The Sea of Tranquility remains tranquil today, but it may not always be so. The site, where Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon 45 years ago this Sunday, has apparently been undisturbed since then. But a growing number of countries, including China and India, are planning moon missions, and new commercial space players may make lunar landings well. Some historians and archaeologists want the areas protected from visitors, both human and robotic, but there is no legal framework for safeguarding anything on the moon.
Between July 20, 1969, when Armstrong and his crewmate Buzz Aldrin landed, and December 1972 six Apollo missions visited various locations on the near side of the moon. Recent satellite imaging has revealed the sites are still very much as the astronauts left them. Even most of the flags still stand, according to 2012 photos from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the astronauts’ footprints as well as tracks from their lunar roving vehicle wheels are pristine. But a future lander touching down nearby, or a rover driving to the site, could easily disturb the fragile lunar dust and the aging equipment left there. “There’s over 110 metric tons of cultural material on the moon—not just a few random artifacts and golf balls,” says Beth O’Leary, professor of archaeology and anthropology at New Mexico State University. “That material culture really tells a story about a certain period of time where we explored off the planet. It’s as important as any site on Earth, and we have to figure out how to preserve it.”
View an interactive time line of the Apollo program.
O’Leary is among those who have led the effort to formally protect the Apollo landing sites. These concerned scholars and space history buffs have petitioned to get the spots added to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historical Places and the UNESCO World Heritage List, so far to no avail. A House of Representatives resolution called the Lunar Landing Legacy Act would create a national historic park on the moon, but it is currently languishing in committee. “It’s been a long journey,” O’Leary says. “I started this in the year 2000 when a student asked me, ‘Does federal preservation law apply on the moon?’ I checked the laws, and it’s really a gray legal area.”
The problem is that any move to protect the sites could be seen as an illegal bid to claim ownership of the moon. According to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty signed by the U.S. and 90 other countries, no nation can assert sovereignty over territory on any celestial body. Objects launched into space, however, remain property of the country that put them there. That means that NASA still owns the flags, the lunar modules and rovers and experiments still on the moon. “But the footprints are on the surface, and no country owns that,” O’Leary says.
Three states—California, New Mexico and Hawaii—have added the artifacts on the moon to their state registers of cultural properties. That action designates the Apollo objects as part of those states’ cultural heritage, conferring some protection to them. “The real trick,” O’Leary says, “is to get nations and states outside of the United States to buy into it.” Many advocates say it’s time to update the Outer Space Treaty or set up a new international agreement on historic preservation in space. They suggest a similar framework as the treaty currently governing the Antarctic, which protects the sites of early explorers and allows visitation only by permit for scientific purposes.
The growing commercial space industry is adding some urgency to preservation concerns. The Google Lunar X PRIZE competition plans to award $20 million to the first team to launch a robotic spacecraft that can land and rove over the surface of the moon. Eighteen teams are competing, and they are eligible for a bonus if they visit and photograph historic sites, such as Apollo landing spots or the leftover unmanned rovers, landers and impactors sent by the U.S., Soviet Union and other nations. In 2010 X PRIZE officials approached NASA for guidance, asking whether the agency recommended keeping to a particular safe radius around the historic sites or taking any other precautions to preserve them. “Lo and behold, at headquarters people looked at that and said, ‘We don’t have anything to respond to these people,’” recalls Rob Kelso, who was running Lunar Commercial Services at NASA Johnston Space Center in Houston at the time.
So Kelso led an agency task force that drafted guidelines for all future visitors to lunar historic sites. The team studied how much dust would be kicked up by a spacecraft’s descent engines and found it would be plentiful. “We said they had to land outside of a circle where their ejection plume and dust would not see the site,” Kelso says. The team also decided to treat the sites of Apollo 11 and Apollo 17the first and last manned lunar landing missions—differently, recommending that no one visit those areas at all.
The guidelines are not only restrictions, they also include requests. “There were all these curious facts coming out from a science and engineering standpoint that we found fascinating,” Kelso says, “and we identified interesting data that would benefit us as an agency if someone did go.” For example, NASA would appreciate if future visitors would check some of the old missions’ nuclear reactor power plants used for surface experiments to see if they are still producing electricity. The lunar rovers could also use a look-over to study how well their metal welds have held up over the years. “These are ongoing experiments in long-duration lunar exposure to temperature variations, dust, micrometeorite impacts,” he says. Ultimately, the exercise proved useful and NASA officials say there are both dangers and potential benefits to revisiting Apollo sites. “We’re coming into an era now where we’re about to reengage the surface of the moon,” Kelso says, “so it’s opportune to think about these questions.”