In an unprecedented and ethically contentious move, fragments of ancient human ancestor fossils, including Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi, were transported to the edge of space aboard a Virgin Galactic flight on September 8, 2023.
The controversial mission was orchestrated by South African-born billionaire Timothy Nash and received criticism from the scientific community for lacking a clear scientific purpose and for potentially risking the priceless specimens in case of a mission malfunction.
Lee Berger, an explorer and National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, who played a crucial role in the discovery of both ancient species, selected the fossils for this journey. The specimens included a 2-million-year-old fragment of the collarbone of Australopithecus sediba and a thumb bone from Homo naledi, dating back 300,000 years.
Berger defended the mission, emphasizing that it symbolized humanity’s appreciation for the contributions of its ancestors and ancient relatives, noting that without their innovations, advancements like spaceflight might not have occurred.
However, numerous ethical and scientific concerns have arisen:
Lack of Scientific Justification
Critics argue that the mission lacked a clear scientific objective. The absence of a scientific rationale raised questions about the validity of sending these ancient fossils to space, especially given the risk they faced during the journey.
Concerns were raised about the ethical implications of transporting the remains of ancient human ancestors into space. Some scientists categorized the fossils as paleontological rather than human remains, potentially to circumvent ethical and legal constraints. This debate highlighted the ongoing discussion about defining what constitutes a “human” being.
Access to Fossils
Lee Berger’s exclusive access to the fossils was another point of contention. Few other researchers had the privilege of making decisions about these valuable specimens, revealing disparities in access within the scientific community.
Misrepresentation of Paleoanthropology
Critics argued that the mission misrepresented the practice of paleoanthropology. Instead of being a scientific endeavor, the journey appeared more as a symbolic gesture with unclear scientific merit.
Lack of Scientific Study
The effects of spaceflight on heritage items like ancient fossils had not been subject to scientific study. Many experts were concerned that using these priceless specimens for such purposes without a scientific basis was inappropriate.
The effects of spaceflight on heritage items “hasn’t been an area of scientific study,” Justin Walsh, a professor of art and archaeology at Chapman University in California, told Live Science in an email. “Space archaeologists like me are definitely interested in the effect of the space environment on items in space,” he said, “but I don’t think we’d use a piece of heritage from here on Earth as a test article to see what happens to it.”
Entitlement and Privilege
The individuals behind the mission, including Nash and Berger, were criticized for their access to substantial resources and privileges that most paleoanthropological researchers lack.
The mission was approved by the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), with its primary aim stated as promoting South African human origins research on a global scale, rather than addressing specific scientific inquiries.
While South Africa has the sovereign right to manage its national heritage, this event raised broader questions about potential consequences for archaeological heritage in the future. The lack of transparency regarding the mission’s objectives, risks, and benefits fueled the controversy. Many researchers expressed concerns about the future care and preservation of these ancient fossils, given their unconventional use in space travel.