It Was July 20, 1969, and Way Past Pete Capelotti’s Bedtime.
But as the nine-year-old sat in his family’s living room in Massachusetts watching the live broadcast of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step out of the Apollo 11 lander and onto the lunar surface, sleep was the last thing on his mind.
“I just remember being so terrified for [the astronauts] when they landed because I was afraid monsters were going to eat them,” he recalled.
Of course, Armstrong and Aldrin didn’t encounter any alien beasts during their two-and-a-half-hour moonwalk. And that boy grew up to become a historical archaeologist. He’s still highly protective of what’s on the Moon, but rather than concern for astronauts, it’s now for the stuff they left behind. That’s because historic moon sites like Tranquility Base — which is the Apollo 11 landing site — don’t have legal protection.
In other words, if someone scuffed out the footprints and rover tracks in the moon dust, they’d return to Earth to face a whole lot of angry people, but they won’t have broken any laws. This may not have been such an issue in recent decades, but there’s bound to be a lot more human activity heading to the Moon in the not-too-distant future. There’s the possibility of mining the Moon for rare-earth minerals. Many countries and private companies have their sights set on the Moon.
For example, NASA intends to return in the next five years; China, which already has a mission on the far side of the Moon, is considering setting up a space station sometime after 2030; and SpaceX wants to fly a private passenger to the Moon in 2023.
The SpaceX mission won’t drop anyone on the Moon’s surface. They’ll cut a lap before returning to Earth. But, Professor Capelotti said, it’s just a matter of time before tourists set foot on the lunar surface and when they do, they’ll want to visit the Apollo 11 lander.
“You’ll never get a second chance to preserve these sites,” he said.
It’s Not Just About History
Alongside heritage value, the bits and pieces left on the Moon have enormous scientific significance. Take moon dust. It’s a real problem for moon-bound equipment because it’s made of fine, super sticky and highly abrasive grains, which have a habit of clogging instruments and spacesuits.
But as Armstrong and Aldrin trotted across the surface, the footprints they left behind gave us valuable information into the properties of moon dust, Flinders University space archaeologist Alice Gorman said.
“The ridges on the boots were meant to measure how far they sank into the dust. Then they used the light contrast between the ridges to measure the reflectance properties of the dust.”
It’s data like this that will help if we want a long-term base on the Moon — we need to know how our gear will stand up to lunar conditions. Apart from the sticky, gritty dust, the lunar surface is also peppered with meteorites and cosmic rays. So, Dr. Gorman said, one of the very few reasons to revisit a moon site is to collect some of the equipment left behind and see how it fared.
“What has happened to this material in 50 years of sitting on the lunar surface? This is going to be really interesting scientific information because it will help planning for future missions and get an understanding of long-term conditions.”
And NASA has already done this. The Apollo 12 mission, which landed on the Moon four months after Apollo 11, collected parts from the 1967 Surveyor probe and brought them back to Earth.
Another reason to preserve the equipment left on the Moon is to prove we really went there, Professor Capelotti said.
“There’s a lot of people out there who still don’t believe it happened. The stuff on the Moon is a testament to what we did and when we did it.”
Question of Protection
Several countries including the US, Russia, China, India and Japan have landed, left and crashed literally tonnes of equipment on the Moon. So, who decides what’s worth saving? Space archaeologist Beth O’Leary has grappled with this question since 1999, when a student asked her if preservation of heritage sites, like those on Earth, applied to the Moon. She didn’t know, so she checked the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States on Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies — better known as the Outer Space Treaty.
It’s the basis of space law and spawned the 1979 Moon Treaty. The Outer Space Treaty states that exploration and use of outer space is to benefit all humanity.
This means no-one can lay claim to the Moon itself, but any equipment that ends up on and orbiting the Moon remains the property of the country that put it there.
And this raised the question: who protects evidence of humanity’s first forays on the dusty lunar surface?
“And that’s the tricky part. There’s nothing about preservation in the treaty. Nobody thought about it at the time,” Professor O’Leary said. “The trails they made on the first lunar landing site, and the tracks made by the lunar rovers, I think they’re just as, if not more, significant than the artifacts.”
If Professor Capelotti had his way, he’d cover all the Apollo landing sites with domes. To start, he thinks we should protect the Apollo 11 landing site.
Professor O’Leary likes the idea of preserving everything from the early lunar landing sites, but, se said, “it just can’t happen.
“A heritage site has to be considered by everybody as extraordinary. Bipedalism, the invention of fire, all these things are in the same category as humanity leaving the Earth.”
And because people tend to gravitate towards firsts, the Apollo 11 site is the obvious choice.
“It’s almost in our philosophy that firsts, like your first child or your first kiss or your first anything, somehow becomes very important,” she said.
Who Should Be Taking Care of All This?
It can’t be a single country — space law doesn’t allow that. The logical choice, Professor Capelotti said, is the United Nations — specifically the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which is a non-governmental organization associated with UNESCO. But working out the details has been slow going, and time is running out.
“It’s really long past time for these issues to be hashed out and dealt with,” Professor Capelotti said. Twenty years ago, this was all pie-in-the-sky fantasy, but these are not abstract issues anymore.”
In the meantime, countries, states and territories can place various bits of space heritage on local lists. For instance, Australia has a register of special sites, set up by the Howard government in 2007, called the List of Overseas Places of Historic Significance to Australia.
“The whole premise of this list is that it’s places that have heritage significance, but that we actually have no legal right to have any say in,” Dr Gorman said.
There are three sites on the list: Anzac Cove in Gallipoli, Papua New Guinea’s Kokoda Track and the University of Oxford laboratory where Howard Florey developed penicillin. Last year, Dr. Gorman proposed adding the Apollo dust detector experiment, developed by Australian physicist Brian O’Brien, to the list.
While Dr. Gorman is yet to see the experiment added to the list, Professor O’Leary and fellow archaeologist Lisa Westwood succeeded in adding Tranquility Base on Californian and New Mexico heritage registers. And while that recognition is purely symbolic, it shows the site is worth preserving, even after only 50 years.
“Space is a vacuum in terms of the environment, but it isn’t in terms of the human presence there,” Professor O’Leary said. It’s extraordinary evidence for humankind getting off the Earth.”