image via the New York Times
“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
As I’m sure most of you have heard, Neil A. Armstrong, passed away over the weekend. Armstrong was a man of many accomplishments – American astronaut, US Naval Aviator, test pilot, aerospace engineer, and university professor- but he is, of course, best known as the first man to walk on the moon. In his honor, I thought it would be fitting to talk a little bit about the challenges surrounding the preservation of the Apollo moon landing site.
Until I read this New York Times article, I had never really thought about the preservation of a place outside of Earth’s atmosphere. It had just never occurred to me that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s footprints or the American flag planted on the moon’s surface could be in any danger. To me, those footprints – that flag, were as indelible as the words Armstrong spoke as he took his first steps onto the moon. However, renewed interest in the moon from Russia, India and the Google Lunar X Prize pose a potential threat to the first lunar landing site. A future lunar landing could easily damage or destroy the artifacts left behind by the first landing.
Dr. Beth O’Leary, professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University, began spearheading an effort to preserve the Apollo moon landing site after the topic was raised by a student in one of her classes. For the better part of a decade, O’Leary has been working with state preservation agencies and NASA to safeguard the site and its artifacts.
Although the US owns the objects left behind on the moon according to international law, it has no sovereignty over any part of the moon thanks to the Outer Space Treaty (signed by it and 100 other nations). Federal agencies worried that preservation efforts could be seen as an attempt at claiming lunar territory. Therefore, efforts have mostly centered around the objects left behind – the flag, moon boots, and other items are listed in California and New Mexico’s catalogs of historic artifacts.
Last year, NASA held a workshop to issue recommendations balancing historic preservation efforts with the desire for continued exploration of the lunar surface. The solution developed at the workshop asks that future visitors respect a boundary 75 meters from the site of the first landing (also called Tranquility Base) and a 225 meter from the site of the second landing (the Apollo 17 mission site). It also recommended guidelines for flight paths over the sites in an effort to minimize possible damage to footprints caused by exhaust blowing the lunar dust around. Of course, these recommendations as well as the recognition of artifacts by California and New Mexico, are not legally enforceable.
Although I hope that NASA’s recommendations are respected, it is a distinct possibility that they won’t be. While I’m not sure that anyone can argue that Tranquility Base is not an important historical site, I can easily see why someone (or an organization or a country) might wonder what the point to its preservation might be. After all, the site (and the other lunar landings sites) are inaccessible to all but a tiny fraction of people. The event and site were well-documented at the time (photographs, video, audio, technical reports, news media accounts). And it is possible that further exploration of the site with modern technology could yield important information about the moon and space – things that might have been missed in 1969.
Only time will tell if the site will be preserved. Future exploration efforts may or may not respect NASA’s guidelines. Preservation laws may or may not develop to include the preservation of territories in space. And technology may or may not develop so that some day it will be more accessible to more people. Who knows, future generations may be able to visit the moon to stand on catwalks or in an observatory to ooh and ahh over the first footprints left on the lunar surface and the rudimentary technology left behind. One thing I do know – Armstrong’s words will continue to encapsulate one of the most significant events in human history.
Make sure you check out the original article published in the New York Times earlier this year. Also check out Life Magazine‘s original coverage of the mission!