Welcome To The Moon! Please Don’t Touch Anything

Dec 03, 2014 at 12:50 PM ET

With all the hype created by landing a probe on a whizzing comet and Japan heading off into space to sample a second asteroid, it’s easy to forget how important landing on the moon was to mankind. Sure, it’s a huge, relatively slow-moving lump of gray rock, but at one point it represented the outer limit of man’s extraterrestrial ambitions. Now there are more spacefaring nations interested in missions to the moon than ever before—including some amateurs. Lunar Mission One has joined the 21st century space race with much fanfare and celebrity scientist endorsement. The crowdfunded mission wants to send a robotic lander to the south pole of the moon and drill down about 328 feet.

In this rush to return to the lunar surface, historians are worried about how to protect the originals—the landing sites, crash sites, rover tracks and footprints that marked Earth’s first fevered attempts to conquer the solar system.

NASA has already claimed ownership of the items left behind on the moon, right down to the Apollo 11 “defecation collection device.” There’s a full itemized list in the July 2011 document “NASA’s Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts,” which would make any museum curator’s mouth water.

Enter an actual museum curator: Roger Launius, associate director for collections and curatorial affairs at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian, whose day job focuses on objects on Earth in the museum’s possession. Dr. Launius was part of the group that met to produce the NASA document in 2011.

“We had preservationists—including myself, scientists and engineers. All of us came to the same conclusion—that all of those objects need to be preserved, but for different reasons,” he says. “The scientists wanted to physically go back to the site and do some more research at some point, the engineers were interested to find out what happens to something after it has been on the moon for nearly 50 years now, and the preservationists wanted to keep it for its historical value.”

The threat to the lunar landing sites may not be immediate, but it’s not perhaps as far away as some might think. In his blog, Launius contends “absent preservation policy and enforcement, relics will de damaged, destroyed, or otherwise compromised.” It’s part of a conversation he and other space historians have been having for quite a few years now. His examples of looting of antiquities in Baghdad during the 2003 war, and the vandalism of Robert Scott’s Antarctic “Discovery Hut” are just a scratch on the surface of what humans will do given half the chance. National treasures of all sorts have been lost and reappropriated for centuries, and not always with any recourse to legal redress.

“I’m not terribly worried at this point that somebody is going to sneak up there and bring something back to sell it on eBay—it’s pretty well-known if you are going there,” says Launius. “I think pilfering will happen on the moon at the point where you get people going there on a regular basis, but we’re a long way from that.

“I’m concerned right now that through some sort of inadvertent action, that some sort of robot that wants to land near the Apollo site, misses its target and lands on top of Tranquility Base. It is potentially an issue.”

Tranquility Base, the Apollo 11 landing site, is so important “it should have a bubble over it. Figuratively if not literally.” Preserving the relatively small site where the first human steps were taken on the moon should be easy compared with the later missions.

“The Apollo 17 site is a little harder. It’s significant as well, but they traveled more than 20 miles so it’s a much larger area if you try to preserve everything,” says Launius, who ranks himself among those who would love to see the Apollo 11 site with his own eyes.

“The sites are pretty much the same, they have the same types of things that are left there. The base of a lunar lander—they look a little trashy in fact because the astronauts threw stuff they didn’t need out the door before they left, and that’s fair enough. But I would love to see anywhere at Tranquility Base.”

Despite the Cold War background to the race to make the landings, there was cooperation on how human beings should behave once they were off the planet. The 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty foresaw a whole range of different issues—from potential contamination to obligations to rescue stranded astronauts, even those from another country. The treaty states clearly that the moon does not belong to anybody, but equally clearly states that if you launch something away from the Earth, it still belongs to you.

The moon problem does not just consist of discarded objects, but also—thanks to the absence of wind—footprints, rover tracks and small disturbances of dust, all of them historical markers. Although caused by human actions, these are unarguably still part of the moon, and legally nobody can own any part of the moon. The U.S. wanted to declare the landing sites as National Parks—a measure doomed to failure even if it had passed Congress.

Launius suspects the solution to the moon preservation problem will come from a United Nations initiative.

“I think the U.N. is the only entity that exists today that can take any action,” he says. “Where there is no nation-state to control certain things, the U.N. can work on that collectively. It’s conceivable that a new treaty could be negotiated, or that the current Outer Space Treaty be amended to oversee this, as well. I do think that the first instance in which there is any real or perceived sense that there might be some negative ramification, there will be people who get excited and try to take action.”

How soon might this urge to take action arrive? The number of private companies preparing at least something for a moon landing is considerable, prompted in part by the creation of the Google Lunar Xprize, which promises $20 million to a team who can land a robot on the moon, move about 1,640 feet in any direction and send back HD “mooncasts” by the end of 2015.

A bonus prize exists for those who can photograph an Apollo site. Google Lunar Xprize insists that any imaging would have to be done within the restrictions described in NASA’s 2011 document, but robots don’t always behave exactly as we expect. None are likely to bounce quite as dramatically as ESA’s Philae did on Comet 67P, but some robots are designed to hop rather than drive over the lunar surface.

“Preservation hasn’t been viewed as necessary for the longest time because of the lack of activity on the moon,” says Launius. “Google Lunar Xprize has energized some people to try to put something on the moon like a rover or hopper close to the landing sites.”

Some of these teams are overt in their intentions not just to visit the moon as sightseers, but to find ways of exploiting off-planet resources. Not only is the question of moon ownership sure to arise again, but also the question of when we decide lunar visit sites no longer merit protection as space heritage. There is some precedent for revisiting an old site—Apollo 12 went to see Surveyor 3 in 1969, but now, decades on, should the early sites be protected? Are robots on the moon common enough to sacrifice a few?

That’s a core question about every historic site—what should be preserved versus what do you let go. There’s a lot of stuff on there that’s human-made.

“I would take the landing sites where humans were and put them in a special category and say that they should be preserved as well as we can. Then there are robotic landing sites that are still important, and we’d like to try to preserve as much as possible, then there are crash sites—either things intentionally crashed or just crash-landed—they’re probably on somewhat a different level, but the historian in me wants to say everything is sacrosanct. That’s not usually possible, but that’s my going-in point, and then we can negotiate.”

Those in favor of sacrificing some parts of the old sites to allow for new explanation could certainly point to an analog on Earth. NASA has not kept every single trace of the Apollo program at its sites on the ground—far from it in the case of Kennedy Space Center where old buildings (often those becoming expensive to maintain) have been demolished and launchpads repurposed for its modern role as a “multi-user spaceport.”

The scientists who want to revisit the sites to find out more about the context of rock samples they’ve seen on Earth would necessarily have to access areas where the 20th century astronauts roamed. Should there really be areas of the moon that are roped off for posterity? Right now, Launius is concentrating his efforts on raising awareness. “The first step is to realize that you have an issue that needs to be worked,” he says.

And will there be a giant leap to follow? Launius certainly wouldn’t object to an off-planet posting: “I suspect that any museum professional would be pleased to fly the mission to the moon to put ropes and stanchions around these sites for visitor flow control.”