Nations, space companies, and even private citizens have big plans to colonize the Moon. But this reinvigorated focus on our nearest celestial neighbor have some worried that this mad dash could destroy historical lunar landmarks.
Yesterday, The White House issued a report calling for ways to protect Apollo-era landing sites, calling them “rich in scientific and historical significance.” Congress mandated the report in the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017. Damage from exhaust blasts of nearby spacecraft, biological contamination, and the obliteration of tracks in the regolith are all concerns.
“Three Apollo sites remain scientifically active and all the landing sites provide the opportunity to learn about the changes associated with long-term exposure of human-created systems in the harsh lunar environment,” the report says. “Currently, very little data exists that describe what effect temperature extremes, lunar dust, micrometeoroids, solar radiation, etc. have on such man-made material.”
Between 1969 and 1972, astronauts left behind a lot of stuff, some of it experiments but mostly just things to help save weight for takeoff from the lunar surface. There are no legal definitions of “preservation” and the report relied on NASA’s Lunar Historic Site team to look at what’s there that might be worth saving. The list includes rovers, the descent and landing stages, laser ranging retroreflectors, footprints, and “trinkets” like astronaut boots, a gold olive branch, and a silicon disk “containing statements from leaders of 74 countries.”
The document also says that existing legal provisions like the 1967 Outer Space Treaty should make other nations abide by these preservation standards. “Any activities in space that could interfere with U.S. space objects—including equipment on the Moon—should include advance consultation with the United States,” the report says. “The United States continues to own and have jurisdiction over U.S. origin lunar equipment, and other states could be liable to damage to U.S. objects.”
That’s enough to bring federal wrath on any American company that disturbs an Apollo site. But the report also recommends opening dialog with other nations, while at the same time highlighting the difficulty of safeguarding the sites.
The report says that amending existing multilateral agreements or making a new one would provide explicit protections. But this may outweigh any benefits. “Some states might see a U.S.-led attempt to protect space artifacts as a subterfuge for securing indefinite rights over lunar territory,” the report says, “and perhaps even creating a mechanism to ‘plant the flag’ and claim additional territory in the future under the guise of preservation and protection of lunar sites and artifacts.”