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.