When Neil Armstrong took that “giant leap for mankind” on July 20, 1969, he planted his boot in the dusty soil of the lunar surface, creating human footprints where no one had ever gone before.
By the time Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin blasted off 21 hours later for their return trip to the Earth, they had littered the landscape with everything from food wrappers to the backpacks that kept them alive while they roamed one small corner of Tranquility Base. They even left their boots.
These guys weren’t just a couple of sloppy campers. Like others who followed them, they left a lot of stuff behind in an essential effort to lighten the load during liftoff. The artifacts scattered across the lunar surface by U.S. astronauts include a golf ball knocked over the horizon by Alan Shepard, a multi-million-dollar dune buggy, and a gold olive branch, the universal symbol of peace.
Protecting Astronaut’s Clutter
As he pondered all of that in Beth O’Leary’s anthropology class at the New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, Ralph Gibson popped a simple question.
Are all those priceless treasures of that historic era covered by the federal laws that protect other cultural resources? In layman’s terms, could some future tourist collect Shepard’s golf ball and hawk it on eBay?
“In the nine years I’ve been teaching this cultural resources management class, no one had ever asked that,” O’Leary says.
The problem was, she didn’t have an answer. That led to two years of digging and probing by Gibson and fellow graduate student John Versluis. They have met with officials at NASA and the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places, and collected a briefcase full of letters from lawyers from various agencies, and they aren’t happy with what they have learned. The only thing that protects those artifacts is their isolation. And someday, almost certainly, that will change.
And so they have embarked on an ambitious undertaking. The students and their professors want the stuff on the moon listed as National Historic Landmarks, a seemingly simple request that has sent shivers up the spines of folks who fear any such effort would be viewed as a moon grab by the United States.
Along the way, they have turned up a number of surprises, including the fact that no one even knew exactly what was left on the surface of the moon.
“We thought we would just get the right textbook and come up with an inventory of artifacts,” so they would know what to list on their nomination to have the stuff declared as a landmark, O’Leary says. “The first thing we found out is there is no complete inventory.”
Protecting vs. Owning
With a $23,000 grant from the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium to cover their travel, and help from NASA, the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, and Houston’s Lunar and Planetary Institute, the researchers compiled page after page of stuff that went up, but didn’t come down. Then they went calling on the National Register of Historic Places, the arm of the National Parks Service that decides which things in our culture are worth special efforts to preserve.
There seems to be no doubt the artifacts are clearly U.S. property. Even NASA says the stuff left behind by the Apollo astronauts was “not abandoned,” according to documents collected by the researchers.