Early Efforts to Preserve Apollo Landing Sites

Patrick Vantuyne "Impossible Picture" of Neil and Buzz at Tranquility Base.

Patrick Vantuyne “Impossible Picture” of Neil and Buzz at Tranquility Base.

Preservation of the Apollo lunar landing sites is of paramount importance into the future. Nothing has been done to accomplish this as yet. Moreover, the six Apollo landing sites on Moon pose an interesting, but thus far academic, problem for the material culture of the Apollo program. Since these missions were conducted between 1969 and 1972 no one has returned to the Moon and no one has disturbed these sites. That does not mean that no one will do so in the future once humanity goes back. Of course, the people and rovers that return might not be American; several nationals have hinted as long-term plans to explore the Moon and several commercial ventures have been developing robotic rovers that might be sent to the Moon. Early attractive, albeit not scientifically important, places to visit would be the various landing sites. As early as 1971 this issue arose when the president received an offer from a private citizen to buy artifacts left by the Apollo astronauts on the Moon; NASA chose not to accept this offer.

Since that time the issue of preservation of these artifacts has arisen repeatedly. In 1984 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. 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 resignation of Walter J. Boyne as NASM director in August 1986. Neither organization after 1986 had senior officials seeking to bring this transition to completion.

Since near the turn of the new millennium a consistent drumbeat has been raised by private citizens and some organizations 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. Lou Dobbs commented on this possible commercial activity: “There is also the bastard child of space business—tourism. Long scoffed at by serious space explorers, space tourism could actually become one of the driving financial forces of s-commerce.”

Like many things in the space business, however, space tourism always seems to be about ten years away. Even so, preservations must plan for the eventuality. Since China has now become a human spacefaring nation there have been rumors that it intends to extend its human presence to the Moon’s surface. Additionally, India plans to land robots there. 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.

Apollo 16.

Apollo 16.

In 1999 New Mexico State University with the Lunar Legacy Project, using $23,000 in funding from NASA’s New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, prepared a nomination for National Historic Landmark for Tranquility Base, the Apollo 11 landing site. As 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 argued for recognition through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

This request was not acted upon and that led to a request from Ralph D. Gibson Jr., an anthropology graduate student at New Mexico State University who had been working on the proposal, to President Bill Clinton to intercede with the National Park Service. The National Park Service then 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 time. Deputy General Counsel for NASA, Robert M. Stephens, replied with an appropriately 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).

The result was essentially another status quo response.

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. At present, 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 most museum professionals would be pleased to fly the mission to the Moon to put ropes and stanchions around these sites for visitor flow control.


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One Response to Early Efforts to Preserve Apollo Landing Sites

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