US Private Moon Lander Fails But Carries Out Most Significant Space Funeral With DNA Of ‘Top Personalities’

The crash of the Peregrine moon lander, made by private company Astrobotic, has also become the most significant space burial. The privately mission had the human remains and DNA samples of famous deceased personalities on-board.

While carrying payloads from NASA and other research instruments, the human remains belonged to former Presidents, Hollywood stars, and science fiction genre icons. Houston-based company Celestis has been doing “space burials” for more than a quarter of a century for paying customers interested in having their remains or DNA samples as a mark in space exploration. It had two payloads, one on the launching rocket and the Peregrine lunar lander, the latter that crashed.  

Had the Peregrine craft landed successfully, it would have become the first American mission in half a century and the first private venture to achieve it. Only government space agencies from the US (NASA), the Soviet Union (Roscosmos), China (CNSA), India (ISRO), and Japan (JAXA) have so far managed controlled lunar landings. 

The Launch

Peregrine launched on January 8 on the first flight of United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) new Vulcan Centaur rocket. The Vulcan uses the new BE-4 engines built by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin for its first-stage booster. 

While the launch went smoothly, Peregrine suffered a propellant leak. A valve separating the helium and oxidizer in the lander’s propulsion system did not re-seal properly, causing helium to enter the oxidizer tank. The rise in pressure caused the tank to rupture.

A video grab was released by Astrobotic showing the spacecraft’s view of the Earth just after launch. Source: Astrobotic

Peregrine could not reach the moon and thus fell back to Earth. It reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke up over the Pacific Ocean on Thursday.

Astrobotic CEO John Thornton, however, was proud of how Peregrine performed. “I know it’s very easy to focus on the failure and the one thing that failed on the spacecraft, and we’re all gonna have dreams about that for a long time to come,” Thornton said during a media teleconference. 

“But there’s a lot that worked. And that is something I’m very proud of. That Astrobotic designed and built hardware like avionics and software and systems architectures and other parts of the spacecraft  - they all worked,” Thornton said

Space Burial! DNA & Human Remains Payloads

The commercial mission carried more than 20 payloads, including five scientific missions from NASA and some unconventional items like human DNA and cremated remains.

The DNA samples are either contributed by donors or synthesized to contain coded information. Destined for the moon, they are part of Arch Mission Foundation’s Lunar Library II, a data storage disk roughly the size of a DVD.

Most of the library consists of smaller nickel disks with more than 60 million pages of pictures, text, and data etched into them, creating stacks of “nanofiche” records.

The disk was supposed to be secure on the lunar surface for millennia. Such archival disks have flown on earlier space missions, including the Israeli-built Beresheet lander that crashed onto the moon in 2019. (That’s why this archive is called “Lunar Library II.”)

Celestis had two payloads on the launch: One aboard the Peregrine moon lander, known as the ‘Tranquility Flight’. The other was on the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket, known as the ‘Enterprise Flight’.

The remains and DNA on the rocket include Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator; Roddenberry’s wife, Majel Barrett who played Nurse Chapel on the original television show; DeForest Kelly who played medical officer Leonard “Bones” McCoy; Nichelle Nichols who played communications officer Uhura; and James Doohan, who played chief engineer Montgomery Scott, according to The New York Times (NYT). The the DNA/ashes of political figures include late US Presidents George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy.

The Peregrine Moon lander. Source: Astrobotic

The payload on-board the Peregrine meanwhile carried the DNA of famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (who co-wrote the script for 2001: A Space Odyssey with American film director Stanley Kubrick) and cremated remains of 69 other individuals.

The Enterprise Flight payload however (that was on-board the Vulcan rocket) met all three of its engine burns and is successfully on course for its final heliocentric orbit. Celestis said that the name will change to “Enterprise Station” when it reaches final orbit. This makes it the most significant final cremation ceremony. 

Payloads From NASA 

NASA, too, has its payload on the Peregrine, which includes instruments to measure water molecules and radiation on the moon, gasses around the lander, and examine the exosphere, a thin layer of gasses that floats around the moon.

The lander was headed to the “Bay of Stickiness,” Sinus Viscositatis, a lunar feature located in the upper left side of the moon’s near side where scientists believe they could find evidence of water. 

Some of Peregrine’s other payloads also performed admirably despite not reaching their final destination. A radiation detector built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) collected 92 hours of data on the radiation environment in cislunar space.

Two NASA-built instruments, the Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS) and Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS), were likewise able to take measurements of this radiation during Peregrine’s flight, according to a report on Space. For its payloads, NASA paid Astrobotic US$108 million

Step Towards Moon Exploration 

Peregrine was the first mission contracted by NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program (CLPS), which aims to accelerate lunar science by partnering with private companies such as Astrobotic to put scientific experiments on the moon.

NASA plans to foster a private space launch industry around the moon as a rush to the celestial object resumes after a hiatus of several decades, with countries undertaking their series of missions. 

NASA has planned its Artemis mission to put humans back on the moon by late 2025. Over the next century, moon bases of various countries are expected to come up where regular flights between Earth and its satellites would become commonplace.

A private space services industry would be required to support the massive logistics and often undertake smaller launches and payload releases for national space agencies.

“Space exploration is a daring task, and the science and spaceflight data collected from Astrobotic’s lunar lander is better preparing NASA for future CLPS deliveries and crewed missions under Artemis,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

“The future of exploration is strengthened by collaboration. With our commercial partners, NASA is supporting a growing commercial space economy that will help take humanity back to the Moon and beyond.”