Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft recently made headlines as it traveled to the edge of space carrying two ancient-human relatives that lived hundreds of thousands of years ago in southern Africa. However, this daring mission has not come without controversy, drawing criticism from archaeologists, palaeoanthropologists, and other researchers who argue that it was an unethical publicity stunt that put priceless hominin fossils at risk.
The fossils in question belong to two significant species: Australopithecus sediba, which lived around 2 million years ago, and Homo naledi, which is approximately 250,000 years old. In July, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) granted an export permit to transport these valuable artifacts to New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic’s spaceport is located, and ultimately onto the spacecraft itself.
Critics argue that the supposed justifications for the mission, such as raising awareness about science and human origins, fail to outweigh the potential risks of spaceflight and the potential damage or loss of these precious remains. The European Society for the Study of Human Evolution went as far as issuing a statement questioning both the scientific merit and ethics surrounding the entire endeavor.
Defending its decision, SAHRA claimed that the promotional benefit derived from the mission was appropriately assessed against the inherent risks associated with travel. The University of the Witwatersrand, where the fossils are currently stored, asserted that the artifacts had been extensively documented and carefully selected for the mission.
Nevertheless, concerns have been raised about the protection of cultural heritage in South Africa. Critics have drawn parallels between this controversial expedition and the practices of colonial and neocolonial research. The fear is that if well-documented fossils can be put at risk in such a manner, it sets a dangerous precedent for the safeguarding of cultural heritage in the future.
This ongoing controversy serves as a reminder of the delicate balance between scientific exploration and the preservation of our collective past. As Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity returns from its boundary-pushing journey, the soul-searching surrounding the ethics and protection of ancient remains will undoubtedly continue.