Spaceflight and the Preservation of the Physical Past


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 the activities of the Moonbase take place all around.

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 the activities of the Moonbase take place all around.

Cultural relics from Apollo, as well as other wreckage, soft landers, and rovers currently exist on the Moon, undisturbed since their arrival. That does not mean that no one will do so in the future. With the Google Lunar X Prize offering a $20 million purse to the first team to land a rover on the Moon; with an added 5 million if the team could image a lunar landing site there is a race underway to return to the Moon with robotic spacecraft.

How might preservation of historic sites on the Moon be assured into the future? Are there analogous situations in which there were no rules/policies/laws in place to enforce preservation? Indeed, there are. Those include the Antarctic experience, as well as the disturbance of such sites as the Titanic, the raising of space capsules from the ocean floor, and the wholesale destruction of Native American cultural sites in the 17th-19th centuries. How might those lessons be applied to the Moon? Progress has been made, most notably in the release on July 20, 2011, of “NASA’s Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts,” but much remains to be accomplished.

While there are important cultural debates presently raging that requires serious attention from all thoughtful and self-aware individuals, the importance of preserving the physical past is perhaps even more important than more abstract debates.

There have been significant instances in the past in which the ravages of conquerors on physical places have taken their toll. France under Napoleon secured significant ancient treasures from Egypt during the first part of the nineteenth century. The recent film, The Monuments Men, and the 2009 book of the same title by Robert M. Edsel tells the story of the Allied effort to preserve the art treasures of Europe at the end of World War II. The international Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Allied invasion force was a small group of mostly middle-aged men and a few women who had worked before the war as historians, museum curators, and professors who recovered many works of art at risk during the war.

Their story was heroic, no doubt, and it speaks to the necessary of conscious efforts to ensure the preservation of cultural treasures. As art curator and historian Lynn H. Nicholas has commented, “Without the [Monuments Men], a lot of the most important treasures of European culture would be lost. They did an extraordinary amount of work protecting and securing these things.”

This was a generally positive story as Allied efforts preserved the past. Such was not the case in the American invasion of Baghdad in 2003. Despite warnings from many antiquities experts, including the American Council for Cultural Policy, that the National Museum of Iraq required efforts to secure the preservation of its collections, little was done by the invading forces. While U.S. forces avoided targeting the museum, and even dodged a firefight there on April 8, 2003, when Iraqi forces barricaded themselves in the museum, at the conclusion of the battle for the city looters took many antiquities as invading forces stood by.  More than forty major works were stolen; only three of them— the Sacred Vase of Warka, the Mask of Warka, and the Bassetki Statue—were recovered. The behavior of invading forces, and especially the civilian leaders with responsibility for policies relating to Iraq, was horrendous throughout this affair. There is no explanation that is satisfactory when some troops could have been deployed to protect the museum.

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There needs to be a balance to conservation, preservation, and exploitation when it comes to heritage sites in space, the Moon, or anywhere else. Thus far there is not. In the twenty-first century, pressures on the system have begun to force some alterations to policies relative to space exploration/preservation. This might represent a return to the earlier associative state approaches in public/private partnerships. John L. Crompton, a social science researcher, suggests: “Pragmatists seek a more effective government and see privatization as a means to that end. Commercial interests seek to obtain more business by taking over some of the agency’s financing, production, or operating roles. For ideologues, privatization is a political agenda aimed at ensuring that government plays a smaller role compared to private institutions.”

Government officials, as well as policy, could likewise encourage private sector development in space tourism, both in low-Earth orbit and on the Moon. The following possibilities exist:

  • Public officials could expand the use of government facilities by private entrepreneurs as a means of encouraging public use and visitation.
  • Private firms could pay fees which government agencies could then use to expand and develop facilities.
  • Government could create a favorable regulatory climate for space tourism.
  • Private citizens could then experience space through both remote access as well as direct participation.

Beyond these very specific possibilities, NASA could also award lease contracts for habitation/support services of facilities in orbit and on the Moon. Baseline development and operational costs could then be funded by NASA lease. In very case, however, the preservation of the Apollo sites must be assured. Stay tuned.

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