Virgin Galactic has sparked controversy after transporting the fossils of two ancient humans into space. The fossils of the two extinct hominin species were under the custodianship of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Researchers at the university hailed this event as a "historic first" and a gesture paying homage to the contributions of human ancestors to space exploration.
Virgin Galactic Brings Human Fossils to Space
Last September 8, the third Virgin Galactic commercial space flight carrying the fossils of the two million years old South African fossil hominin species "Australopithecus sediba," and the 250,000 years old hominin species "Homo naledi" departed from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
These were transported by astronaut Timothy Nash, a South African and British citizen closely linked to human origins research in Africa. The fossils were securely held in a carbon fiber container aboard Virgin Galactic's spaceship, VSS Unity.
Professor Lee Berger, Director of the Centre for the Exploration of the Deep Human Journey at the University of the Witwatersrand, highlighted the symbolic significance of this voyage.
He underscored the pivotal role of ancient relatives in human evolution. Without them, he said feats like spaceflight might not have been conceivable.
"The journey of these fossils into space represents humankind's appreciation of the contribution of all of humanity's ancestors and our ancient relatives. Without their invention of technologies such as fire and tools, and their contribution to the evolution of the contemporary human mind, such extraordinary endeavors as spaceflight would not have happened," Berger said in a press statement.
The fossils chosen for this mission were not only symbolically important but also among the most extensively documented hominin remains globally.
The University of the Witwatersrand, through its scientific and open-access endeavors, has made casts, scans, and images of these fossils widely available.
Two Blue Stars of Virgin Galactic
Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic's president of spaceline missions and safety, expressed his sentiments regarding this special flight. He highlighted the diverse nationalities and affiliations of the astronauts onboard, represented in a commemorative astronaut patch.
This patch also featured two blue stars, signifying the two fossils. Moses deemed it an honor to carry these remarkable specimens, emphasizing the importance of human exploration.
Matthew Berger, who discovered the clavicle of the "sediba" specimen at the site of Malapa in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2008, said: "These fossils represent individuals who lived and died hundreds of thousands of years ago, yet were individuals who likely gazed up at the stars in wonder, much as we do."
In a brief ceremony just before the flight, Berger handed the fossils to Timothy Nash, the South African-born billionaire entrusted with carrying the fossils.
"I imagine they never could have dreamed while alive of taking such an incredible journey as ambassadors of all of humankind's ancestors," Berger noted.
The second fossil, which is a thumb bone of "Homo naledi," was discovered at Rising Star Cave, also in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site in 2013 by a group of researchers.
Nash said it was an honor to represent "South Africa and all of humankind," as he carried "these precious representations of our collective ancestors, on this first journey of our ancient relatives into space."
However, some scientists are fuming over the Virgin Galactic mission, saying it lacks scientific purpose and respect for human ancestral remains. They also said a malfunction on the mission could have also destroyed the priceless specimens.
Upon their return to South Africa, there are plans to display the fossils, alongside memorabilia from the flight, in museums and institutions across Africa and globally. This event, though controversial, still stands as a unique fusion of science, space exploration, and homage to our ancient predecessors.