New Moon Race Endangers Historic Space Artifacts

As a private lunar industry nears liftoff, preservationists seek to guard the artifacts from the first space race.

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In 2011 NASA made a nonbinding request that no craft land within a 1.2-mile buffer around the six Apollo sites. The agency still owns the rovers and other artifacts, but space law gives it no standing to protect iconic footprints such as those made by the last moonwalker, Gene Cernan (above), who said in 1972, “God willing…we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”
This story appears in the August 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

At the abandoned campsite, occupied for less than a day, the visitors left much behind: a section of the ship that carried them on this first-of-its-kind voyage and sophisticated tools for measuring seismic rumblings, solar wind, and the precise distance between this spot and home. There are simpler things as well—scoops and scales, canisters and brackets, two pairs of boots. The expendable trash of a successful mission, too heavy to carry home, lies exactly where it was tossed.

On the Earth-facing side of the moon 48 years later, undisturbed by wind or water, development or war, Tranquility Base is still tranquil.

“It’s like an archaeologist’s dream,” says Beth O’Leary, of New Mexico State University, one of several preservationists who consider this pristine time capsule as deserving of protection as any archaeological site on Earth.

The Google Lunar XPrize has offered a four-million-dollar bonus for close-up footage of an Apollo landing site. O’Leary and her colleagues worry that it may entice private companies to land, roll, or hop their robots dangerously close to objects of immeasurable value to posterity.

Lisa Westwood, of California State University, Chico, has troubling visions of entrepreneurs learning to navigate lunar drones from almost a quarter million miles away. “If we have a chance to preserve those sites before the damage occurs, we have the obligation to do so.”

Westwood, O’Leary, and others, including Milford Wayne Donaldson, now chairman of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, have had some success. California and New Mexico have granted historic recognition to the 106 artifacts at the first landing site.

The state actions were envisioned as a stepping-stone to the UNESCO World Heritage List, with national recognition as the next logical move. The listings explicitly cover the artifacts, not the territory—or the footprints, which are just moondust clumped around boot-shaped holes. But follow-up attempts to secure National Historic Landmark status have been rebuffed by federal officials, wary that the designation might be interpreted as a claim on the moon itself. The UN’s Outer Space Treaty, which has governed exploration and use of the moon since 1967, forbids any country from claiming sovereignty over it.

Space law does recognize NASA as owner of the Apollo mission materials, and in 2011 NASA cited this legal rationale in its Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities—advice on how to visit the moon without damaging what the Apollo missions left behind.

Both the XPrize organizers and the teams have expressed support for the safeguards, but mission plans haven’t been finalized, and preservationists also worry about companies that will follow should a moon industry take root.

O’Leary, who was invited by NASA to help develop the recommendations, wants stronger protections, and she pushed for a longer view. “They’re really not in the history business,” she says of NASA, but she’s particularly pleased with one aspect of the guidelines. “Instead of calling it equipment or junk,” she notes, “they called them artifacts.” In fact, NASA terms them “irreplaceable historic, scientific and educational artifacts.”

They may not, however, be priceless. Anything associated with the first space race can command a tidy sum at auction, with a premium for objects that have flown in space and a giant boost for anything—even a tiny metal pin—that has come back from the moon.

Protection, if it comes at all, will likely require sponsorship from multiple nations, including the growing number of countries whose probes have left their own physical traces on the moon.

Russia has claim to the Soviet Union’s Luna 2, launched in 1959, which was the first object sent to the moon. It carried two metallic balls meant to explode on impact and scatter tiny hammer-and-sickle-bedecked pennants across the surface.

The Soviets later deployed two remote-controlled Lunokhod rovers. In 1993 they sold Lunokhod 2 for $68,500 at a Sotheby’s auction to video game developer Richard Garriott, who considered it a bargain. Garriott is now the only private owner of an object sitting on the moon.

Pointing out that the Outer Space Treaty precludes territorial claims by nations only, not individuals, Garriott argues that he may have a private claim on at least the ground underneath the rover, if not the entire 24-mile track that it traversed. He has invited any XPrize team to visit Lunokhod 2 and secure the smaller one-million-dollar prize for visiting a non-Apollo heritage site. He reasons that if he pays the team for photos and the team pays him for the privilege of crossing the land near his rover, this economic exchange could bolster his chances to prevail with a legal claim on the real estate.

As for the prospect of an XPrize rover putting a little dent in his rover or in a piece of Apollo hardware, Garriott says, without malice, “Who cares? That’s part of the new story.”