Full moon over Blanca Peak, Colorado, a sacred mountain for the Navajo. Credit: NPS/Patrick Myers.

Blanca Peak or Sisnaajini in Colorado, a sacred mountain for the Navajo People. CREDIT: NPS/Patrick Myers. (Public Domain)

May 1, 2024 Article

Ethical Dilemmas of Space Memorial Services

Arguably, the most personal document one will ever write is a last will and testament. Generally, this document contains instructions on the final disposition of the testator’s human remains—perhaps directing how they should be buried or cremated. Over the past several decades, however, space memorial services are gaining popularity as a unique way to be laid to rest. Starting at around $13,000, “a symbolic portion of cremated remains, or DNA” can be launched into space to commemorate the deceased.

Introducing Space Memorial Services

Companies like Celestis and Elysium Space are positioning themselves as pioneer providers of space memorial services. Beginning in 1997, Celestis successfully launched its first flight aboard a Pegasus XL rocket carrying a payload of cremated remains of famous figures like Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Elysium Space offers a service where families of the deceased receive a kit containing a special capsule to deposit a sample of the cremated remains and elect which type of service package would best honor the memory of the departed. Upon collection, the company provides three types of space memorial services: a Shooting Star memorial wherein the cremated remains are placed in Earth’s orbit and then after two years re-enter Earth’s atmosphere as a shooting star, a Milky Way memorial where the cremated remains leave “the solar system to traverse the infinite Universe,” and most controversially, a Lunar Memorial service. According to Elysium’s website, this service “delivers a symbolic portion of remains to the surface of the Moon, helping to create the quintessential commemoration. Through the everlasting splendor and soft illumination of the Moon, this majestic memorial is with you and your family forever.”

Currently, there is insufficient evidence to support that these capsules pose a significant environmental risk to the space environment at large. Space memorial services, as it pertains to the lunar surface, however, do present ethical dilemmas about end-of-life planning, space regulation frameworks, and how to respect the cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples and preserve space heritage for future generations.

The Controversy: Preserving the Cultural Heritage of the Moon

Some scholars, like London Metropolitan University’s Andrew Cutting, view these ash-scattering ceremonies in outer space as a grim “public performance,” and a reflection of flashy, consumerist culture. Cutting points out that although space memorial services have remained marginal to mainstream culture, this commercial construct of an “afterlife journey invents a new kind of gothic undead: the posthumous cremain-astronaut, enjoying a heavenly, once-in-a-lifetime trip.”

Flashiness aside, the main concern rests on placing cremated remains on the surface of the moon. The Navajo Nation, among other Indigenous peoples, regard the moon as a sacred place, and by placing human remains on its surface, it is seen as a sacrilegious act. In a public statement, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren declared that the “placement of human remains on the moon is a profound desecration of this celestial body revered by our people.” President Nygren lamented that space memorial services effectively “disregard past agreements and promises of respect and consultation between NASA and the Navajo Nation, notably following the Lunar Prospector mission in 1998.”

Last December, Nygren appealed to NASA and the Department of Transportation, to delay the launch of a private moon mission, Peregrine 1, organized by Astrobotic Technology. The Peregrine 1 commercial moon lander was scheduled to carry a payload including the ashes of dozens of humans to the moon. Astrobotic Technology had also contracted with several U.S. and foreign private entities to send artifacts into space, including a $108 million contract with NASA to send experiments to study the lunar surface for water droplets.

According to Forbes, the Peregrine 1 was the first American lunar mission since the 1972 Apollo 17 and the “the first U.S. and privately made spacecraft to attempt a landing on the moon.” Ultimately, the Peregrine mission failed in January 2024 due to an onboard fuel leak with the lander after launch. This leak caused the spacecraft to burn up upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and destroyed the human cremations destined for the moon. Despite this setback, Celestis intends to expand its lunar-based memorial services. The company announced the following on its website about an upcoming Destiny Flight Memorial Service to the moon: “What could be more compelling than looking up in the night sky at our glowing neighbor, knowing your loved one has completed a journey accomplished by so few? The Celestis spacecraft is a permanent lunar memorial for adventurous souls.”

In response to the Peregrine failure, Justin Ahasteen, executive director of the Navajo Nation’s Washington, DC office, told USA Today: "While we are relieved that the Peregrine mission failure means that the lunar surface will not become a resting place for human remains, we recognize the disappointment and setback this represents for all those involved in the mission, Our concerns are specific to the inclusion of human remains on missions intended for the Moon, which we consider sacred."

International Legal Considerations

First, the topic of space memorial services is not expressly covered in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), one of the leading international documents in the canon of outer space law. The OST outlines international cooperation, exploration, and scientific research of outer space and celestial bodies. The treaty also prohibits national claims of sovereignty, establishment of military bases and weapons, or placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies. Second, although the Moon Agreement, a multilateral framework, stipulates that celestial bodies only be used for peaceful purposes and cannot be contaminated, not all States are signatories to this instrument—including the United States and Saudi Arabia. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) describes the Moon Agreement as a framework that affirms that the moon “and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind and that an international regime should be established to govern the exploitation of such resources when such exploitation is about to become feasible.”

Given that legal landscape, as space memorial services gain popularity, this could be an opportunity for the United Nations to reexamine its prioritization of efforts to preserve the cultural heritage of the moon. And on June 19 the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS) will have a chance, as it commence its 67th session. This gathering could serve as a forum to convene a dialogue about the specific risks presented by space memorial services, and establish a preliminary UN working group to study how to preserve the cultural history of the lunar surface for all.

With special thanks to George Washington University undergraduate research assistant, Ayushi Kriplani, who contributed to this article.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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