When NASA embarked on a mission to return to the Moon for the first time in 50 years, little did they know that it would spark controversy and raise ethical and legal concerns. The inclusion of human ashes, including those of renowned science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, in the payload of the Peregrine lander upset the Native American Navajo people. Furthermore, a commercial partnership with Astrobotic allowed individuals to send their personal mementos to the Moon. As space exploration becomes increasingly privatized, the question arises: What are the ethical and legal implications of sending personal items to celestial bodies?

Commercializing Space Exploration

Astrobotic, a US company, owns the Peregrine lander, which encountered fatal fuel issues shortly after its launch. One of the unique features of this mission was the inclusion of “vanity canisters” that allowed anyone to send a small package to the lunar surface for less than $500. This initiative stemmed from a partnership between Astrobotic and global freight company DHL. While there were limitations on the content and size of the packages, the concept of sending personal items to the Moon was now a reality.

Previous Ventures into Space Burials

The idea of sending ashes into space is not entirely new. American companies Celestis and Elysium Space have been offering space burial services for several years. This unconventional practice has been embraced by many individuals, including astronauts who have traveled to space. However, a burial on the Moon, which is available for purchase, comes at a much higher cost of around $13,000. While commercial payloads launched from the US require approval, the process primarily focuses on safety, national security, and foreign policy considerations.

The Clash of Sacred Beliefs and Commercial Enterprise

The Navajo Nation, like many indigenous cultures, considers the Moon a sacred entity and vehemently opposes its use as a memorial site. When NASA carried Eugene Shoemaker’s ashes to the Moon 20 years ago, it faced significant backlash from the Navajo community. In response to the recent outcry, NASA pledged to engage in consultations moving forward. However, the agency emphasized that it did not have control over the payload of the Peregrine lander, highlighting the disconnect between commercial enterprises and international space law.

The rules governing the location, handling, and transportation of human ashes vary between different nations. For example, in Germany, ashes must be buried in a cemetery. As space privatization gains momentum, the ethical and legal complexities surrounding these issues deepen. The Outer Space Treaty (OST) declares space as the “province of all mankind” while prohibiting national appropriation. Nevertheless, the treaty fails to address the activities of private companies and individuals in space.

Expanding Protections

The recently signed Artemis Accords, supported by 32 nations, aim to extend protection to lunar sites of historical significance. However, these protections only apply to governments and not to commercial missions. Additionally, as no entity or nation can claim ownership of the Moon or any other celestial body, the matter of granting burial rights remains unresolved. The treaty requires states to authorize and supervise space activities while considering the interests of other nations.

Many countries have specific space laws that allow them to refuse payload items not in their national interest. For instance, Indonesia and New Zealand have regulations concerning space activities. However, nations like Australia and the US may need to revise their laws considering the emergence of the commercial sector in a traditionally governmental domain. Space archaeologist Alice Gorman highlights the issue of space debris and the need to distinguish between historical artifacts and mere trinkets sent to space.

While private space enterprise presents exciting opportunities for exploration, it also unveils unexplored legal and ethical questions. The failed mission of the Peregrine lander carrying ashes and vanity payloads underscores the need for a robust legal and ethical framework to support commercial activities in space. As we venture further into space, including mining asteroids and eventually colonizing other celestial bodies, it is crucial to establish guidelines and regulations that balance commercial interests with ethical considerations.

The recent controversy surrounding NASA’s mission to the Moon highlights the ethical and legal dilemmas associated with sending personal items to celestial bodies. As space exploration becomes increasingly privatized, it is essential to carefully consider the implications of commercial ventures in space. The development of comprehensive regulations, adherence to international treaties, and respect for cultural beliefs are crucial for navigating the uncharted territories of space while ensuring responsible and ethical practices.


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