GOLDEN, Colo. — The death of astronaut Neil Armstrong may strengthen the movement to designate as a National Historical Landmark the Tranquility Base lunar landing site where the Apollo 11 commander took mankind’s first steps on the Moon, preservationists say.

A recently authored bill aims to protect the Apollo 11 Tranquility Base site and all the artifacts that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind on the lunar surface.

A leading champion of the Moon landing site preservation campaign is Beth O’Leary, an associate professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University. “I had one sad thought that with his passing, people may consider the site on the Moon more ‘historic,’” she said.

O’Leary and California State University, Chico, archaeology professor Lisa Westwood worked with U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and his staff to write a bill that, if enacted, would designate the Apollo 11 landing site a national landmark.

O’Leary and Westwood seek to preserve the 190 tons of man-made cultural material on the Moon. Apollo 11 alone left behind about 106 artifacts, O’Leary said.

California and New Mexico already have listed Tranquility Base on their state historic registers. The next step would be the National Historic Landmark designation.

Once a property is designated a National Historic Landmark, it can be nominated for inclusion on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage List.

Westwood and O’Leary also have been working with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), the World Heritage List’s advisory body, for the last three years to make the case for adding the Apollo sites to this list.

“Sites on the list now include Chaco Canyon, the Pyramids at Giza, Stonehenge,” O’Leary said, “so there are many sites on the Earth that are recognized by this group of people. Putting the first lunar landing on the list means we recognize this is an achievement for humanity.”


Tangible memory

“The passing of an American hero, Neil Armstrong, saddened the world,” Westwood said. “It also brings to light the importance of preserving Apollo sites on the Moon, because the human experience on the lunar surface was realized by only 12 humans — a staggeringly slim percentage of humankind.” Westwood said that these astronauts are only with us for a brief period of time, and a generation from now they will have passed on, no longer able to speak to their experiences and the historical significance of their achievement.

“By preserving the sites they left behind on the Moon, we are, in a sense, preserving not only the historical event of the first lunar landing, but the tangible memory of the Apollo astronauts,” Westwood said.

“Our ideas on lunar preservation were presented by our Icomos ‘caseworker’ — for lack of a better word — in Helsinki a month ago,” O’Leary said. She and Westwood are working on getting the Tranquility Base Act in front of the U.S. Congress to secure National Historic Landmark status; co-sponsors for Lundgren’s bill are still needed.

Objects at Tranquility Base are in a legal gray area, O’Leary said. By treaty, countries own the property they have placed on the Moon, but no one can own the lunar surface.

In 2010, Robert Kelso, former director of NASA’s lunar commercial services, invited O’Leary to join a group of NASA scientists and engineers to help create guidelines to protect U.S. objects on the Moon from future visitors. The recommendations were developed in response to a request from the Google Lunar X Prize.

Although it is not legally binding, the paper, “NASA’s Recommendations to Space Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts,” took an important first step toward protecting these sites on the Moon, O’Leary said.

“Some of those guidelines include where these spacecraft can land and the distance at which they have to be,” O’Leary said. “They can image the objects, but we would hate for a rover that is mobile to go over the tracks that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made or to crash into some of the artifacts that are standing — some of them are scientific experiments.”


Robots to the Moon

In May of this year, NASA and the X Prize Foundation of Playa Vista, Calif., announced that the Google Lunar X Prize is recognizing guidelines established by the space agency to protect lunar historic sites and preserve ongoing and future science on the Moon.

The Google Lunar X Prize offers $30 million to the first privately funded team to send a robot to the Moon. Twenty-six teams will compete for the prize.

Meanwhile, O’Leary said she plans to keep pressing forward on space heritage preservation.

“I’m one of those believers that if it’s not in two years or five years or 20 years, we will go back to the Moon, I think first with robotics and second with humans,” O’Leary said. “If we don’t have a preservation framework in place, if we don’t have rules and ideas about what is important to preserve and how to preserve it, we really run the risk of destroying sites and artifacts.”

“In terms of the preservation of artifacts on the Moon, I hope Neil’s passing will raise the priority in everyone’s mind the need to preserve this critically significant history,” said Roger Launius, senior curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

“I think there have been great strides made in the last couple years in that regard, but it still is at the realm of informal ‘rules of the road,’ rather than specific protections carrying the force of law,” Launius said. “Perhaps that will change in the next few years. Regardless of the form these efforts to preserve the record of the Apollo Moon landings may take, the loss of the heroic figure prompts us to reflect on this historic occurrence and to redouble efforts to ensure that it is preserved for posterity.”

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...