Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s dusty footprint on the Moon bears witness to one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements.
And it is absolutely not protected by international law.
“Once you clear the footprint, it’s gone,” said a space archaeologist Beth O’Leary from New Mexico State University, part of a growing chorus of experts advocating for the formal protection of historic lunar sites and artifacts.
Just as UNESCO protects the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China and other precious world heritage sites on Earth, it must also protect many rockets, rovers, landing sites and historical memorabilia on the moon, say- they.
It’s been 49 years since humans – America’s Apollo 17 astronauts – last walked on the moon. But as more nations and commercial enterprises rush to visit Earth’s closest celestial neighbor, “We must say, ‘Don’t touch. You can’t go there. Period,” said Sacramento Wayne Donaldson from the California Preservation Foundation.
What’s at stake? More than just footprints first left in 1969. Six American flags still flutter on the moon, rigged with wire to look like they’re ‘waving’, along with steel commemorative plaques stainless steel, each the size of a dinner plate. A Chinese probe also placed a flag in 2020 made of a material that retains its bright red color in extreme temperatures. There are two sphere-shaped pennants containing the state emblem of the now defunct Soviet Union with the Cyrillic letters CCCP (“USSR”).
Other items include the Soviet Union’s Luna 2 rocket, which crashed into the lunar surface in 1959 and sparked the space race. There’s China’s historic Chang’e-4, the first probe to land on the far side of the moon. The tire treads of our Apollo 15 rover, praised for greatly expanding the range of exploration in 1971, can still traverse the lunar surface.
“It’s the culmination of three million years of human history,” said space lawyer Michelle Hanlon of For all Moonkind, which works to ensure the preservation of historic sites in space. “It would be so tragic to lose him.”
Small but important protections already exist. In December, the “One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act” became law, requiring any company working on lunar missions with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to agree to be bound by guidelines intended to protect lunar sites. American landing on the moon. . And an international agreement signed by 17 countries in 2020 would offer protection, but the major powers of China, Russia and India have not signed it.
Advocates are working with federal lawmakers on a new bill to create a US commission that will identify heritage sites on the Moon. If created, this commission will contact space agencies and governments around the world to draft a protection treaty. The dream is to create a multilateral agreement, enforced by the United Nations, to manage the protection and preservation of human heritage in space.
Time is running out, they say, as more and more nations aim for the moon. Driven by technological advances and a desire to prove themselves in an age of heightened nationalism, the United States, China, India, Russia, and smaller nations like Israel and Korea are all pursuing lunar ambitions.
There is also a commercial space race. At least five US companies — Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif.; Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic; Florida-based Moon Express; The Blue Origin of Jeff Bezos; and Elon Musk’s SpaceX – are planning visits. SpaceX’s moon landings could take place as early as 2024, the company says.
The One Small Step Act “was a victory,” Hanlon said. But that only applies to companies that get funding from NASA, she added. The next step is to expand the regulations to require compliance from anyone licensed in the United States for lunar travel.
And the United States cannot enforce regulations on non-American lunar sites. If we assert protection of a Russian site, for example, Russia could say that we claim its ownership.
The new “Artemis Accords”, drafted by NASA in 2020 and signed by 17 countries, are the first international agreement to include the concept of cultural heritage in space. It provides a framework, based on the 1967 Outer Space Treatyfor peaceful and transparent space exploration — and refers, generally speaking, to “respecting” the places we’ve been and the things we’ve left behind.
What is needed, proponents say, is a more specific and binding international convention signed by all spacefaring nations. While UNESCO’s sought-after seal isn’t perfect – it was powerless to protect ancient sites across Syria and Iraq from religious fanatics wielding the hammer of the Islamic State – it’s the best we let’s have.
It would also establish ground rules for research, O’Leary said. Future archaeologists may want to study Apollo 11’s “launch pad,” where astronauts dumped tools, tubes, a television camera, and other artifacts. But they shouldn’t be allowed to bring shovels and start digging.
Is everything worth protecting? Criteria must be created to assess the value of any site, advocates say.
“We need experts to say, ‘This site, we should leave it intact; at this site, we can just take pictures and then move the artifacts,” Hanlon said.
The moon is littered with about 400,000 pounds of stuff. There are two golf balls hit by Alan Shepard from Apollo 14 in 1971. Astronaut David Scott left a Bible on the dashboard of an abandoned buggy during a second lunar landing later that same year. There are bags of human waste.
But some articles are deeply sentimental. In 1972, Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke left behind a framed family photo; sun exposure has probably bleached it now. During the second lunar landing in November 1969, Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean left an olive branch to commemorate astronaut Clifton C. Williams, who was killed in a plane crash. The Lunar Prospector space probe – which crashed on the moon in 1999 – contains the cremated ashes of geologist Gene Shoemaker.
“Think about what we are protecting here on Earth,” Hanlon said. “We protect what is important to our collective history.”
Dusty footprints, abandoned rovers, spent rockets and other fading objects “show exactly what humans can do when we put our minds to it, when we work together,” she said.
“That’s what it represents,” she said. “And that’s what we have to hang on to.”