By Anne-Sophie Martin –
January 15, 2024
The next chapter of space exploration involves the return of humans to the Moon and beyond. This implies understanding humanity’s place in outer space and the need for exploration to be inclusive and beneficial to all. It also raises the question of the place of indigenous peoples in space exploration, given the impacts that new space activities have on sky observations and on the Moon. Indeed, the Moon plays an important role in indigenous culture, identity and daily life. Each aspect of the Moon, whether in terms of its phase, position and appearance, has a particular and different meaning. In fact, indigenous peoples perceive nature with profound respect and have a strong sense of place and belonging.
Over the years, soft law instruments have highlighted the need to preserve the knowledge and traditions of indigenous peoples in their interaction with nature. Principle 22 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development recalls that “Indigenous people and their communities and other local communities have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.” In addition, the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (A/RES/61/295) affirms in its preamble that Indigenous Peoples contribute to humanity’s common heritage. The Declaration promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concerns them, including space activities.
Furthermore, in June 2023 during the 66th session of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), it has been proposed on behalf of CANEUS to add an Agenda item on “Space 4 Indigenous People” to both share indigenous knowledge and to make indigenous people participants rather than recipients of space exploration.
With this in mind, it is worth mentioning the recent objection made by Navajo Nation about NASA and Astrobotics’ project to send cremated human remains to the Moon. The Moon represents a sacred position in “many Indigenous cultures” as a spiritual heritage, “an object of reverence and respect” as mentioned in the letter addressed by the Navajo Nation President to NASA and the U.S. Department of Transportation. An act of this kind is perceived as “a desecration of this sacred space.” Based on the 2000 Executive Order 13175 on Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments, the 2021 Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships as well as the 2021 Memorandum of Understanding regarding interagency coordination and collaboration for the protection of Indigenous sacred sites, the Biden Administration should consult with the Navajo Nation. According to the US Department of the Interior – Indian Affairs, a “Tribal consultation” is a formal, bilateral, government-to-government dialogue between official representatives of Tribes and Federal agencies to discuss Federal proposals before the Federal agency makes decisions on those proposals. The Federal agency notifies the interested tribal leaders will in advance of the upcoming consultation sessions and, following the consultation sessions, explains to those Tribal leaders how the agency’s final decision takes Tribal input into account.
In our present case, Peregrine is a commercial launch by Astrobotic within the NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program (a public-private partnership) where companies like Astrobotic build lunar landers to deliver NASA payloads to the Lunar Surface. NASA purchases delivery services and has no control over non-NASA payload aboard the rocket. The Peregrine mission was launched, despite the objection, on 8 January 2024. Nevertheless, it suffered a propulsion system anomaly which is now highly unlikely to attempt a landing on the Moon.
Considering the above, more consultations need to be developed in the future between Indigenous community, governments and space agencies with the aim of respecting cultures and beliefs in the conduct of space operations. Initiatives at international, regional and national levels have been developed and there is a need to fully implement these legal instruments and process with the aim to advance indigenous perspectives in the drafting of space policies. Moreover, advocating an indigenous people’s approach based on their own experiences, can contribute to the preservation, sustainability and ethical used of resources and celestial bodies.
From an ethical perspective, it is necessary to examine what constitutes a human right to interact with the Moon and other celestial bodies, given the importance of our natural satellite for Indigenous’ cultures and knowledge systems. There is a kind of ethical duty to approach lunar exploration from both environmental and Indigenous perspectives in order to more effectively share the benefits and sustainability of space exploration.