroastrian scripture known as The Avesta explains that “allowing (corpses) to touch the ground contaminates the ground for one year and that burying contaminates the ground for fifty years.” (Vendidad at 48 and 62, cited by Solanki 2016) Instead a practice known as “sky burial” is used, in which the dead are set in high locations (Towers of Silence) where natural processes can reduce the body to bones. There is a belief that a particular demon “infects the dead immediately after death and cannot be expelled” until the bones are clean of flesh (Vendidad 55 and 210, cited by Solanki 2016). If dead bodies can contaminate the ground, it’s not surprising that some groups might see them as contaminating the Moon in a similar way.

Other societies, though, understand a corpse as the pure object and the ground as a source of contamination. In her study of a former practice of the Warí people of Brazil, Beth Conklin explained how cannibalism could work as an act of reverence, writing, “In contrast to Western views of eating as an act of objectification and domination of the thing consumed, eating can express respect and sympathy in Wari' culture, especially in contrast to the alternative of burial. The ground is considered ‘dirty’ and polluting.” (Conklin 1995) It’s clear that even the act of burying a body in the ground, seen as “normal” in many cultures, can sometimes be taboo, but for distinctly different reasons.

To touch or not to touch?

For the vast majority of human existence, the Moon has been out of reach, seeming both close and distant, irresistible, controlling the tides as it wanes into near-death and waxes back to life. It’s no wonder so many human communities find it meaningful. The fact that it was unattainable has allowed it to symbolize the idea of the sacred untouchable. For people to reach the Moon, to walk on it, was unthinkable for many, and may be part of the reason why some insistent voices on the Internet continue to deny the reality of the six crewed Moon landings (so far).

Are sacred objects always untouchable? There are certainly examples of items that are both sacred and kept from human touch. The Torah, for instance, inscribed in kosher ink on parchment made from the skin of a kosher animal, and containing the biblical stories of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, is held on two wooden dowels, the atzei chayim. The parchment of the Torah itself may not be touched: readers will mark their place with a type of pointer called a yad (which means “hand”), often tipped with a small figure of a hand with an outstretched figure.

The concern of the Navajo Nation’s Diné people, as expressed by Nygren, is not the presence of humans or spacecraft on the Moon but that the payloads of Peregrine would have included human remains.

On the other hand, one of the most sacred items in the Catholic form of Christianity is the consecrated wafer. Devout Catholics believe the act of transubstantiation transforms the substance of the wafer to the substance of the flesh of Christ; the consecrated wafer, now called the “host,” is seen, quite literally, as the body of Jesus, even if its empirical parameters haven’t changed. The ritual of communion doesn’t just allow this sacred object to be touched, it requires that it be touched through the act of eating the host. Even if Durkheim said sacred objects are “set apart and forbidden,” there are situations where sacred objects are encountered and embraced.

The contradictory understandings of the sacred described above demonstrate that human interactions with the sacred are not the same from religion to religion. In my research on pilgrimage sites, too, I’ve encountered sacred places that must be visited and others that must be left alone. Sometimes a sacred place is both required and taboo simultaneously, like the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which is the site of an obligatory pilgrimage for Muslims but also completely forbidden to non-Muslims.

The Moon and other contested sites

The one constant that seems to exist when it comes to sacred places is that when a location is considered sacred by more than one group, and when the groups’ understandings of what being sacred means differ, there is the potential for conflict. The city of Jerusalem, first sacred to the Jews, then to the Christians, then to the Muslims, with each religion having its own rationale, is perhaps the most famous example of a contested site, having been battled over for centuries.

A site can also be contested when it is sacred to only one side. Take, for example, the current controversy surrounding the Thirty Meter Telescope site on the extinct Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Although other facilities for astronomical observation already exist on Mauna Kea with indigenous support, the Thirty Meter Telescope is much larger. Given that the “dormant volcano’s peak is sacred to Native Hawaiians, home to their deities and ancestors (and in) ancient Hawaiian law, access to the summit was restricted to only the highest-ranking leaders,” continued building on the site is considered disrespectful by much of the ethnically Hawai’ian community, seen as yet another chapter in the colonization of what used to be an independent nation (Seward 2001). Mauna Kea stands as an example of a sacred site where the contest for control involves religion, but also pits scientific values against humanistic values.

It is worth noting that the Navajo Nation’s concern with the Peregrine lander was not with the main goals of the mission. As Nygren wrote in his statement, “The Navajo Nation is not opposed to scientific progress or space exploration” (Nygren 2024). The conflict between the Navajo Nation and Astrobotic (NASA is involved, but mostly on the periphery) is similar to the Thirty Meter Telescope conflict in Hawai’i but is complicated by the spiritual and religious beliefs underlying the desire of Celestis’s and Elysium’s clients to send the cremated remains of numerous human beings (and one dog) to the Moon. The concern of the Navajo Nation’s Diné people, as expressed by Nygren, is not the presence of humans or spacecraft on the Moon but that the payloads of Peregrine would have included human remains. In essence, this is a spiritual or religious conflict like Jerusalem, with disagreement over how a sacred site is to be used.

Space and spirituality

People tend to assume that American space exploration is a purely scientific endeavor, with decisions being made using only logic and rationality. It is clear from many sources, however, including Catherine Newell’s Destined for the Stars: Faith, the future, and America’s final frontier (2017), as well as To Touch the Face of God: The Sacred, the Profane, and The American Space Program by Kendrick Oliver (2013), and the collection Touching the face of the cosmos: on the intersection of space travel and religion, edited by Paul Levinson and Michael Walthemathe (2016), that religion has always been a powerful motivator, albeit in the background, for space exploration. Even for the nominally atheistic Soviet Union, the mystical ideas of Cosmism were a factor (see Siddiqi 2016) and with the fall of communism, more overt religious expression has blossomed on the ISS (see Salmond, Walsh and Gorman 2020). Many involved in the American space program, in both the governmental and commercial sectors, are personally very religious. While there are plenty of atheists and agnostics involved in the program as well, Newell demonstrates that the age of exploration, inspired in part by Christian missionary fervor, serves as the model for the new “manifest destiny”: the urge to explore and settle space. Even the non-religious seem to be influenced by this Christian idea, defined by John Wilsey as having had its origins as “a form of Christian Nationalism.” (Wilsey 2016) As the more spiritual or religious dimensions within the space program reveal, even if they aren’t always obvious, space exploration is not just a scientific endeavor but also a profoundly human one.

The spiritual side of secular memorials

Spiritual traces in purportedly secular endeavors are also a mark of the Celestis missions. In 2019 I had an opportunity to interview an employee of Celestis, someone I met at a large gathering of space enthusiasts. This gentleman, whom I will refer to by the pseudonym of Edward, explained to me that because its customers come from all over the world, with a large number of them coming from Japan, it was important to the company not to take a specific religious perspective in their memorial events and flights. He described a secular-seeming memorial service to me: “It's wonderful. What we do is the day before the launch we hold a memorial service and that gives the family who have flown to us a chance to represent their family member. It gives them the opportunity to talk a little bit about whoever it is they're sending up in space.”

When I attended a Celestis memorial service in 2022, however, I was struck by the spiritual elements that did make it into the program. A retired astronaut was brought in as a speaker and he mentioned during his talk that he believed when people interested in space passed on, they would have a chance to explore the universe after death. There was also a bagpiper hired for the event who played the hymn Amazing Grace. Amazing Grace is a very typical song to hear at a funeral, but is first and foremost a Christian hymn.

To be able to look at the Moon and have it become a place to imagine a grandparent or child who had passed away would be unusual and likely very moving.

While those spiritual themes were present, few slides shown of Celestis “passengers” during the service (personalized by their loved ones) referred explicitly to God or to themes from any particular religion (“Climbing the Stairway to Heaven” came close.) Instead they more frequently included allusions to Carl Sagan’s “We are made of star stuff” quotation or refer to the upcoming flight as an “odyssey” or something “ethereal,” demonstrating a perspective more closely linked to Scientific or Naturalistic Pantheism. The official World Pantheism website asks, “Do you feel a deep sense of peace, belonging, and gratitude in Nature? Are you blown away by a clear night sky filled with stars and galaxies? Do you say things like ‘Forests are my cathedrals’ or ‘The Universe is my “higher power”’? Then you may well be a scientific pantheis.t” (“A spirituality of nature and the universe” 2023) However it may be classified, the spiritual perspective memorial-goers tended to express saw the upcoming spaceflight as something their loved one would have enjoyed and possibly would still enjoy, with both organizers and mourners referring to the ashes as “passengers” and describing what these “passengers” would “experience.” Even if the spirituality associated with space and the universe isn't a conventional spirituality, the act of sending a deceased friend or family member’s cremated remains into space is incredibly moving and highly symbolic for those involved.

If the ashes go into space and are returned, there is a link that forever connects the idea of that loved one to outer space. For a family member to keep those ashes, probably in a very significant place, is an act of devotion. When a person’s cremated remains end up orbiting the Earth, their family members are given a way to track them, so that Mom, Dad, and the kids can run outside—for a brief moment, that light in the sky is Uncle Dave or Grandma Ruth.

To be able to look at the Moon and have it become a place to imagine a grandparent or child who had passed away would be unusual and likely very moving. The family members of Apollo astronauts were able to point to the moon and say, “Look up there! Your daddy’s up there!” With that in mind, the idea of being able to tell your children and your grandchildren that your mother is somehow, literally, on the Moon seems very powerful.

There are currently one person’s remains on the Moon, the ashes of geologist and astronomer Eugene Shoemaker, who had wanted to be an astronaut himself but never had the opportunity. Celestis, working with NASA, transported his ashes and astronomer Carolyn Porco designed the container that held them. An epigraph on the container quoted Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” reading:

Shoemaker’s widow, Carolyn Shoemaker, who watched the launch with her children and grandchildren, said at the time, “He’s going to be the man on the moon to us”. (Fletcher 1999) It seems likely that 25 years later, Shoemaker’s grandchildren still think that whenever they look at the Moon.

What “would have…thrilled” Eugene Shoemaker, according to his widow (Fletcher 1999), was, of course, a source of dismay to the Diné people of the Navajo Nation, who contacted NASA and were reassured nothing like this would happen again without their input (Volante 2011). When Peregrine failed to reach the Moon, there was relief on one side and sorrow on the other. The disappointed family members whose loved ones’ ashes never reached the Moon were promised by Celestis that the backup ashes held in reserve (according to Celestis policy) will be “passengers” on a future Lunar mission, at which point the controversy will be renewed.

Concluding thoughts

Who gets to make decisions about the religious use of outer space, the Moon, and other celestial bodies in the solar system? So far it seems to come down to the doctrine that might makes right. Despite the existence of treaties and agreements and the work of many to create an equitable system for the use of space, those with the wherewithal to fund space missions are the ones making the decisions. This is why there is a Bible on the Moon, left behind by Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott (Millard 2019), why Orthodox Christian icons are displayed on the ISS, and why there are plans to construct a Buddhist temple that will orbit our planet (“Why do we Build Temples in Space?” 2023). The United States, Russia, and Japan are wealthy countries with space programs of their own and the religions in those places influence what happens in space.

While we can measure the circumference of the Moon or the chemical composition of rocks from its surface, we cannot measure in any empirical way whether or not the Moon is truly sacred or determine through scientific means whose religious tradition has the most verifiable claim on our largest natural satellite.

Efforts are being made at NASA to include voices beyond the majority (Rathbun et al 2021). It’s an uphill battle, with steps meant to bring about some version of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” (which first appeared in the 1968 Star Trek episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty”) countered by fears of reverse discrimination (Schwartz 2004). In an ideal world, space exploration would be carried out by individuals representing a wide array of cultural perspectives and religious viewpoints who could speak for and make decisions based on Earth’s patchwork quilt of cultures. Until then, when groups feel like their concerns aren’t being heard, they have a right and responsibility to speak out.

Unlike issues dealing with mineral rights or defense or self-determination, religious issues are tricky to navigate, perhaps especially so in space. While we can measure the circumference of the Moon or the chemical composition of rocks from its surface, we cannot measure in any empirical way whether or not the Moon is truly sacred or determine through scientific means whose religious tradition has the most verifiable claim on our largest natural satellite. If I say the moon is made of cheese, you can prove me wrong. If I say the moon is sacred, there’s no scientific way to dispute that.

Religion and science both seek to answer the “big questions,” but generally take different approaches. An astronomer at the Vatican Observer would typically contemplate physics while writing a scientific paper, but contemplate miracles when uttering a prayer. That said, we must recognize that both ways of understanding the reality we see around us are part of human nature and are likely to appear wherever humans, dead or alive, establish any kind of foothold. There will be religious disputes about Mars and religious disputes about Proxima Centauri B if humans ever get to those places.

As it stands now, no single nation or community can claim the Moon, at least in theory. Unlike sacred places on Earth, the Moon does not historically occupy the territory of any specific culture or religion, instead mattering to all of them. While pleasing everyone will never be possible—the sacred Moon is the home of the dead in some cultures and must be kept pure from the dead in others—the recent conflict suggests that space agencies and private companies alike should keep striving for continuous communication and openness to other views, especially those of communities who’ve historically had less influence on space exploration.

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