A US spacecraft carrying human remains launched on Monday in a bid to become the first private mission to land on the moon.
If it succeeds, Peregrine will also be the first US mission in more than 50 years to complete a lunar touchdown and could pave the way for commercial space services, such as lunar burials.
“This is the moment we’ve been waiting for 16 years,” John Thornton, CEO of Astrobiotic, the company behind the lander, said after the launch. “We are on our way to the moon.”
The Vulcan Centaur rocket, developed by United Launch Alliance, blasted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at around 2 a.m. ET.
Around an hour later, the Peregrine spacecraft separated from the rocket and began its journey to the lunar surface, where it is expected to land on February 23.
The commercial mission is carrying more than 20 payloads, including five scientific missions from NASA and some more unconventional items like human DNA and cremated remains.
Several capsules on board the lander are part of a memorial service offered by private companies Celestis and Elysium Space. Both offer to take ashes to space, while Celestis will also bring human DNA from a mouth swab.
Celestis had two payloads on the launch: one aboard the United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket that sent the lander to space, and one aboard the Peregrine lander heading to the moon itself.
The DNA and remains brought aboard the rocket included Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. According to The New York Times, the remaining and DNA also contained Majel Bartlett, Roddenberry’s wife.
Another capsule contains the hair of George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy, per The Times.
As for those whose DNA and ashes are heading to the moon aboard Peregrine, one name stands out — Arthur C Clarke, famed science-fiction writer who co-wrote the script for 2001: A Space Odyssey with American film director Stanley Kubrick, per Celestis’s website.
Celestis’s moon service starts at about $13,000, per its website.
This isn’t the first time human remains have been taken to space — or even the first time Gene Roddenberry’s cremated remains have flown above our planet. The screenwriter was also part of the first human “space burial” in 1992 when his ashes were put aboard NASA’s spacecraft Columbia.
This launch has been controversial, drawing ire in particular from the Navajo Nation, who see the moon as sacred.
According to Space.com, NASA responded that this mission was privately owned, and the agency had no say over the payload.
Thornton, the chief executive of Astrobotic, said on Friday that he was disappointed that “this conversation came up so late in the game,” according to The New York Times.
“We really are trying to do the right thing,” Mr. Thornton said. “I hope we can find a good path forward with the Navajo Nation.”
The Peregrine isn’t just carrying human remains. NASA has also included instruments onboard that are designed to measure the water molecules in the lunar surface, radiation and gas around the lander. According to a NASA release, they will study the exosphere – a thin layer containing gases circling the moon.
The lander is headed to the “Bay of Stickiness,” Sinus Viscositatis, a lunar feature located in the upper left side of the near side of the moon where scientists believe they could find evidence of water, per NASA.
Astrobotic has a tough route ahead as lunar landings are notoriously tricky. Last year, Russia tried to reach the moon with its own landers but the mission ended in crashes.
India, however, made history last August by becoming only the fourth nation to reach the moon after landing its robotic mission near the south pole of the moon.
There is a chance that the Astrobotic lander could be the first private spacecraft to reach the moon, but it has stiff competition. Intuitive Machines of Houston has planned to launch their own lander within a couple weeks, but they could only beat Astrobotic by one day.
The launch comes among a renewed global frenzy to return to the moon. NASA is in the midst of its Artemis mission program, which aims to put astronaut’s boots back on the moon by late 2025.
In late 2022, the agency sent its moon megarocket flying uncrewed around the moon. It aims to attempt the rocket’s first crewed launch in 2024.
The US isn’t the only one that has set its sights on the moon, which has been tagged as a pit stop on the way to Mars, a strategic objective for those aiming to fly further into space.
China also plans to land humans on the Moon by the end the decade.
Even if the Astrobotic lander doesn’t make it, the launch was a win for NASA. Astrobotic Peregrine Mission One was the first NASA-backed Commercial Lunar Payload Services mission to launch.
The NASA CLPS Program supports private companies to provide lunar services for the agency in exchange for an agreed fee. NASA used this method to develop a private sector around the return of the agency to the Moon.