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.
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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.
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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.