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.”

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.)

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.”

“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.”

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