When NASA attempted to return to the Moon for the first time in 50 years on January 8, it faced more than just the risk of losing US$108 million worth of development and equipment. The mission, which involved the Peregrine lander, sparked controversy due to an unusual inclusion in its payload – human ashes. One of the ashes belonged to the renowned science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke. Moreover, the inclusion of paying customers’ mementos as part of the payload further raised concerns regarding the ethical and legal implications of commercial space exploration.
As space exploration becomes increasingly privatized, the opportunity to send personal belongings to the Moon has become a reality. The Peregrine lander, owned by US company Astrobotic, ran into fatal fuel issues shortly after its launch. It carried “vanity canisters” as part of a partnership between Astrobotic and global freight company DHL. This collaboration allowed anyone to send a small package to the lunar surface for less than US$500. However, certain limitations were imposed on the contents of each package. Astrobotic is one of several US companies providing commercial lunar payload services to NASA, enabling the delivery of scientific instruments from six countries and multiple science teams.
While the practice of sending ashes into space is not entirely new, as suborbital and Earth orbital flights have offered this service for some time, the idea of a lunar burial raises unique questions. Two American companies, Celestis and Elysium Space, have made the business of sending ashes into space their primary focus. This service has been embraced by many, including astronauts who have experienced space travel. However, a lunar burial, which involves sending ashes to the Moon, is significantly more expensive, with costs reaching approximately US$13,000.
The inclusion of human ashes in space missions raises ethical and legal concerns. Although the approval process for commercial payloads launched from US soil focuses on safety, national security, and foreign policy, it fails to address the ethical implications of lunar burials. The outcry from the Navajo people 20 years ago, when Eugene Shoemaker’s ashes were carried to the Moon aboard the Lunar Prospector probe, prompted NASA to commit to future consultations. The Navajo Nation, like many other indigenous cultures, considers the Moon sacred and opposes its use as a memorial site. However, NASA’s lack of control over the payload on Peregrine highlights the gaps between commercial enterprise and international space law.
The regulations concerning the handling and location of human ashes vary between nations on Earth. For instance, in Germany, ashes must be buried in a cemetery. With the emergence of space privatization, there is a pressing need to address how these laws and regulations can be extended to outer space. The Outer Space Treaty (OST), which declared space the “province of all mankind” while prohibiting national appropriation, does not provide definitive guidelines regarding the actions of private companies and individuals in space. The recent Artemis Accords, signed by 32 nations, offer some protection to lunar sites of historical significance, but these protections apply solely to governments and not commercial missions. The issue of burial rights or any other form of ownership on the Moon, or any celestial body for that matter, remains unresolved. The OST requires states to authorize and supervise activities in space while considering the interests of other nations.
As space privatization accelerates, the ethical and legal complexities surrounding commercial activities in space deepen. Some countries, including Indonesia and New Zealand, have space laws that allow them to refuse payloads that are not in their national interest. However, nations like Australia and the US, which lack similar considerations, may need to expand their legal frameworks to regulate commercial activities more effectively. Furthermore, the issue of space debris, including defunct satellites and Elon Musk’s Tesla car, already poses a significant problem in Earth’s orbit. Additionally, as space archaeologist Alice Gorman suggests, the objects left on other celestial bodies by space probes may hold historical and cultural value. The challenge arises in distinguishing these items from mere clutter or vanity payloads.
As we venture further into space and commercialize new frontiers, it is vital to establish a clear ethical and legal framework to support these activities. While it is crucial not to impede private space enterprise, it is equally important to address the ethical and legal implications that arise. Failed missions like the Peregrine lander, with its controversial payload, highlight the need for careful thought and consideration. As we look to the future prospect of mining asteroids and colonizing space, it becomes increasingly evident that a comprehensive legal and ethical infrastructure is necessary. The exploration of space brings with it tremendous opportunities, but responsible innovation should guide our steps as we shape the future beyond Earth.