When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin visited the moon 50 years ago, they left roughly 100 objects behind, including a portion of their lunar lander, the American flag and, yes, various kinds of trash.
Those objects are still there, surrounded by rugged bootprints marking humanity’s first steps on another world. But that site, called Tranquility Base, may not be as enduring as the legacy those prints represent.
“Is there anything stopping you from just driving over Neil Armstrong’s footprints?” said Steve Mirmina, a specialist in space law at Georgetown University. “No. There’s nothing. There’s no rule; there’s no U.S. domestic law, or no international treaty obligation to preserve them.”
In other words, anyone capable of visiting Tranquility Base could alter what many believe to be an indispensable part of humanity’s heritage, a place that is analogous to archaeological sites on Earth.
“Where the objects are, how they’re sitting there — that tells the actual real story and history of humans on the moon,” said Michelle Hanlon, a space lawyer and co-founder of the nonprofit For All Moonkind, which is developing an international framework for lunar site preservation.
You would not even have to go there to obliterate Armstrong’s footprints.
“Send a robot,” Mirmina said. “Just use some joysticks on the ground and drive over them.”
Losing lunar historical sites is not an abstract concern. With a few crucial exceptions, what happens off-world stays off-world, and activities on the lunar surface are largely unregulated. Various private space actors have demonstrated a proclivity for celestial shenanigans: Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, launched his car into space. Rocket Lab, the builder of small rockets, shot a disco ball-like object into orbit from New Zealand. And Vodafone has hinted at building a cell tower on the moon.
More seriously, a modern-day space race between governments and private companies is fast-tracking plans to return humans and robotic landers to the lunar surface. One of those companies, PTScientists of Berlin, announced a plan to land near — and examine — the site of Apollo 17, where humans last traipsed across the lunar surface. Some are saying, it is time to get serious about preserving humanity’s heritage on the moon.
Preserving things that belong to no one
On Earth, multiple layers of legislation, both international and domestic, protect many sites of humanity’s heritage, an array including the megaliths at Stonehenge, Yosemite National Park and the recently listed Smith-Carter House in Madison, Tennessee.
In space, it is different. As decreed by the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty in 1967 — signed by a multitude of nations while the United States and Soviet Union battled for primacy in orbit — space “shall be free for exploration and use by all,” with open access to all areas of celestial bodies.
Put simply, space is the province of humankind. No nation can “own” it or claim it, by means of use or occupation or otherwise.
That complicates setting up protected areas or restricting activities in or under the six Apollo landing sites. Or the spot where the Soviet Luna 2 spacecraft landed in 1959 and became the first human-made piece of hardware to touch another world. Or the site where, in January, China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft achieved the first landing on the far side of the moon.
“Arguably, by saying, ‘Oh, this bootprint is an artifact, don’t step on it’ — the U.S. would be making a territorial claim to the area where that bootprint is,” Hanlon said. “And as you can imagine, that would not be a very diplomatic thing to do.”
To be clear, she said, individual objects on the moon remain the property of the nations that put them there; that is laid out in Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty.
How NASA tried to protect the Apollo sites
In July 2011, NASA issued a nonbinding set of recommendations aimed at preserving the six Apollo “heritage” sites and their associated artifacts. At the time, private teams were racing to be first on the lunar surface to claim the Google Lunar X Prize, and one of the contest’s bonus prizes would go to a spacecraft that visited an Apollo site.
Experts fear visitors to the moon could be similarly motivated and with perhaps less oversight.
“If you’re a couple of college students, and you have a rover and iPhone, of course, you’re going to want to drive around and go to the Apollo landing sites,” Mirmina said.
Thus, NASA laid out guidelines for preserving those locations, including restrictions on overflights, boundaries for touchdown and a prohibition on close visits to the Apollo 11 and 17 sites because they “carry special historical and cultural significance.”
Then, the space agency reached an agreement with companies vying for the moon: They would need to abide by NASA’s guidelines if they wanted NASA support.
“It’s carefully written and NASA actually found some fairly clever ways of trying to enforce that,” said Henry Hertzfeld, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
Last year, the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House issued its own document outlining the necessity of securing those sites. But Hertzfeld says it is a long road to building a functional and enforceable international legal framework for preservation.
Yet in May, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., introduced a bill, the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act, which directs any federal agency that issues licenses for lunar activities to require that companies comply with the 2011 NASA guidelines. The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is headed for a vote in the full Senate.
“These are the first archaeological sites outside of planet Earth, and as we move toward being a spacefaring society and civilization, it is only right that we protect those giant leaps,” Peters said. He added that “once they’re degraded, they’re lost forever to humanity.”