NASA's got a plan to keep the moon safe from jerky space tourists

Though it's still really expensive to put people in space, it's hard to deny that the age of space tourism is approaching. Tourists like to visit historical sites, so it seems certain that someday we'll get gaggles of them on the moon gawking at the places where NASA astronauts landed. And just in case those tourists are jerks, the space agency's already taking steps to preserve the history left on the lunar surface.

Though large-scale private spaceflight hasn't been achieved yet, companies are working all the time on ways to make it faster, cheaper and easier. We're still a few years away from the time when these companies can sell tickets to the moon, obviously, but experts are arguing that now's the time to put a plan in place for protecting precious pieces of history still sitting on the surface of the moon.

Among those experts are professor and anthropologist Beth O'Leary and archaeologist Lisa Westwood, who co-founded the Apollo 11 Preservation Task Force. Together with Robert Kelso, a NASA employee of more than 30 years who used to run the agency's lunar commercial services, they penned a column for the Washington Post this week stressing the importance of preparing for what happens when tourists arrive at Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's 1969 Apollo 11 landing site.

"The reality of imminent commercial space tourism is exciting -- and threatening," they wrote. "The temptation for tourists to visit Tranquility Base, to walk in Armstrong's footsteps or to pocket some small treasure as a keepsake may be too strong to resist. Artifacts too small to notice may be trampled. Those too large to move may be vandalized. The three-dimensional relationship of these objects -- which tells the story of the Apollo 11 crew's activities and makes the site so significant -- could be destroyed. The integrity of this historical site could be irreparably damaged. It is imperative that these artifacts be protected in their current positions."

It seems obvious that we'd want to protect the hundreds of artifacts left behind by astronauts who visited the moon in NASA's six successful lunar landings (not to mention the unmanned Surveyor probes we've got out there). So why call for this at all? Why not just do it? The problem is that the Apollo landing sites are a bit of a "legal gray area."

See, international treaties stipulate that countries get to retain ownership of anything they leave on the moon, so all those lunar landers and rovers and other astronaut artifacts are still the property of the U.S. government. The lunar surface itself, however, belongs to no one.

Last year, at the request of contestants for Google's Lunar X Prize, NASA experts wrote a paper titled "NASA's Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts," which helped define which areas of the lunar surface should be protected and presented recommendations for how to keep them undisturbed. The trouble is that while Google made a pledge to honor the recommendations presented in the paper, they're just recommendations, which means Google or anyone else could at any point decide they're worth ignoring.

So what's a country trying to protect its space-faring heritage to do? O'Leary, Westwood and Kelso have a solution.

"Following the lead of California and New Mexico, which listed the lunar landing sites on their respective state historical registers in 2010, we have worked with Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and his staff to draft legislation to make Tranquility Base a national historic landmark."

Once Tranquility Base is listed as a national landmark it can be eligible for inclusion on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites, which would protect it on a global scale. Because the last thing we want is some tour group trampling all over Armstrong's one small step for man.

(Via Washington Post)

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