"Looting, that would be pretty bad," says archaeologist Beth O'Leary of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. Looting is the bane of archaeological sites and O'Leary has spearheaded efforts to declare moon landing sites as historic preserves or national parks, seeking to head off similar depredations before before tourists leave Earth for the moon. "I put landing people on the moon up there with creating fire as a technological achievement."
From 1969 to 1972, NASA sent 6 manned space missions to the moon. Each one landed in a different spot, but in each case American astronauts left behind various artifacts. The first, Apollo 11, for instance, left things ranging from a "Camera, Lunar TV" to a "Urine Collection Assembly (Small)".
NASA isn't expecting the sites to generate the kind of traffic we see at national parks on Earth, but the prospect of future tourists could affect plans to inspect the sites and artifacts in the future. So, the space agency released guidelines this summer on protecting lunar landing sites and artifacts. They call for a 1,200 acre "no-fly" zone around the first Apollo 11 landing site, and final Apollo 17 one. Tourists could only walk within 82 yards of the Apollo 11 landing site where Neil Armstrong first took "One small step for man," on July 20, 1969, under the guidelines.
What's the rush? NASA had started to get questions from the two dozen or more teams competing for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize for the "first privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon." NASA officials suddenly had nightmares of private spaceships landing on top of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong's "Defecation Collection Device (4 bags)" left at the Apollo 11 site. Part of the prize involves driving a robot rover about a third of a mile on the moon, as well. And no one wants to see Armstrong's footprints obliterated by a robot tourist.
"This really is unprecedented," says NASA's Robert Kelso of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, who headed the guideline effort. "We went looking at NASA for guidelines on this (preservation), and we really didn't have anything."
Famous exploration sites have been looted before, such as the 1911 hut belonging to South Pole explorer Robert Falcon Scott, looted after its 1956 rediscovery. "What we don't want to happen is what happened in Antarctica at Scott's Hut," space historian Roger Launius of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., told Science Magazine in September.
"We want to protect all the lunar sites, but the Apollo landing sites carry particularly important cultural, historical and heritage value," says Kelso. "They are key sites in Cold War history."
Apollo 17's recommended protection site is bigger than Apollo 11, because the lander mission featured a moon buggy, which is on the list of items that NASA might like inspected. The buggy allowed the astronauts to travel farther.
The guidelines aren't meant just to keep people out, but also to let researchers in selectively, Kelso adds, so that the space agency can learn how artifacts degrade on the moon. The only clues now come from 1969's Apollo 12 mission, which landed near the 1967 Surveyor 3 unmanned lander. The Apollo 12 landing about 500 feet away from Surveyor 3 scattered dust all over its landing site, to the surprise of scientists, according to Kelso, raising similar fears about astronaut footprints from historic missions being erased by Google Lunar X Prize contestants.
"We really could see little robots going in and assessing the sites. We just don't want them destroyed," Kelso says.
Space archeology at the Apollo sites has already started, O'Leary notes. NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission flew over sites in 2009. And in September, the same orbiter dipped to within 15 miles of the lunar surface to take up-close images.
"One problem is that the moon is a bit of a legal gray area," O'Leary notes. NASA owns its artifacts, but nobody "owns" the moon, under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which doesn't even mention private visitors. "There are extraordinary Russian sites as well, that they would likely want to preserve," O'Leary says.
NASA has provided the guidelines to all its international space mission partners, including Russia's space agency, Kelso says. "We didn't want any of them hearing it first from somebody else."