A current story in the news triggered my curiosity. It seems that some wealthy but now deceased individuals had been seeking a literal, material path to heaven. They took up the offer of a private enterprise that promised to send a rocket to deposit their remains on the surface of the moon.
A simple transaction, right? Not so fast.
Because “the moon holds a sacred place in Navajo cosmology,” Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren called for the liftoff planned for Monday, January 8 to be canceled. He complained that transforming the nocturnal lantern “into a resting place for human remains is deeply disturbing and unacceptable to our people and many other tribal nations.”
Quick-witted Astrobotic Technology, the private company that had organized the mission reassuringly insisted that it should be thought of as a “celebration” rather than a desecration.
In the background lies a fundamental legal but also metaphysical question: Who owns or governs the moon? For the commercial company that devised the mission, the moon is a conveniently available source of profit. For the always pragmatic US government the operation helps to finance the nation’s space program. Both consider the Navajo Nation’s complaint to be an unwelcome annoyance.
Having established this context, I asked ChatGPT4 this question: What does this debate tell us about the state of our civilization? This relates to two issues: the role of universal symbolism and our capacity to manage what should really be thought of as our cosmic “commons.”
ChatGPT immediately acknowledged that this is “a complex and interesting question that touches on various aspects of law, culture, and ethics.” It then went into some detail.
- **Symbolism of the moon**: The moon is a celestial body that has been a source of inspiration, wonder, and reverence for many cultures throughout history. It has also been a symbol of exploration, discovery, and achievement for humanity. Different cultures may have different views and values regarding the moon and its significance. For the Navajo Nation, the moon is a sacred part of their cosmology and spirituality, and they may see any human interference or alteration of the moon as a violation of their beliefs and identity. For the private company and the US government, the moon may be seen as a resource, a destination, or a challenge, and they may view their mission as a legitimate and innovative way of honoring the deceased and advancing space exploration.
- **Legal status of the moon**: The moon is governed by the Outer Space Treaty, which outlines in Article II that “outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” This means that no nation can claim ownership over any part of the moon or its resources. However, the treaty does not explicitly prohibit private entities from conducting activities on the moon, as long as they are authorized and supervised by a state party to the treaty. The treaty also does not address the issue of cultural or religious rights or interests of the moon, or the potential environmental or social impacts of human activities on the moon. The Moon Treaty, which was adopted in 1979, attempted to address some of these gaps by declaring the moon and its resources as the common heritage of mankind, and requiring an international regime to regulate the exploitation and sharing of the moon’s resources. However, the Moon Treaty has not been ratified by any major spacefaring nation, and thus has little legal force or relevance.
- **Ethical implications of the mission**: The mission raises some ethical questions about the appropriateness and consequences of depositing human remains and DNA on the moon. Some of these questions are:
- Is it respectful or disrespectful to the moon and its natural state to use it as a burial site or a repository of human genetic material?
- Is it fair or unfair to the other nations and peoples of the world, especially those who have a cultural or spiritual connection to the moon, to allow a private company and a single state to conduct such a mission without their consent or consultation?
o Is it beneficial or harmful to the future of humanity and space exploration to set a precedent of using the moon for commercial or personal purposes, rather than for scientific or peaceful purposes?”
Grateful for the information provided in this response, but noting that it isn’t really an answer to my question, I continued my interrogation.
“That was helpful, but I’m curious about what this incident tells us about our civilization and our way of thinking about the universe.
The CNN article contains a subtitle, ‘Dawn of the Lunar Economy.’ Astrobotic calls the delivery a ‘payload.’ NASA recognizes “that some non-NASA commercial payloads can be a cause for concern to some communities, and those communities may not understand that these missions are commercial.
In other words, on one side we have the Navajos talking about our cosmic environment and on the other, commercial for-profit arrangements. I find those contrasting visions intriguing. CNN’s article takes for granted the commercial sense of such operations and appears to approve the statement by the private company Celestis that “we do not and never have let religious beliefs dictate humanity’s space efforts.” But the question of our relationship with the cosmos in general and the moon in particular is not purely religious and not confined to the Navajos. Just as astronomers have revolted against the deleterious effect for science of Elon Musk’s Starlink initiative that they claim pollutes the night sky, this is a question of commercial interests assuming priority over humanity’s relationship with the cosmos.
Our relationship with the moon has for millennia been cultural, metaphysical, spiritual, scientific and religious, before adding the commercial dimension in recent times. My question concerned our civilization’s ability not to judge who has the right to do what, but to frame the question in terms of humanity’s interest vs. private interests. It includes the question of the value attributed to personal vanity of those individuals who pay to have their remains littering the surface of the moon.”
“You raise an important point about the tension between commercial interests and cultural, ethical, and spiritual values in our relationship with the cosmos. The incident you mentioned highlights the complex and evolving nature of this relationship, and the need for a nuanced and inclusive approach to space exploration and exploitation.
On one hand, the commercialization of space has opened up new opportunities for innovation, investment, and collaboration, and has expanded our knowledge and capabilities in various fields. The “Dawn of the Lunar Economy” that the CNN article refers to is a recognition of the potential economic benefits of the moon and other celestial bodies, such as mining, tourism, research, and settlement. The private company that organized the mission you mentioned may see it as a way of promoting their brand, generating revenue, and advancing their vision of space exploration.
On the other hand, the cultural, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of our relationship with the cosmos cannot be ignored or dismissed. As you noted, different cultures and traditions have different views and values regarding the moon and its significance, and may have legitimate concerns and objections to certain human activities on the moon. The Navajo Nation’s objection to the mission is an example of how a community’s cultural and spiritual identity can clash with a commercial enterprise’s goals and methods. The question of who owns or governs the moon is another example of how the legal and political frameworks of space exploration and exploitation are still evolving and contested.
The contrast between commercial interests and humanity’s relationship with the cosmos is not a new one, but it is becoming more urgent and complex as space activities become more diverse and widespread. As you suggest, we need to think critically and creatively about how to balance these interests and values, and how to ensure that space exploration and exploitation serve the common good and the long-term interests of humanity and the cosmos. This requires a multidisciplinary and inclusive approach that involves different stakeholders, perspectives, and expertise, and that recognizes the interdependence and interconnectedness of all aspects of our relationship with the cosmos.”
ChatGPT expertly sums things up with what might be called its patented “equitable” attitude. Everyone is right. It does so, however, with a bias. It employs the language of economic, and quite frankly bureaucratic modernity. This becomes evident when it claims that solving the dilemma “requires a multidisciplinary and inclusive approach that involves different stakeholders, perspectives, and expertise.” Let a commission work this out and deliver a report. It already assumes that “mining, tourism, research, and settlement” are all goals that could never be called into question.
This may not be to the taste of the Navajos, but ChatGPT’s answer has the merit of being historically realistic. But its answer also reveals a serious intellectual failure: the disinclination or inability to step outside today’s standard cultural norms and call them into question.
I felt this debate had the potential of revealing more about how AI can help us to understand our world… or discourage us from doing so. AI is the opposite of a scientific tool. It appears to function more like a mirror reflecting our own established cultural reality than a telescope that magnifies what is distant or a microscope that reveals the hidden structure of physical reality.
I felt this fascinating conversation was worth pursuing. A further installment will appear next week.
*[Artificial Intelligence is rapidly becoming a feature of everyone’s daily life. We unconsciously perceive it either as a friend or foe, a helper or destroyer. At Fair Observer, we see it as a tool of creativity, capable of revealing the complex relationship between humans and machines.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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