Between 1957 and 1975, the international community dedicated a tremendous amount of time and effort to negotiating a set of treaties and conventions that would, it was hoped, prevent the militarization of space and ensure freedom of access and exploration for all nations. At the time, preservation of cultural heritage in outer space was not a paramount concern. As such, it is not surprising in the least that the quartet of widely ratified treaties colloquially known as: The Outer Space Treaty, the Liability Convention, the Registration Convention, and the Rescue and Return Agreement are silent with respect to the preservation and protection of human cultural heritage. Now, a scant (in archaeological terms anyway) 43 years after the last treaty was ratified, this silence is perilous.
On September 13, 1959, the first human-made object, Luna 2, reached the Moon’s surface. Ten years later, Apollo 11 landed in the Sea of Tranquility, and humanity’s first offworld steps were taken. The robots and the astronauts who landed on the Moon were envoys of all humankind, propelled to the heavens on the ingenuity and perseverance of thousands of scientists, engineers, tool workers and dreamers from around the globe. Each of the Apollo Lunar Landing Sites and the robotic sites that preceded and followed are evidence of humanity’s first tentative steps off our planet Earth. They mark an achievement unparalleled in human history, and one that is common to all humankind.
The artifacts and boot prints on the Moon have been undisturbed for nearly six decades. Preserved by the vacuum of space – and by the fact that no human, and only a handful of rovers, has returned to the Moon since 1972.
While a working human outpost on the Moon may be decades away, our Moon is about to get crowded. Japan, China, Russia and the United States all are weighing crewed Moon missions within the next decade. And more robotic mission are already being deployed to the Moon by nations and private interests. China’s Chang’e 3 launched on December 7, 2018. India’s Chandrayaan-2 is set to launch in January 2019, and the very first private mission, by SpaceIL, will also launch in early 2019. While it is not to be suggested that any of these private companies or nations would intentionally desecrate the Apollo lunar landing or other historic sites on the Moon, we cannot afford to ignore the fact that no enforceable laws exist to prevent or even inhibit defilement or vandalism. Even the most well-intended visitors may be unaware of the damage they are doing while roaming around a site. What’s worse are those who would take a “piece of history” for themselves or on behalf of a private collector. And worse still, those who would plunder human heritage for profit. We must seize this opportunity to protect these sites before humans – or human-directed rovers – return to Moon.
Unfortunately, the path to preservation is complicated. Pursuant to Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty, items left on the Moon – everything from the Lunar Roving Vehicles, to cameras, to the photo left by astronaut Charles Duke of his family – remain under the jurisdiction, ownership and control of the nation that was responsible for putting them there. Article IX of that treaty requires all activities in outer space be conducted with “due regard to the corresponding interests of all other States Parties,” which, arguably, suggests that other States should not interfere with or otherwise despoil the objects of another. And, indeed, Article V of the Return and Rescue Agreement, is clear that any such object removed from the Moon, must be returned to the State of origin. But the research value of the landing sites requires that the objects strewn within their bounds be observed and scrutinized in situ. Which raises a whole different slew of issues as leaving the objects in situ essentially results in perpetual occupation of the surface upon which they rest. This runs afoul of the principle of non-appropriation encapsulated in Article II of the Outer Space Treaty. Leaving the Apollo lunar landing sites, or any of the robotic landing sites untouched gives rise to the appearance that those sites belong to the United States, Russia or China, as the case may be.
Importantly, too, these treaties deal with objects, not the sites themselves, or the features on the site, like Neil’s bootprints, the first ever human steps taken on another celestial body.
Currently, there are more than 80 historical archaeological sites on the Moon. Each bears witness to moments that changed, and advanced, our human civilization irrevocably. No longer are we tied to our Mother Earth. In incremental steps, the heavens have been opened for exploration, and celestial bodies for settlement. Certainly not every movement of human – or human-guided robot – on the Moon needs to remain sacrosanct. However, guidelines and the framework for potential protection should be set in place before revisits occur. The idea is not to stifle exploration, but to preserve, for present and future generations, those sites that meet certain agreed criteria.
For All Moonkind anticipates a four-step process that will lead to a solution: 1) mapping, 2) identification, 3) recognition and 4) voluntary protocols or guidelines leading to multilateral agreement. Learn more here.
Image credit: https://www.deviantart.com/rrward/art/Mind-The-Gap-Logo-141711153