The Hualapai tribe of American Indians have formally thrown open a controversial glass viewing platform suspended over the Grand Canyon, the country's most famous natural monument, enlisting the help of two men accustomed to being airborne in outer space.
The two former US astronauts - Buzz Aldrin, 77, the second man to ever walk on the moon, and John Herrington, 48, the country's first native American astronaut - casually walked out on the platform that juts out 20 metres over the Grand Canyon Tuesday.
Members of the impoverished Hualapai tribe, who hope the skywalk will attract 600,000 visitors each year paying $25 each for the view 1,200 metres above the canyon floor, followed them. The walk will be opened to the public on March 28.
The project represented a "vision towards the future of hope" for the poverty-stricken tribe, Aldrin said.
The 453-metric-tonne, $30-million platform is fastened to the rock by a complicated system of metal cantilevers. It was built by a Las Vegas tour operator in conjunction with the tribe, whose reservation rims the remote western edge of the canyon.
The structure has sparked controversy with some tribe members saying it violates sacred ground and environmentalists charging that it demeans the area's natural beauty.
"Our ancestors roamed this land before us," tribeswoman Leatrice Walema was quoted as saying by the Arizona Republic newspaper recently. "This is holy ground. Most of our elders disapprove of this, but the council members approved it before the community voted on it. It was hidden (from us). This should never have been done."
Environmentalists are also up in arms about the horseshoe-shaped structure. Robert Arnberger, who was superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park from 1994 to 2000, told the newspaper it was a "travesty".
"I understand the need for the tribe to consider the economics of the tribe, but ... it desecrates the very place the Hualapai hold so dear," he was quoted as saying.
Herrington is a Chicksaw Indian from Oklahoma. Aldrin was the second man, behind astronaut Neil Armstrong, to set foot on the moon when the two landed on the moon in July 1969.