With Wednesday’s Starliner launch, the U.S. space travel industry fully established itself in a new frontier, one in which commercial companies play a major role in both manned and unmanned missions to outer space.

NASA celebrated the milestone flight, which was the culmination of years of collaboration between public and private space experts. It has sought out deeper connections with companies like SpaceX and Boeing in hopes of expanding research opportunities and accruing more resources to put toward a planned return to the moon.

But the space industry’s new era comes with new challenges, including new conflicts involving people of faith.

For example, when NASA recently partnered with Astrobotic on an unmanned mission to the moon, it became caught up in a fight between Navajo Nation and Astrobotic over the company’s plans to bring human remains along for the ride. Native leaders argued that leaving the ashes of dozens of people on the moon would desecrate a sacred space.

The Peregrine 1 mission ultimately moved forward over the Navajo Nation’s objections, but it didn’t make it to the moon due to a propellant leak. The question of what commercial space companies will be allowed to do in the future remains unanswered.

One thing that’s clear is that there are many public, private and faith-based interests at stake, said Joanne Pierce, a professor emerita of religious studies for the College of the Holy Cross.

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Religious freedom conflicts in space

Past space missions weren’t free from religious freedom conflict, but addressing it was more straightforward, Pierce said. Religious groups or individuals could raise their concerns with NASA, which ran the show. If that approach failed, they could file a federal lawsuit.

Atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair took that latter approach in the late 1960s in response to the Apollo 8 mission, the first manned trip to enter the moon’s orbit.

On Christmas Eve, Commander Frank Borman had read from Genesis during a broadcast back to hundreds of thousands of viewers on Earth.

“And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good,” he said, in part.

In her lawsuit, Murray O’Hair argued that the Bible reading violated religious freedom law, since the government can’t use public funds to promote faith. In media appearances, she encouraged people to write to NASA and criticize it for violating the separation of church and state.

Although the lawsuit was eventually dismissed, it made NASA more careful about public displays of faith.

When Buzz Aldrin brought bread and wine with him to the moon in 1969 to celebrate communion, he was asked to keep the religious ritual low-key, Pierce said.

Lingering religion questions

Today, raising a faith-related concern about space exploration requires more than contacting — or suing — NASA.

While the agency is still involved in some way in most major missions out of the U.S., it often won’t be able to overrule commercial interests, especially not when the ethics of the situation are unclear.

While space travelers must obey broad prohibitions on placing weapons of mass destruction into orbit or contaminating the moon, there are no detailed rules about what you can or can’t send into space or what commercial companies can offer to the highest bidder, according to Scientific American.

Before a mission like Peregrine 1, federal officials will confirm that a private company’s plans won’t jeopardize national security interests, but they likely won’t weigh whether the mission creates religious freedom conflict.

Perhaps the most that faith groups can expect is for NASA to facilitate a dialogue about the issue, as it promised to do when Navajo Nation’s Buu Nygren spoke out against Astrobotic’s plan to work with space burial companies like Celestis.

Celestis CEO Charles Chafer defended his company at the time, arguing that no faith group should control the moon, just like no country should control it.

“What they’re asking for is basically ownership of the moon for purposes of their sacraments, and that’s a giant black hole to walk into,” he said, per Scientific American.

Familiar conflict

Chafer’s comments likely sound familiar to those who follow religious freedom conflicts involving earthly affairs.

In faith-related legal battles, there’s often a question of what we owe to religious objectors, as well as a question of whether religious groups or individuals are asking for too much.

In some ways, space exploration is enflaming old debates about faith, rather than starting new ones, Pierce said.


Religious groups have fought over burial practices for centuries. It’s also not new for commercial interests to interfere with what’s seen as sacred land.

Space-related debates “reflect issues and conflicts that are still occurring here on Earth,” Pierce said.

One main difference is that faith groups generally have a more tenuous position in outer space affairs. Mission norms are worked out between international leaders, not individual religious groups in the U.S.

Faith leaders can certainly speak up, but they won’t necessarily be listened to, Pierce said.

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