Commentary | Safeguarding Our Lunar Heritage

by and

On July 20, exactly 42 years from the historic moment when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step upon the lunar surface, NASA made history again by releasing a set of guidelines for protecting the sites visited by the two astronauts and those who would follow. “NASA’s Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts” is a critical step in recognizing and preserving the historical significance of the Apollo missions.

Until now, with the realization of commercial space travel on the horizon, fueled by the Google Lunar X Prize in particular, there has been little acknowledgment in the public arena of the historical importance of the artifacts, objects and structures in place on the lunar surface. An estimated 100 metric tons of material remains on the Moon (much of it American), representing the golden age of the space program. In many cases, these rovers, landers, tools, equipment and byproducts are one-of-a-kind objects, existing only in engineering drawings or prototypes on Earth. By any reasonable definition, the six Apollo sites on the Moon are cultural resources — historic sites — which represent an important milestone for humanity and American history. Management of this history, for the benefit of future generations, is our collective responsibility, and if history has taught us anything, it is that waiting until after a historic site has been damaged or destroyed is too late.

The return to the Moon by unmanned exploratory vehicles is imminent, and there is interest among the competitors of the Google Lunar X Prize specifically to return to the Apollo sites. In releasing its guidelines, NASA recognized “the steadily increasing technical capabilities of space-faring commercial entities and nations throughout the world and further [recognized] that many are on the verge of landing spacecraft on the surface of the moon.” It sought to disseminate a set of guidelines to allow for responsible visitation of the Moon, while maintaining the historical and scientific values represented by the Apollo sites.

We argue that responsible historic preservation of the Apollo sites, or of any historical resource, needs to take a two-pronged approach: It must allow for a mechanism to formally recognize the historical importance of the artifacts and features at the sites, and it must provide for measures to manage the resource by minimizing impacts caused by activities that would diminish the qualities of the sites that make them important in the first place. NASA’s guidelines are one important step. It is time for a preservation strategy.

On Jan. 29, 2010, the California State Historical Resources Commission unanimously voted to place Apollo 11 artifacts and structures at the first lunar landing site, called Tranquility Base, onto the California Register of Historical Resources. On April 9, 2010, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee voted unanimously to place the site on the New Mexico Register of Cultural Properties. A nomination of Tranquility Base as a National Historic Landmark is under consideration by members of Congress, and consultation with the International Council on Monuments and Sites — an advisory body to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage List designation — is under way. Designations on historical registries do not constitute a claim of jurisdiction or ownership of the Moon, as international law prohibits any nation or any individual from owning the lunar surface or subsurface. However, the objects that were transported from the Earth to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s by treaty remain under the ownership of the nation that put them there and should be properly managed.

The growing body of historians, archaeologists and historic preservationists who seek protection from impacts to Apollo sites caused by the pending return by humans to the Moon do not advocate for sequestering these sites from human visitation. Rather, we urge the development of international guidelines for responsible visitation, which balance the competing needs of public access to historical sites with the preservation of a very important part of our history. The NASA guidelines are more technical in nature, providing guidance on how to minimize the physical impacts of future landers on significant sites.

The Apollo 11 site, the first manned lunar landing, is given special status by NASA’s guidelines through the creation of a no-entry boundary that encompasses all the artifacts and the footprints made by two extraordinary human visitors. Apollo 17 is also regarded as unique as the last mission that had a geological mandate.

Although the news media tend to focus on discarded items, there are also marvelous technological objects at Tranquility Base. Even today some are still in use, like the lunar laser ranging retro-reflector. Still, recent reporting has trivialized some of the human artifacts as “trash,” but archaeologists do not shy away from this concept. “Trash” has allowed us to study the debris from the earliest stone tools in Africa, understand the first landing of Columbus in the Americas, and appreciate the wonderful technology that evidences the human ability to stand on another celestial body.

The values of scientific inquiry and historic preservation are similar; each field tries to control the variables that can affect the outcome of what we seek to know. Unregulated experiments and those without protocols can have impacts, which can cripple outcomes. As we try to protect valuable cultural resources on our own planet, we should be equally vested in places we first reached on one extraordinary July day in 1969.

Lisa Westwood is cultural resources manager at ECORP Consulting Inc. in Rocklin, Calif. Beth O’Leary is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at New Mexico State University. Westwood and O’Leary are co-founders of the Apollo 11 Preservation Task Force and have been working for over a decade to raise awareness about historic preservation of our space heritage.