Presidential DNA and NASA equipment: What's onboard the Vulcan Moon rocket?

Split image. Left image: The Vulcan rocket launching off from Florida. Right image: A painting of former US president George Washington.
George Washington (pictured) is one of three former US president's whose DNA is being carried on the Vulcan rocket. Credit: AP

Words by James Gray, Multimedia Producer

NASA science equipment, human remains and a robotics experiment are among the various payloads which have been launched into space as part of the first US mission to the Moon in decades.

United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket and its accompanying Peregrine lunar lander set off on Monday from Florida.

The lander, which has been developed by private company Astrobiotic Technology, will not make its attempted landing on the Moon until late February.

If successful, it will be the first US mission to land on the Moon's surface since 1972, and could help kick-start a new era of lunar expedition.

NASA, at great financial expense, has backed the un-manned Peregrine mission in the hope it will lead to future trips involving astronauts.

So, what cargo is being transported as part of the mission? ITV News explains.

ITV News Science Correspondent Martin Stew discusses what the mission is hoped to achieve

What cargo is being transported?

Peregrine was developed by Astrobiotic through NASA funding worth $108 million (£85 million).

The US space agency approved the payment so that Peregrine and future missions could be used to fly its science experiments to the Moon's surface.

But NASA is just one customer among a number for the Peregrine mission.

In total, the lander will carry 20 payloads to the Moon's surface, of which five are NASA science instruments.

The remaining 15 come from a variety of customers, including a robotics experiment from a private UK-based company as well as mementos assembled by the German shipping company DHL.

'Five, four, three, we have ignition... and liftoff': Watch the moment that the Vulcan rocket is launched into space

Perhaps the most peculiar payloads of the mission involve the transportation of human remains on behalf of two commercial space burial companies - Elysium Space and Celestis.

These will touch down on the surface of the Moon and remain there "as a permanent tribute to the intrepid souls who never stopped reaching for the stars", according to Celestis.

The firm offers to carry a person's ashes to the moon for prices starting at more than $10,000 (£8,000).

A separate payload, meanwhile, of human remains has been attached to the Vulcan rocket as opposed to Peregrine itself, and will travel into deep space where it will spend eternity orbiting the sun.

Dubbed the Enterprise Flight mission, this particular object contains 265 capsules with human remains as well as DNA hair samples from former US presidents George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

The remains of Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry, his wife, Majel Barrett, and three actors from the original show — Leonard 'Bones' McCoy, Nichelle Nichols and James Doohan — are also included in the capsules.

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How have people reacted?

The largest group of Native Americans in the United States, Navajo Nation, has said it would be an affront to many indigenous cultures for human remains to be allowed to touch down on its surface.

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren said transforming the moon into a "resting place for human remains" would be an affront to many indigenous cultures, which revere the moon.

Mr Nygren, days before Monday's launch date for the Vulcan rocket, asked in vain for the US government to delay the flight.

Astrobiotic chief executive John Thornton said he was disappointed that "this conversation came up so late in the game" given the participation of Celestis and Elysium was announced several years ago.

He said: "We really are trying to do the right thing. I hope we can find a good path forward with the Navajo Nation."

The boss of Celestis, Charles Chafer, said while he respected the religious views of all people, he did not agree that "you can regulate space missions based on religious reasons."