Hands Off Our Lunar Landing Sites? Not So Fast

A new paper argues against the wisdom of the U.S. declaring sovereignty over parts of the moon

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The Moon has been kind of a backwater lately. During the 1960’s, and early 1970’s it was the hottest possible destination, what with unmanned probes from the U.S. and U.S.S.R. touching down on the lunar surface, followed by American astronauts tromping and joyriding across the dusty landscape. It’s not that scientists have lost interest by any means, but most of what they’ve learned in recent decades has come from orbiting spacecraft like GRAIL and LCROSS and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

All that is changing, however, as China gears up to launch its first lunar rover, the Chang’e-3 in mid-December, following the success of the Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2 orbiters in 2007 and 2010.  The Russians have plans to return with unmanned probes as well, and so does at least one private company named Astrobotic Technology. While this new flurry of interest in up-close lunar exploration could be terrific for science, it could also threaten to disrupt or damage the historic sites of previous landings, where 60’s-era technology still sits, undisturbed.

And undisturbed is how it should stay, say Henry Hertzfeld and Scott Pace, of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “Although we might assume the best of intentions for such [new] missions,” they write in a policy paper in the current Science, “they could irreparably disturb the traces of the first human visits to another world.”

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It’s not an entirely new worry. In the 1950’s, in fact, before the first primitive probes headed to the Moon, a panel of scientists warned the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to “make haste with due care” in exploring our closest neighbor. They were worried about contaminating the Moon’s then-pristine environment, but last summer the House of Representatives drafted legislation that would create the Apollo Lunar Landing Sites National Historical Park to safeguard artifacts from the heroic early years of the Space Age.

It’s a noble idea, says Hertzfeld, but there’s one glaring problem. “If the bill were to become law,” he says, “it would be very easy for other nations to say the U.S. is aggressively declaring sovereignty over parts the Moon”—something explicitly prohibited by the U.N.-sponsored Outer Space Treaty created in 1967. Indeed, the new American law would violate not merely the spirit of that 46-year international one, but the letter of it too since all national parks fall under the jurisdiction  of the National Park Service, whose charter is to manage its assets “for the benefit and inspiration of all the people of the United States.”

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That sounds an awful lot like a declaration of sovereignty, worries Hertzfeld. It might be possible instead to have the Apollo sites and other places with remnants of unmanned landers declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites—but again, says Hertzfeld, “all of those sites are on sovereign territory,” raising that tricky question again.

A better route, he and Pace argue, might be to create a new international treaty through the U.N. That, however, could take many years to push through, and with a new Moon rush about to begin, the diplomatic pace might not keep up with the exploratory one, leaving the historic sites vulnerable to damage. “The lunar regolith is dusty,” says Pace, “and if you kick up a lot of dust, you can inadvertently cause a lot of damage.” If lunar tourism ever begins in earnest—even if it’s virtual tourism, with a rover taking customers on a video ride-through of Apollo landing sites—the danger of flinging dust and, worse yet, obliterating astronaut footprints, would be even greater.

The most efficient solution, Hertzfeld and Pace say, is to approach Russia directly, and, as of next month, China as well. “We should engage with those nations, despite some obvious political issues, and make a multilateral agreement that simply says ‘you leave our stuff alone, we’ll leave your stuff alone.’” As for lunar tourism, he says “any company that wants to do it will have to get permission from their government first,” so any multiparty agreement would presumably be binding on private companies as well.

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The good thing about last summer’s Congressional bill, Hertzfeld believes, is that while it might never actually be passed into law, it jump-started an important conversation. The new paper is part of that conversation. “Our suggestion would need a lot more study and negotiation before it could be implemented,” he says, and acknowledges that someone might come up with an even better idea for preserving these monuments to space exploration.

“Of course,” Hertzfeld says, “we’re assuming they’re worth preserving. But I think that’s a given.” Anyone who’s ever been inspired by the drama and adventure of space exploration would find it hard to disagree.

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14 comments
MattSharrett
MattSharrett

They are just worried that everyone will discover that there is no landing site.

Joeviocoe
Joeviocoe

Declaring a site "historically off limits" is akin to declaring a site, "holy".


Are we really gonna start this again?

There is nothing at those sites that needs to be there. We've got our pictures of it.. and apparently it wasn't important enough to visit again for decades.... now that someone else wants it, we want it again.

This is NOT for scientific preservation. This is emotional attachment to a piece of land. Ask the Israelis and Palestinians about what happens next.

LucianApetrei
LucianApetrei

What an arrogant piece of crap article. The arrogance and ignorance of americans never fail to amaze me. Being the first on the moon does not give you any right over it, your stupid laws do not apply to the universe. Whatever you do, you will never control the will of other nations and no law will ever restrict the driving force of science that you have so little of now. Face it, you suck America!

lonegull101
lonegull101

What arrogance we have thinking that because we landed on the moon that gives us any claim to the property. 

ChinaLee
ChinaLee

Spectacular nighttime launch video of China Chang'e-3 Moon Rover

"Alvin Remmers
Shared publicly  -  3:53 PM
#China

The Launch of China's Chang'e 3 Lunar Exploration Rover

A Chinese Long March 3B rocket launched from the Xichang launch site in China today carrying the countries first Rover destined for the Moon. View the spectacular nighttime launch video…"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgZslWEQZHY

lees2002
lees2002

We can't seem to declare our sovereignty over our borders here on earth, How the heck are we going to keep the Mexicans off the moon?

goerizal
goerizal

the moon landings were all great achievements by any measure. what right has  anyone to give it a negative spin and average the US down?

DigoriePiper
DigoriePiper

We don't even know, independently, if NASA actually made it to the moon or whether the whole thing was staged. Maybe that's why the US is keen to keep these sites 'undisturbed'.

oneofone
oneofone

@Joeviocoe How does this differ than preserving, say, historical battlefields in the US or elsewhere?

juniusgallio
juniusgallio

@DigoriePiper The "Moon landings were staged" claim is about as credible as asserting that the earth is flat. If you're going to make an objection, please make a SENSIBLE one.

oneofone
oneofone

@LucianApetrei As for the US, you might want to review the list the National Register of Historic Places:  http://www.nps.gov/nr/  There are multiple instances of buildings and sites on that list that  either a) existed before the US was a country or b) are historically significant to another country.  Yet, we pay tax dollars to maintain those, not the citizen of the country for whom it is significant.