Should Neil Armstrong’s Bootprints Be on the Moon Forever?

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When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin visited the moon 50 years ago, they left roughly 100 objects behind, including a portion of their lunar lander, the American flag and, yes, various kinds of trash.

Those objects are still there, surrounded by rugged bootprints marking humanity’s first steps on another world. But that site, called Tranquillity Base, may not be as enduring as the legacy those prints represent.

“Is there anything stopping you from just driving over Neil Armstrong’s footprints?” said Steve Mirmina, a specialist in space law at Georgetown University. “No. There’s nothing. There’s no rule, there’s no U.S. domestic law, or no international treaty obligation to preserve them.”

In other words, anyone capable of visiting Tranquillity Base could alter what many believe to be an indispensable part of humanity’s heritage, a place that is analogous to archaeological sites on Earth.

“Where the objects are, how they’re sitting there — that tells the actual real story and history of humans on the moon,” said Michelle Hanlon, a space lawyer and co-founder of the nonprofit organization For All Moonkind, which is developing an international framework for lunar site preservation.

You would not even have to go there to obliterate Armstrong’s footprints.

“Send a robot,” Mr. Mirmina said. “Just use some joysticks on the ground and drive over them.”

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Losing lunar historical sites is not an abstract concern. With a few crucial exceptions, what happens off-world stays off-world, and activities on the lunar surface are largely unregulated. Various private space actors have already demonstrated a proclivity for celestial shenanigans: Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, launched his car into space. Rocket Lab, the builder of small rockets, shot a disco ball-like object into orbit from New Zealand. And Vodafone has hinted at building a cell tower on the moon.

More seriously, a modern-day space race between governments and private companies is fast-tracking plans to return both humans and robotic landers to the lunar surface. One of those companies, PTScientists of Berlin, announced a plan to land near — and examine — the site of Apollo 17, where humans last traipsed across the lunar surface. Now, some are saying, it is time to get serious about preserving humanity’s heritage on the moon.

On Earth, multiple layers of legislation, both international and domestic, protect many sites of humanity’s heritage, an array including the megaliths at Stonehenge, Yosemite National Park and the recently listed Smith-Carter House in Madison, Tenn.

In space, it is different. As decreed by the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty in 1967 — signed by a multitude of nations while the United States and Soviet Union battled for primacy in orbit — space “shall be free for exploration and use by all,” with open access to all areas of celestial bodies.

Put simply, space is the province of humankind. No nation can “own” it or claim it, by means of use or occupation or otherwise.

That complicates setting up protected areas or restricting activities in or under the six Apollo landing sites. Or the spot where the Soviet Luna 2 spacecraft landed in 1959 and became the first human-made piece of hardware to touch another world. Or the site where, in January, China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft achieved the first landing on the far side of the moon.

“Arguably, by saying, ‘Oh, this bootprint is an artifact, don’t step on it’ — the U.S. would be making a territorial claim to the area where that bootprint is,” Ms. Hanlon said. “And as you can imagine, that would not be a very diplomatic thing to do.”

To be clear, she added, individual objects on the moon remain the property of the nations that put them there; that is laid out in Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty. (So, fair warning, retrieving and selling the golf balls Apollo 14’s Alan Shepard lobbed into oblivion or painting a smiley face on China’s Yutu rover will most likely land you in a world of trouble.)

But so far, there has not been an easy way to preserve the landing sites as they are, with moon buggy treads and footprints intact, in the way an archaeologist of the future might want to study them. Amending the Outer Space Treaty could take decades, and there is no other obvious route to an international agreement.

“We lose so much on Earth inadvertently,” said Beth O’Leary of New Mexico State University, an archaeologist who has proposed preserving humanity’s off-world history. “Here, we have the opportunity to plan for what to preserve for the future — it’s always bad to do things kind of in hindsight.”

That does not mean people have not tried to protect humanity’s lunar heritage.

Attempts to classify the Apollo landing sites as American national parks failed precisely because that would violate the Outer Space Treaty. And the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which designates world heritage sites, usually considers nominations only by countries exercising sovereignty over their proposed site — which can therefore only be on Earth.

In July 2011, NASA issued a nonbinding set of recommendations aimed at preserving the six Apollo “heritage” sites and their associated artifacts. At the time, private teams were racing to be first on the lunar surface to claim the Google Lunar X Prize, and one of the contest’s bonus prizes would go to a spacecraft that visited an Apollo site.

Experts fear future visitors to the moon could be similarly motivated, and with perhaps less oversight.

“If you’re a couple of college students and you have a rover and iPhone, of course you’re going to want to drive around and go to the Apollo landing sites,” Mr. Mirmina said. “You’d want to take a photo of the first footprints, maybe see if the flag is still standing, or take a photo of all the bags of poop that NASA left behind on the moon.”

Thus NASA laid out guidelines for preserving those locations, including restrictions on overflights, boundaries for touchdown and a prohibition on close visits to the Apollo 11 and 17 sites because they “carry special historical and cultural significance.”

Then, the space agency reached an agreement with companies vying for the moon: They would need to abide by NASA’s guidelines if they wanted NASA support.

“It’s carefully written, and NASA actually found some fairly clever ways of trying to enforce that,” said Henry Hertzfeld, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

Last year, the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House issued its own document outlining the necessity of securing those sites. But Dr. Hertzfeld says it is a long road to building a functional and enforceable international legal framework for preservation.

Yet in May, Senator Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, introduced a bill, the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act, which directs any federal agency that issues licenses for lunar activities to require that companies comply with the 2011 NASA guidelines. The bill, co-sponsored by Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, is headed for a vote in the full Senate.

“These are the first archaeological sites outside of planet Earth and as we move toward being a spacefaring society and civilization, it is only right that we protect those giant leaps,” Mr. Peters said. He added that “once they’re degraded, they’re lost forever to humanity.”

While many key moon sites are American, proponents say the endeavor to preserve lunar sites will not — and cannot — be America-centric.

“This is a very human story and we want people all over the world to embrace it as a human story,” Ms. Hanlon said.

But the fact that so many sites are the result of American achievements might portend trouble.

Restricting access to historical sites on the moon might “limit the freedom of exploration,” Mari Eldholm, government relations manager for PTScientists, said in an email, and could also be seen as one country appropriating something that belongs to all of humanity.

PTScientists is designing a mission to the Apollo 17 site. As envisioned, that mission would employ a lander and two lunar rovers. One goal would be investigating how Apollo artifacts have been affected by nearly 50 years in the lunar environment, which necessarily involves altering the site’s present state.

And right now, PTScientists could modify the Apollo 17 terrain in any way it wants — although Ms. Eldholm said the company would do its best to follow and respect NASA’s guidelines. But she emphasizes that an international conversation about balancing lunar preservation, exploration and freedom is essential.

“We believe there is a need for a discussion on who decides, and what, to preserve,” she said.

But there is no simple way to address preservation in today’s international arena.

“You get into the world political situation today and it’s not one of making treaties,” Dr. Hertzfeld said. “You’ve got more nations that are technically capable of accessing space, and doing a lot up there.”

Ms. Hanlon — whose group, For All Moonkind, continues raising the issue at United Nations assemblies — says that trying to protect those sites is worth the effort. Losing these records of humanity’s first accomplishments in space would be devastating for future generations, she said.

“We’ve done it wrong so many times on Earth, but we have a lot of examples and experiences to work from,” she said. “I think we can do it right on the moon and other celestial bodies.”