The story about a Navajo message from earth to the moon happened when NASA was gearing up to send ships and men into space and to the moon. It was all new and exciting in those early days. As such, they didn’t have their own private training facilities. For example, when NASA was preparing for the Apollo project, they trained some of their astronauts in a desert to mimic conditions on the moon, but they still needed local help. That’s when they called upon their old friends, the Navajo.
For those who do not remember, the Navajo (as well as other Indian tribes) joined forces as code breakers with the US Government to help win both World War I as well as World War II.
After John F. Kennedy launched the nation’s space program in 1960, NASA grew its space program with what limited resources they had or could cobble together. Enter the Navajo Nation. They had the perfect dry, arid land (let’s not start that argument, here) to create moon simulations as well as a local workforce that would welcome jobs.
After barracks had been built and training areas set up, NASA drove their astronaut team out to the desert to begin training. That day, a Navajo elder and his son walked by the space crew in their spacesuits. The old man, who spoke only Navajo, asked a question that his son translated. “What are these men in the big suits?”
The director of operations patiently told the old Indian they were practicing for their trip to the moon. The old man’s eyes widened and then he appeared thoughtful. He tugged on the director’s jacket sleeve and asked if he could send a message to the moon people with the astronauts.
Everyone present laughed, but the director put his hand on the old man’s shoulder and said, “Yes. Of course, you can send a message to the moon people.” He knew, at least the story would make a great public relations story to his superiors as well as possibly another puff piece in the New York Times about the upcoming moon mission.
The Navajo elder found an old tape recorder he’d used to help translate codes in the war and recorded the message with great speed. He had the boy deliver it to the director.
He played the short message which was, of course, completely foreign to him. Before the boy left, the director asked him to translate it, but he refused. Thinking maybe the boy either did not know enough Navajo and/or English, the director had the tape played around the reservation asking others for a translation. They all listened. And they laughed, but none would translate the elder’s message.
Thinking no more of it, but being true to his word, that recording was not only taken to the moon, it was buried in a time capsule near the first Lunar Lander. In 1999, it was also included as one of several messages in the StarDust program that sent a robotic probe to collect cosmic dust samples from comet Wild 2.
That boy was is now an elder and goes by the name Ata’halne Williams. Today, he serves as a Navajo ambassador with the US government. In an interview last month, Elder Williams was asked once more about the cryptic message his grandfather sent to the moon people. Suppressing a laugh, Ata’halne told us the old man’s message was simply:
“Watch out for these guys; they have come to steal your land.”