April 1, 2012

One Giant Leap for Preservation

Groups blast off in a new direction to protect lunar landing sites

  • By: Gwendolyn Purdom

In July 1969 more than 500 million people worldwide watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took mankind’s first steps on the moon. Forty-three years later, a growing number of dedicated earthlings are working to ensure the footprints that resulted from that “one small step for man,” and other artifacts that remain on the moon’s surface, are protected like any other historic site.

Beth O’Leary, an anthropology professor at New Mexico State University, says that growing up in the 1960s, she "always wondered what it would be like up there." But it wasn’t until 1999, when a student asked whether federal historic preservation law applied on the moon, that the idea of lunar preservation crossed her mind.

"The benign nature of the lunar environment and the isolation of those sites have really protected them very well so far, but that might not always be the case," O’Leary says.

Though the United States ended its shuttle program last year, other countries’ space programs and the possibility of commercial space exploration drove O’Leary, her students, and others to act. Setbacks came with the territory initially as their work had no precedent, but then they teamed up with California’s State Historic Preservation Officer M. Wayne Donaldson and succeeded in getting Tranquility Base—the landing site for Apollo 11 and subsequent missions—listed on that state’s historic register in January 2010. New Mexico, which also has ties to the Apollo program, listed the site three months later.

"Around the world, everybody is saying, 'Duh,' of course you need to protect this site and not allow a robot to go roaming around and rolling over Armstrong’s first footprint," Donaldson says. "This is a part of history that is still so young, but its significance has already risen to the top of world recognition."

Because international agreements keep any nation from claiming sovereignty over the moon, Donaldson and O’Leary stress this can’t be just an American effort. NASA held a workshop about the best approaches to lunar preservation last year and recommended protection measures for all six Apollo landing sites.

Next, Donaldson, O’Leary, and their colleagues hope to secure National Historic Landmark status for the lunar sites and eventually have them named to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list. The process will be long, they admit, but well worth it.

"I think people realize this is all connected to Earth," O’Leary says. "So it’s a cultural landscape approach—it just happens to be 384,000 kilometers away."

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