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Moon cargo like human ashes, drink containers spark legal debate

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The lack of guidelines has some eyeing possibilities. 
| Photo Credit: REUTERS

An array of unconventional, privately-funded plans to exploit the moon, including as a site for human ashes and sports-drink containers, has gathered steam in recent years as NASA pushes to make Earth’s natural satellite more accessible.

Concerns about possible gaps in U.S. oversight and legal questions about proper use of the moon have rocketed to the forefront.

Landers built by private companies and emerging space powers are expected in the next few years to join the U.S. flag and other vestiges of past programmes to the moon.

Other initiatives could include using the moon as a site for capsules of human remains, advertising sports drinks, and maybe, even a two-storey-tall Christian cross made of the moon’s own dirt.

“We’re just at the beginning of exploring the moon, and … we need to be careful we’re not contaminating it — not just with biological and chemical contamination but with litter,” said Leslie Tennen, an attorney practicing international space law.

Human ashes

Among the payloads aboard a recent private moon mission by U.S. company Astrobotic — which ultimately failed to reach the moon’s surface — were dozens of capsules of human ashes and a can of Japanese sports drink Pocari Sweat. The exact purpose of the can was unclear.

Under U.S. law, those items and anything else can go to the moon, as long as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies certify a rocket payload’s launch off Earth does not “jeopardise public health and safety … U.S. national security … or international obligations of the United States.”

The issue will gain more attention as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration leans heavily on private companies to cut the costs of its trips to the moon. At present, there are no U.S. laws or standards outlining what is acceptable on the celestial body’s surface. NASA envisions long-term moon bases and hopes to spur a competitive commercial marketplace.

Absence of norms

Lawyers with space-law expertise worry that the absence of regulations could pit U.S. companies against other countries operating on the lunar surface or spark international disputes over which private endeavors could be considered land appropriation or claims of sovereignty.

The lack of guidelines has some eyeing the possibilities. Justin Park, a Washington, D.C.-based entrepreneur, wants to build a Christian cross on the moon as big as a two-storey building and made of hardened lunar dirt, an estimated $1 billion undertaking he has discussed with U.S. lawmakers and Catholic organidations.

“Nobody owns the moon,” Mr. Park said. “You don’t want to stomp on traditions, but you can’t hold the rest of the world back.” Overly restrictive regulations for moon activities, he said, would “destroy an industry before it gets off the ground.”

‘Religious test’

Texas-based Celestis, which launches cremated human remains into space and had arranged the ashes on Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, drew ire from the Navajo Nation, which regards the moon as sacred and considered the company’s memorial mission sacrilege.

Celestis CEO Charles Schafer said memorials of the dead in space are inevitable as more humans traverse the cosmos. “We don’t make space mission decisions on the basis of a religious test,” Mr. Schafer said. “I have a photo of 20,000 Buddhist monks celebrating our launch. So which religion rules?”

NASA officials overseeing the programme that helped fund Astrobotic’s mission said they have no control over what firms put on landers, and that payload standards could be created in the future.

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