Can We Preserve the Apollo Landing Sites?


Tranquility Base in 1969. Neil Armstrong took this photograph; Buzz Aldrin is the astronaut whose back is to the camera.

The six Apollo landing sites on Moon pose an interesting, and thus far academic, question for the preservation of the material culture of the Apollo program. It is a subject I have been ponder more as time passes and it looks like a robotic return to the Moon, perhaps propelled by the Google X-Prize, will take place in the next decade.

Since the time of the Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972 no one has soft-landed on the Moon and no one has disturbed these sites. That does not mean that no one will do so in the future .

Of course, the people and rovers that return might not even be American; several nations have hinted at long-term plans to explore the Moon and several commercial ventures have been developing robotic rovers that might be sent there. Attractive, but scientifically unimportant places to visit are the various landing sites.

Since the end of Apollo the issue of preservation of artifacts on the moon has arisen repeatedly. In 1984 the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) director, Walter J. Boyne, formally asked that NASA transfer the Apollo lunar surface objects to the museum to become part of the National Collection. As he remarked at the time:

Although there are, at present, no plans for return visits to the moon, it is certain as anything that someday man will return. When he does, it is imperative that the historic and scientific significance of all remnants of earlier, pioneering exploration efforts be fully appreciated and respected. We believe there is no better way to guarantee that the items will be preserved for appropriate scientific, historic and educational used than to have the items registered in advance as belonging to the National Collection of Space Artifacts.

NASA and NASM staff worked together to identify the objects left at each of the Apollo landing sites and over the course of the next two years came up with a basic list.

This artist's conception by Bill Wright captures a possible future lunar tourist moment. Visitors to the "Tranquility Base Memorial Center" view the "Eagle" spacecraft that first landed humans on the Moon from an observation deck as activities of the Moon base take place all around.

After all of this work the matter was quietly dropped by both NASA and NASM and nothing came of it. In part this was because of the all-consuming nature of the Challenger accident and NASA’s recovery from it in 1986-1988 and the departure of Walter J. Boyne from NASM in August 1986.

Since the turn of the new millennium a consistent drumbeat has arisen to ensure preservation of the Apollo landing locations as historic sites. In part this is very much a part of the wishful thinking surrounding the prospect of space tourism. Like many things in the space business, however, space tourism always seems to be about ten years away. Even so, preservationists must plan for the eventuality. Once tourists reach the Moon they will immediately set out for the Apollo landing sites although that may be many years in the future; it will be a popular tourist destination.

In 1999 individuals at New Mexico State University prepared a nomination for National Historic Landmark for “Tranquility Base,” the Apollo 11 landing site. The project leaders wrote:

Although this site is not yet 50 years in age, we believe its overwhelming significance makes it eligible for such a nomination. The first lunar landing site is not on United State government property, nor is it on property controlled or leased by the United States. The first lunar landing site is on “neutral territory” in space, but technically it is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. According to “The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the moon and Other Celestial Bodies” (1967 signed by the U.S.) a country which launches any objects into space retains possession and control of the objects indefinitely. Therefore, the United States retains possession and control of all objects it has placed on the moon. The Apollo 11 Eagle Landing Pod, the United States Flag, the two scientific objects which make up the district of structures on Tranquillity Base are still possessions of the United States.

Based on this argument, the proposal asked for recognition through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

Patrick Vantuyne's "Impossible Picture" of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base.

What was the National Park Service’s position? In 2000 it responded: “It has been determined as a matter of policy that it would not be appropriate to designate National Historic Landmarks on the Moon.” Scratched out of the draft of this letter was a statement, “The Moon is not territory that belongs to the United States.” This deletion may have come because of the National Historic Landmark status of non-U.S. owned sites in Morocco and the Republic of Palau. The letter also noted that the National Park Service did not believe it could exercise the jurisdiction over lunar sites necessary to maintain their integrity.

The New Mexico State University team also contacted NASA at the same time. Deputy General Counsel for NASA, Robert M. Stephens, replied with a legalistic interpretation:

Tranquility Base meets all eligibility criteria for a National Historic Landmark (NHL) under US federal preservation law, but when queried relevant preservation authorities stated that taking steps to preserve it would be perceived as a US claim of sovereignty over the Moon and they do not consider the US government to have sufficient jurisdiction (Stephens 2000) nor consider it appropriate (Shull 2000).

Others have suggested since 2000 time that these sites should be designated by the United Nations as World Heritage Sites to be protected for all time, and have petitioned the leadership of the United States to make this a priority at the U.N. In addition, some have suggested that the Smithsonian establish a bureau on the Moon to display the objects left there by the Apollo astronauts. To date nothing has been done.

At present we have pristine historic sites on the lunar surface, frozen in time with the events that occurred there. These are what Ron Nelson, former director of the Bishop Hill State Historic Park in Illinois, used to term the perfect historic site. He argued that the presence of visitors, even in small numbers and tightly controlled, subverted the historicity of any site. But it is unlikely to remain that way indefinitely.

Few take planning for the preservation of the Apollo sites on the Moon seriously, but that will undoubtedly change when the first missions to return to the Moon are planned. At that point protocols will have to be developed for preserving these sites. I suspect that any museum professional would be pleased to fly the mission to the Moon to put ropes and stanchions around these sites for visitor flow control. I would certainly be glad to do so.

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2 Responses to Can We Preserve the Apollo Landing Sites?

  1. Doug says:

    Interesting to ponder this topic. Do you think it will extend to the Surveyor landers, Lunakhod rovers, etc.?

    And what about the impact sites of the six LM crew stages and things like the Lunar Prospector impact crater? Is there believed to be enough recognizable debris left from these purposeful impacts to make it valuable?

    • launiusr says:

      Good questions. I’m sure those sites will eventually become valuable as well, but the prime locations are the Apollo landing sites at present. But I think we need to plan for the preservation of all of these site, including Surveyor, Ranger crash sites, Soviet sites, etc.

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