moon landing, apollo 11, man on moon
Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, the first men to land on the
moon, plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface, July 20, 1969.

Applying Earth’s Rules in Space

January 29, 2010 04:40 PM
by Colleen Brondou
A new movement wants to designate items left on the moon by the Apollo 11 crew as protected artifacts. Is space under mankind’s jurisdiction, and is it time to create some rules?

Protecting Apollo 11’s “Space Junk”

An American flag, a plaque, a seismic detector and a laser-reflection device to measure distances between Earth and the moon—these are some of the 5,000 pounds of stuff left behind on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they returned to Earth in 1969. As Mike Anton reports for the Los Angeles Times, the astronauts also ditched more than 100 more items in order to “lighten the load” for takeoff. Space boots, armrests from the cockpit, cameras—even “bags filled with human waste”—were dumped.

Now Dr. Beth O’Leary, an assistant professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University, wants to protect these items. O’Leary is “a leader in the emerging field of space heritage and archaeology,” Anton writes. She is also one of the founders of the Lunar Legacy Project, which used government archives to create a catalogue of the items left at Tranquility Base.

“We lose a lot of stuff every day on Earth because of neglect, vandalism and erosion,” O’Leary told the Los Angeles Times. “As things are destroyed, we lose part of our knowledge about the past. On the moon, if you take the long view—say, 100 years out—there’s a good risk that we will lose the information that is sitting there.”

California may become the first state to register the items left behind by Armstrong and Aldrin as an official State Historical Resource. According to Anton, if the State Historical Resources Commission approves the proposal at a meeting in Sacramento today, “it would be a victory for scientists who want to build support for having Tranquility Base designated a United Nations World Heritage Site.”

Opinion & Analysis: Do we have jurisdiction over the moon?

Who, if anyone, has jurisdiction over the moon? The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, of which the United States is a signatory, states that although nations retain ownership of the objects they launch into space, “they cannot claim sovereignty over any part of space,” Anton explains, and they “are concentrating efforts on protecting the items left behind by Apollo 11—not the site itself.”

As a student asked O’Leary in 1999, “Can federal preservation laws be applied to the moon?” The Los Angeles Times reports that “federal officials believe they don’t have jurisdiction,” according to O’Leary, so the group has targeted state historical registries.

California law, it turns out, allows such jurisdiction. Jay Correia, a California state historian who manages the historic registration process, explained to Anton that “California law allows listing historical resources beyond the state’s borders—even if it’s more than 238,000 miles away.”

Related Topic: Rules of the road in space

In broad terms, the Lunar Legacy Project seeks to protect items left in space, with the hope of eventually having a particular location in space named a World Heritage Site. Others, meanwhile, are more concerned with moving violations in space.

As The Economist pointed out in a 2008 article, “On the roads, at sea and in the air, mankind has invented sensible rules to avoid accidents. In space, something like a free-for-all prevails.”

The article referred to how “Americans fumed when China tested a missile by shooting up one of its own weather satellites.” It caused “the worst-ever cloud of man-made debris in the heavens,” and as a result, other satellites had to be relocated in order to avoid colliding with shrapnel and other debris. The move provoked worldwide condemnation, not only because of the space debris, but also due to trepidation surrounding a potential space arms race.

In 2008, the U.S. seemed to be treading in similar waters when it shot down one of its own spy satellites in order to prevent it from spreading its toxic hydrazine fuel on re-entry. Both Russia and China, however, voiced suspicions that the operation served a military purpose.
The Economist called for “a spaceway code,” saying that “the big powers” should establish some “less formal rules of the road,” such as “stop dangerous driving, maintain safe distances and, most importantly, avoid harm to each other’s satellites.”

Reference: Lunar Legacy Project

The Lunar Legacy Project aims “to preserve the archaeological information and the historic record of Apollo 11,” with the hope of one day establishing Tranquility Base as a World Heritage Site. Visit the Web site to see all of the artifacts left behind by the astronauts.

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