Groups Seeks Protection for Lunar Remains

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.

But the moon isn’t part of the United States, they were told, and although some sites in other countries, like battlefields, have been listed as U.S. Historic Landmarks, the moon posed special problems. That led ultimately to a letter from the National Park Service saying the agency lacks jurisdiction over the moon.

Another letter to the students from a NASA lawyer cites concerns that the international community might misunderstand, thinking the United States was trying to stake a claim on part of the moon.

The students don’t want to claim the moon, which clearly would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty. The treaty went into effect on Oct. 10, 1967, nearly two year’s before Armstrong climbed out of the lunar lander.

Joanne Gabrynowitz, professor of space law at the University of North Dakota and an expert on the treaty, notes that Armstrong himself did not claim the moon on the part of the U.S. “because the moon is international territory.”

Although the two astronauts did plant a U.S. flag on the moon, they also delivered a plaque that says “we came in peace for all mankind,’’ Gabrynowitz says, “which is the recognition that this is for all humanity.”

But, she adds, there’s nothing in the treaty that says the U.S. can’t declare it a historic site. “It’s one of the most historic sites of the 20th century,” she says, but she defers to others as to who should make that declaration.

The students want the U.S. government to take whatever steps are necessary to protect those cultural artifacts, including the footprints. They hope eventually to get the United Nations to list the landing areas and artifacts as World Heritage Sites, thus protecting them for all nations.

But they can’t do that unless they first get the National Register of Historic Places to designate the sites as national landmarks. So they are preparing formal nomination papers to get the lunar landing sites and the debris left behind, as declared landmarks. If they are turned down, at least they can appeal to the Secretary of Interior.

Prized Prints

In the meantime, the researchers continue to nail down the list of everything that’s now on the moon.

“There’s some good trash up there,” says O’Leary, speaking like a true archaeologist.

As for that first footprint on the moon, it’s probably long gone, according to Gibson and Versluis, who have studied many photographs of the area around the lunar lander. The astronauts undoubtedly trampled over it many times, but there are other footprints around the area, clearly visible in the photographs.

They tell the story of an incredible epoch in human history. May they be preserved in peace for all mankind.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.