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This article is from the In-Depth Report The 40th Anniversary of Apollo 11

Can space-faring companies be entrusted with the Apollo program's history?

Moon artifacts, history, Apollo programAs private enterprises set their sights on space, once the sole domain of the superpowers, questions are arising about who will protect historical sites and artifacts on the moon.

In an editorial last week for the Los Angeles Times, a pair of scholars from Louisiana State University (LSU) raise the point that well-meaning but inexperienced private entities targeting the moon could accidentally wreak havoc on the historic Apollo program landing sites, for instance. (Though less than 40 years old, those sites qualify as ancient in the brief history of space travel.)

Jill Thomas, an LSU grad student, and Justin St. P. Walsh, an art history and archaeology professor at the university, take aim at the Google Lunar X Prize, which offers a $20-million purse for the first privately funded team to land a robotic rover on the moon and use it to complete certain objectives. The prize's guidelines include a "Heritage Bonus Prize" of an unspecified amount for the first team whose rover photographs or videotapes a man-made artifact on the moon.

That bonus, Thomas and Walsh say, could push the competitors' landing sites dangerously close to Tranquility Base, for instance—the site where Apollo 11 touched down 40 years ago and where humankind first set foot on the moon.

But William Pomerantz, senior director of space projects for the X Prize Foundation, says that the purpose of the bonus was to stimulate just such discussion about lunar heritage among academics, cultural institutions and regulatory bodies. "We wanted to give people a context in which they could think about this issue before it was quite so immediate," he says, "before we had a rover hightailing for one of these sites or a mission with human astronauts, be they from the U.S. or another country." He notes that for an American team taking part in the competition, numerous federal agencies would have to sign off on the team's plans before a launch could take place.

"We certainly recognize and acknowledge that these sites are of unique historic value, and that's why we want people to be thinking about them," Pomerantz says. "What we aren't clear on is exactly what constitutes a respectful visit, and what we don't want to do is have us be the be-all, end-all body that comes up with the rule that says, 'Thou shalt not do the following.'"

Although the X Prize regulations require that teams seeking the Heritage Bonus submit their plans in advance to the prize's judges "in order to eliminate unnecessary risks to the historically significant Sites of Interest," the op-ed's authors maintain that more concrete boundaries should be drawn around those sites.

Pomerantz contends that the need to preserve historical sites must be balanced with the value in accessing them. "If we take analogous sites here on Earth, we don't wall off a unique historic site and say no one should ever go there," he says. "We say, you can go there, to the Great Pyramids of Giza or whatever it is, but you can only do these certain things, you can only walk on this certain path, and you can't go to that one because we're preserving it for history."

Photo of a footprint from Apollo 11 that in the absence of wind and weather may remain on the lunar surface to this day: NASA

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