Half a century after humankind first walked on the moon, our sole natural satellite is becoming a much busier place. NASA wants to make a return trip, as do private American space companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. China has a rover exploring the far side of the moon, while countries from Israel to Russia are planning lunar missions of their own.
All that traffic has some experts worried about what might happen to the moon’s most historic sites. In part because the moon has no weather to speak of, artifacts left there tend to be well-preserved. If you visited the moon today, you could find everything from the three “moon buggies” that NASA astronauts left behind to Neil Armstrong’s footprints at Tranquility Base. But those sites and artifacts could still be disturbed by a careless visitor, like an off-roading truck ripping up a pristine beach.
“You can go up there and run over those boot prints or those rubber tracks with impunity,” says Michelle Hanlon, an air and space law instructor at the University of Mississippi. Hanlon is a co-founder of For All Moonkind, a non-profit that seeks to protect what she calls important “human heritage” sites and artifacts in outer space.
“We need [Armstrong’s] boot print to remind us of how amazing it is that we got there,” says Hanlon, who became a space lawyer after her sons sparked an interest in the cosmos. “And to be inspired by that to do even more.”
To that end, Hanlon helped create Senate Bill 1694, also called the “One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act.” It seeks to protect important moon sites, including the Apollo landing sites, by ensuring compliance with rules and regulations surrounding these lunar areas and artifacts. The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), unanimously passed through the Senate on Thursday.
Of course, a Senate bill wouldn’t have any power over foreign governments and their space activities. But Hanlon believes its passage would inspire international action to protect historically important moon sites. “We are once again showing U.S. leadership in space,” she says. “Hopefully, this will get the ball rolling for international protection.”
Sen. Peters echoes that sentiment, arguing that all spacefaring countries should see the logic in protecting vulnerable sites. “The Chinese landed on the dark side of the moon just recently, which is a major technological achievement,” he says. “I suspect they’ll want to protect that site for their cultural heritage.”
That Chinese mission, which put the Yutu-2 rover on the far side of the moon, is a harbinger of what’s to come. China, India, Russia, Japan and Israel are just some of the nations with lunar ambitions. Of course, space isn’t easy — Israel’s Beresheet lander crashed into the moon’s surface in April, while India had to postpone a launch just this week due to technical problems. But more countries will no doubt join the party soon. NASA, meanwhile, wants to return to the moon by 2024, while space entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are setting far more ambitious goals.
The space community is understandably excited about those missions, which promise to extend humankind’s reach into the stars and deepen our understanding of the cosmos. But Hanlon wants to make sure that we don’t trample over history in the process. To achieve that goal, she’s organizing an international summit this winter for space and preservation law experts with the goal of writing a “bible or manual” for preserving lunar heritage sites. “It’s a first step to figuring out our future in space,” she says.
One obstacle lies in space law itself. If a country labels a moon site as “protected,” it could be seen as “claiming” that spot. But the internationally recognized Outer Space Treaty prevents individual nations from claiming sovereignty in space. Hanlon’s summit will try to find solutions that support preservation without violating that treaty, or otherwise stifling the spirit of space exploration. She hopes to be able to present the summit’s results to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space next June. If all goes well, she says, the international community could get on board within the next two to three years.
Hanlon’s biggest challenge may be convincing countries with divergent goals and agendas to work together in history’s best interest — to “get out of the sovereignty concept,” as she puts it. There’s reason for optimism on this front; projects like the International Space Station are evidence that countries can work together when it comes to outer space. And to Hanlon, preserving Armstrong’s footprints isn’t about the first American man on the moon, but the first human on the moon. “We want a little girl in Ghana to feel the same pride and ownership in [Armstrong’s] boot prints as a little girl in Mississippi,” she says.