The lands protected by federal agencies in the United States are not all protected solely for their natural characteristics. Many parks and protected areas are charged with also preserving important historical and cultural resources. For example, in Utah the USDA Forest Service manages Ashley National Forest and the historical cabins, Spanish tree carvings, and evidence of historical dam construction located within that forest system. The National Park service manages thousands of National Historical Landmarks and 45 National Historical Parks. Recently a request was made to the park service for a new National Historic Landmark: the Tranquility Site on the moon.
The National Park service responded with a flat out “no”. However the request made by Dr. Beth O’Leary, an anthropologist from New Mexico State University, is opening up a discussion about preservation of the Tranquility Site. Tranquility Base is where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed and walked on the moon. Dr. Leary and her colleagues are concerned that future “visitors” may damage the historical resources left behind by the 1969 moon landing. The visitors that Dr. Leary is most concerned about are not humans but robots. Both India and Russia are considering sending mechanic landers to the moon and Google currently has a competition with a $1 million bonus for the first private organization to put a spacecraft on the moon. There are currently no laws or treaties that protect the Tranquility Site, although NASA has made a request that future missions keep a distance of 75 feet from the site. However, nothing binds future missions to this request.
The items left behind at the Tranquility Site include boots, an American Flag, and the first (and only) footprints on the moon. As a first step at preserving these items and the site itself, the states of California and New Mexico have listed the Tranquility Site and associated items on their state heritage registrars. These listings were mostly an effort to raise awareness about the preservation of off-world resources. An added complication to the protection of the Tranquility Base is the Outer Space Treaty which was signed in 1967. Under the treaty, which 100 nations have signed, no country can lay claim to any celestial resource; including the moon. (As an aside, the Outer Space Treaty also prevents the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in space – I can only wonder if legislators had the Death Star in mind when drafting this piece of the treaty). The most reasonable option for protecting the Tranquility Site may be to declare the moon landing area as a World Heritage Site. But at the moment the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organizations only allows countries to nominate locations that are within their borders.
The idea of protecting off-world objects is a very interesting concept. Dr. Leary and her students’ concerns are definitely reasonable. It would be a cultural tragedy to have robot tracks running all over Neil Armstrong’s footprints or items stolen from the Tranquility Site. Additionally, as humans continue to explore the universe, Dr. Leary is opening up an interesting political discussion. How do we (meaning the Earth as a whole) manage and protect resources that are not actually located on Earth? Who can, if anyone, lay claims to these objects? What development can occur on off-world objects? What would prevent someone from someday building an amusement park on the moon?