Space Exploration: The Unification of Past, Present and Future

The enchanting realm of space exploration continues to unfold new wonders with every passing day, sparking a growing interest among individuals to embark on their own cosmic journeys. While exploring space with the aid of private companies that charge fortunes is a privilege usually reserved for billionaire adventurers, there are occasional exceptions that captivate our attention.

Just a few days ago on 8th September, Virgin Galactic’s third spaceflight set out on a brief mission that seized the spotlight due to some interesting details. Three private explorers, Ken Baxter, Timothy Nash, and Adrian Reynard, two pilots and one instructor, were onboard ‘VSS Unity’. However, the presence of two different and unique passengers added a twist to the journey: fossils of our ancient human ancestors. The fossil remains of two ancient species, two-million-years-old Australopithecus sediba and 250,000 years old Homo naledi,  held in carbon fiber, emblazoned with the South African flag,  were part of the Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft ‘crew’ for a one-hour ride, making them the oldest human species to visit space. Australopithecus sediba’s clavicle (collarbone) and Homo naledi’s thumb bone were chosen for the voyage. Both fossil remains were discovered in the Cradle of Humankind – home to human ancestral remains in South Africa.

The episode undoubtedly prompts questions regarding the underlying reason behind sending these fossil remains into the vast expanse of space in the first place. It profoundly underscores the immense power of symbols, speaking to us in ways words cannot. This voyage was not just a journey through space, but a soulful homage to our ancestors. Their invaluable contributions have sown the seeds of innovation and growth, propelling us to unimaginable heights. Now, as we stretch our hands towards the heavens, we remember them – and in this gesture, we symbolise our eternal gratitude and awe for the path they paved, allowing humanity to quite literally aim for the skies. As Timothy Nash said, ‘It was a moment to contemplate the enterprising spirit of our earliest ancestors, who had embarked on a journey toward exploration and innovation years ago.’

Moreover, the clavicle of the Australopithecus sediba was deliberately chosen given that it was discovered by nine-year-old Mathew Berger, son of Lee Berger, a National Geographic Society explorer, who played a major role in discovering both species and handed over the remains to Timothy Nash for the journey. This story serves as a touching testament to the boundless potential of youth, showing us that even the young can be torchbearers in the realm of science, lighting the path of discovery with their boundless curiosity. The unearthing of Homo naledi in 2013 wasn’t just about finding bones; it was a window into our past. This ancient ancestor, with its apelike shoulders and human-like feet, hands, and brain, wasn’t just a distant relative. They were artists and inventors, leaving behind symbols and tools in their cave homes as a silent testament to their legacy. This led to the discovery of more than 1,500 specimens from one of the biggest excavations in Africa’s history. It wasn’t just about digging up the past; it was about piecing together the jigsaw of our very essence, deepening our understanding of the roots and journey of our kind, especially in the heartland of South Africa. Each discovery, each bone, whispered tales of our shared journey, of beginnings, growth, and the undying spirit of exploration.

For those involved in the venture, the occasion was awe-inspiring as it connected our ancient roots to space exploration. However, not everyone is pleased. The event has sparked criticism from  archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists, many of whom have called it a mere publicity stunt and raised serious concerns over such an act given that it poses risks to the care of the precious fossils. It was further argued that the act was ethically wrong, and lacked  any concrete scientific justifications.

Setting aside this debate, the episode connects chronicles of our past with the boundless potential of humankind’s future. It celebrates the age-old quest for exploration shared across millennia. This journey, captivating in its essence, elevates space exploration to a sacred place where fossils, once cradled by the Earth’s soil, now dance among the stars. Just as with pivotal moments in space history, it is also a compelling cue to states that are currently lagging in this race to timely embrace the possibilities of this frontier. Countries, like Pakistan, should draw inspiration from such milestones to fervently chart their own celestial courses.

Upon their return to South Africa, the relics would be displayed in museums and other institutions, offering a chance to the public to view them and draw inspiration. As we witness the rise of commercial space travel, this unique journey provides glimpses of the multifaceted nature of space exploration – one that prompts us to reflect on our past, engage actively with the present and anticipate the future that awaits us. Something Pakistan’s national poet Allama Iqbal eloquently captured in one his verses, translated as: I see my tomorrow (future) in the mirror of my yesterday (past).

Shaza Arif
Shaza Arif
Shaza Arif is a Researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). She can be reached at cass.thinkers[at]gmail.com