Preserving remnants of human culture on the moon

Artifacts left by lunar missions have value to science and, potentially, to all of humanity

Apollo 11 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin is seen setting up scientific instruments on the moon. They include a seismometer to measure moonquakes and a mirror array to measure the distance between the Earth and moon. The lunar lander and an American flag can be seen in the background. Those items also were left on the moon.

NASA

A half-century ago, NASA’s historic Apollo program landed spacecraft — and humans — on the moon. This mission did not just touch the moon, it changed the moon in subtle ways. Among such changes, it left behind waste, debris and scientific instruments. People might not have thought much about it at the time, but these cast-offs are signs of human civilization and American culture.

Scientists today also hope those remnants can teach us more about how humans might fare on the moon. Archaeologist Beth O’Leary of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces is among those who also want to preserve those items that Apollo left behind.

“Space is not a vacuum. We carry our culture into it,” explains O’Leary. The remnants of Apollo sites represent a singular time in human history. Astronaut memorials and messages of peace are obvious pieces of heritage. But “even the scientific stuff has cultural importance,” she notes. It took some 400,000 Americans working at more than 20,000 companies and universities to get astronauts to the moon. That scale of teamwork was “a cultural act,” O’Leary says. It also represents a major scientific and engineering feat.

But legally protecting Apollo items at lunar sites isn’t easy. The United States can’t establish an Apollo National Park on the moon. As fun as that sounds, it would violate a 1967 law. Called the Outer Space Treaty, it states that no nation can claim control over the moon’s surface.

For now, NASA has created guidelines on how to avoid ruining Apollo artifacts. These should come in handy for the many countries and companies that want to go to the moon.

One guideline sets the minimum distance a future spacecraft should land from Apollo sites. It should keep rocket exhaust from erasing Neil Armstrong’s first boot print, for instance. Such rules are not legally binding, says planetary scientist Philip Metzger. He works at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. But “no company,” he says, wants “to be known as the company that ruined one of the Apollo sites.”

Michelle Hanlon works at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. There, she specializes in space law. She has her sights on another way to protect Apollo sites. Her nonprofit group, For All Moonkind, wants the United Nations to protect relics on the moon. But she suspects it may take decades to reach a deal.

By then, tourists and others may be walking the moon. This is fueling concerns about a risk of looting. In 2015, a lunar sample bag used by Neil Armstrong was mistakenly sold at a government auction. The buyer paid $995. Later that buyer resold it for $1.8 million! Other space-age stuff has sold for similarly astronomical prices.

Hanlon questions NASA’s ability to keep track of all Apollo artifacts. Especially once people begin making regular round trips to the moon. “You can imagine [looters] going up and just grabbing artifacts and bringing them back to sell,” she says.

It’s not just Apollo artifacts Hanlon wants protected. Earlier this year, China let the first rover loose on the farside of the moon. And Israel and India each crash-landed their first spacecraft on the lunar surface. Says Hanlon, these milestones in humanity’s quest to touch the stars also deserve to be protected.

Maria Temming is the staff reporter for physical sciences, covering everything from chemistry to computer science and cosmology. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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