National Parks on the Moon? It’s an Excellent Idea

Forty-four years after the first moon walk, a bill before Congress would protect the Apollo landing sites as historical parks — and remind us of what we once were

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NASA / Corbis

Astronaut Neil Armstrong's footprint when he first stepped out of Apollo 11 and onto the moon, July 20, 1969.

History has recalled the mission of Apollo 11 in words inspiring, rhapsodic, breathless, even incredulous, but no one has ever described the first lunar landing as the time three men flew a quarter of a million miles to walk 95 feet. That, however, is what it was—and there’s not a thing wrong with that.

Apollo 11 had been eight years in the making—ever since the day in 1961 that President Kennedy improbably pledged that a nation that hadn’t even put a human being in orbit would somehow have one standing on the moon before 1970. That first landing, it was soon decided, would not be a one-off. Crews would land on the moon multiple times—a figure that initially settled out at 10, with Apollos 11 through 20 designated as landing missions, until Apollos 18, 19, and 20 were canceled due to budget cuts and Apollo 13 had its well-documented troubles en route. Still, it was clear long before the moment Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin opened their hatch and prepared to take their first steps that they would not be the last men passing this way.

(MORE: Want A Little Piece of Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s Heart?)

For that reason, it was decided that their time on the moon would be brief. The Apollo 11 lunar module would be on the surface less than a full Earth day, and the astronauts would be walking around outside for only two-and-a-half hours — just enough time to get a feel for the place, set out an array of scientific instruments and, critically, collect rocks. And for safety’s sake, they would not wander far from their little campsite. If the landing area were a baseball field and the lunar module came to rest on the pitcher’s mound, Armstrong and Aldrin never made it out of the dirt of the infield — a distance of 95 ft. (30 m) — except for a brief detour Armstrong made into right field to take a peek at Little West Crater.

So the hike the men took wasn’t much and like a lot of campers, they left a lot of debris behind, not the least being the entire descent stage of their lunar module. Every bit of that hardware is still there — untouched, unchanged on the airless, windless, weatherless moon — as are the very footprints of the men. That, in some ways, makes the Apollo 11 site the most historic patch of land in American — and indeed human — history, and that demands that respect be paid.

Just this month, two members of the U.S. House of Representatives — Donna Edwards (D, Md.) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D, Tex) — took steps to do that, introducing H.R. 2617, the Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act, which would extend the protections afforded to officially designated historical parks to all six Apollo landing sites, preserving the artifacts and regulating access to prevent their destruction. The act would also seek World Heritage Site status from the United Nations for the Apollo 11 landing area particularly. All of this would be overseen by the Administrator of NASA and the Secretary of the Interior.

(MORE: Remembering Neil Armstrong)

O.K., there are about 25 jillion ways to make fun of this bill — beginning with the body into which it’s been introduced. We’re talking about Congress — the U.S. Congress — the crew that can’t even keep the lights on at home before threatening, again, to shut down the entire government over this or that fiscal deadline. This crowd has nothing better to do than try to turn the moon into a National Park?

Then there’s the — how best to put this? — lack of immediate need for this legislation. It’s not as if RVs full of campers are already buzzing around the sites, disgorging tourists who are pitching tents and collecting debris. NASA has no current plans to return to the moon. China, Japan, Russia and India all speak vaguely about going there sometime from 2020 to 2025, but target dates like that have a funny way of slipping and of those four, only China and Russia have ever put human beings in space, and never out of Earth’s orbit.

Then there’s the question of how in the world you’d enforce your authority and protect the sites. Nearly 50 years ago, multiple nations, including the U.S., signed the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, agreeing to make no claim of sovereignty over the moon or any other celestial body — though international law experts do note that there’s no mention of parts of the moon. Even if we could slip through that loophole, the physical logistics present a problem. Assuming there really were human beings wandering around the moon, U.S. preservation teams might find it relatively easy to build a fence around the Apollo 11 site. But the other five? Not so much. The men of Apollos 12 and 14 walked a lot farther than Armstrong and Aldrin, and Apollos 15, 16 and 17 brought dune buggy-like cars along. On that final mission, astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt drove a total of 22.21 mi. (35.74 km). How are you going to fence it all?

But never mind all that. The fact is, the Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act is in some ways as lovely and visionary as the missions that inspired it. America and the world at large remember the moon landings not just because they made good TV and marked the victory of the democratic West over the communist East in the U.S.-Soviet space race, but because it represented an outrageous statement of human inventiveness and ambition. We decided to go to the moon — chose to go, as JFK stressed — and then we just plain went out and did it. What’s more, we liked it so much we did it again and again. Any questions?

NASA has lost that finger-in-the-eye bravado, and there’s no telling when it will ever find it again. And while China and the others talk a good game, they ain’t there yet, and why should it take them a dozen years to go when we made the trip in eight — before anyone even knew that it was possible?

So kudos to Reps. Edwards and Johnson, for reminding us of what we once did — what we once were — and for implicitly challenging us to become that again. After all, there would be no need for their bill if some human beings from some part of the world weren’t going back to the moon eventually. The day the protections of the Lunar Landing Legacy Act become necessary, it will already have achieved its greatest purpose.

MORE: Setting of the Moon: Apollo 17, Forty Years Later

26 comments
chris.highland
chris.highland

A "giant leap" step in the right direction, but this doesn't go far enough.  It's time for a Moon Wilderness Park (maybe named for Neil Armstrong) that is not claimed by any nation.  See www.moonpark.wordpress.com.  Protecting the "Orbiting Yosemite" for all of us should be the priority.  

nahrgang7
nahrgang7

Is this really what The People are paying Congress to do?  There's nothing more pressing on the docket?  

nahrgang7
nahrgang7

A colossal waste of money.  We have much more important things to do!

twoiron
twoiron

It is significant that two Liberal members of Congress introduced this resolution.    

Look how well Liberals are doing running the USA. Look at what a great job they've done running Detroit & Chicago. Look how terrific things are going in California. Look at the freak circus that is the Democrat primary race for Mayor of NYC.    

It would be funny if it weren't so darned pathetic.   

ATTENTION LIBERALS: Keep your grubby hands off my moon!

yesway
yesway

the tea party should buy the moon and declare it a no liberal zone

morganfrost
morganfrost

Right, let's focus our attention on that right now, because people are getting tired of the whole Zimmerman/Martin affair, and they might start paying attention to the what's actually going on with our economy.  Heck, let's start the lunar national park right now-- and, while we're at it, let's send Obama there to be the superintendent.

twoiron
twoiron

The only reason I'd be interested in going there is because Obama hasn't declared himself King of the Moon yet.

MikeVaughn
MikeVaughn

Interesting.   After all, their former editor is White House press secretary Tim Carney.  Any questions?

tpaine
tpaine

Why not.  The federal government ALREADY owns 1/3 of the United States and look at what a great job they're doing with it.

SoSueme
SoSueme

If we are to expend even further funds for a national park, which we cannot afford, I suggest we string some chain-link and razor wire around Detroit.....especially if we're allowed to bring our weapons.

WalterAdams
WalterAdams

Someone should go to Mark Twains gravesite and see if they can hear him laughing his head off from six feet down.

Protecting a place we can't get to, from people who can't go there so that future generations who will never see it can rest assured that though everything is going to Hell down here, the Moon is safe.

No need to check on Twain, I can hear him from here.

SaraeBettany
SaraeBettany

I'll tell you why the moon should not be made a National Park - it isn't yours! How cheeky!

JackKennedy1
JackKennedy1

Sign me up. I love the moon and would love to get away from the ugly people of this world.

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

This is a great idea. We could send there all the snowmobiling A-holes who like to spoil the parks on Earth.

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

Well, the landing sites will need protection, as they're going to be the very first stop for souvenir hunters when the moon tourist business starts in a decade or two. However, the US does not have jurisdiction.

I would hope and assume that the Moon would be governed by an international group of interested countries, much like Antarctica is. If the US wants to do something useful to protect these historic sites, they should take the initiative to form such an international group and get it to declare the landing sites protected.

PatrickWoods
PatrickWoods

Just because the USA went to the Moon doesn't give you ownership so it can be turned into American National Parks.  Wake up - you are not alone, the population of Spaceship Earth now exceeds 7 billion and not that many of them are Americans.

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

@WalterAdams That's the situation right now, it wont last. There's plans for privately run tourist trips to the moon within the next decade, and the Apollo sites are pretty much the only thing to see on the moon so you can bet it'll be visited.

twoiron
twoiron

@WilfTarquin @WalterAdams Wilf, it will be OK if we don't allow Occupy Wall Streeters, hippies, and rap music artists to go to the moon. Wherever they go, they and their followers always leave a huge mess behind.

WalterAdams
WalterAdams

@WilfTarquin @WalterAdams Since the late 1950s, every two or three years we were treated to the predictions that in Ten Years we'll;

Have flying cars
personel jet packs
Unlimited cheap power through Fission - ten yrs seems to be the favorite projection length.

Take a look at 'Back to the Future' prt 2 which is set in the year 2015.

At the time it was made that was 25 yrs in the future.

Or, watch 'The Time Machine' made in 2002. It shows the world in 2030 - fifteen yrs from now.

In predicting the future, we miss by a long mile; we over estimate some things, under estimate others and completely miss the biggest ones.

If you like surprises, just keep breathing.

yesway
yesway

@WalterAdams @WilfTarquin sadly we would have all those things by now except the government and big business protect the status quo at the expense of new technology.

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

@SaraeBettany @SmoothEdward1 @PatrickWoods I was making a sarcastic remark about how European settlers thought the land was theirs because they "discovered" America. They acted as if the people who already lived here had no claim to the land.