Environment & Science

43 years after Americans marked the moon, Californians seek to preserve landmarks

Apollo 12 moon landing, 1969. NASA would like to return one day to study what was left behind.
Apollo 12 moon landing, 1969. NASA would like to return one day to study what was left behind.
NASA/photo by Alan L. Bean
Apollo 12 moon landing, 1969. NASA would like to return one day to study what was left behind.
Congressman Dan Lungren (R) says it's practical to think about preserving American's space legacy.
Kitty Felde/KPCC
Apollo 12 moon landing, 1969. NASA would like to return one day to study what was left behind.
Brazilian tourists Theresa Temer and Paola Vedal visit the Smithsonian and the command module Columbia.
Kitty Felde/KPCC
Apollo 12 moon landing, 1969. NASA would like to return one day to study what was left behind.
Smithsonian's Allen Needell and the Apollo 11 command module
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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It was 43 years ago today that Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon. But that ‘one small step’ on the lunar surface — and all the space hardware left behind — could disappear in a cloud of dust when space tourists arrive.

Now, a pair of Californians are working to preserve the artifacts Apollo 11 left on the moon.

More Than Objects

The command module Columbia carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon and back. It now rests at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Brazilian tourists Theresa Temer and Paola Vedal weren’t even alive in 1969 when Apollo 11 made that historic voyage. But they're fascinated by the lunar journey and press their noses against the protective plastic seal surrounding the module to get as close as they can.

Temer says it's "more than just an object." She says she can sense the "soul" of the mission. Vedel says simply, "it’s a part of history, so it’s like thrilling, isn’t it?"

The Smithsonian collection contains more than 14,000 Apollo items, housed in two states and the District of Columbia, and lent to museums around the world. But very few — not even the command module which orbited the moon — actually touched the lunar surface.

Allen Needell, curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian, points to two items in a dimly lit display that did make contact. He describes the exhibit as one of the most "iconic and valuable objects in the collection." It's the suit Buzz Aldrin wore on the moon. The museum also has Neil Armstrong’s suit. Needell says the Smithsonian only display them "one at a time.”

But other objects were left behind on the surface of the moon. Needell says astronauts dumped what was deemed unnecessary and filled their spacecraft with moon rocks.

“The idea that you would bring back the tools and the shovels and the scoops," he says, wasn't important. "We knew everything that we needed to know about that scientifically and there’s only so much you could fit weight-wise. And so a lot of things were left on the surface.”

Archeologist Lisa Westwood thinks the objects left behind at the moon’s Tranquility Bay should be preserved.

Westwood, who teaches at Cal State Chico, is cofounder of the Apollo 11 Preservation Task Force. She says legally, the space hardware still belongs to the U.S.

"The Outer Space Treaty that was written in 1967 as well as the United Nations Moon Agreement both state that any nation that places its objects, material, or property on the moon retains ownership to that material in perpetuity.”

Allen Needell says the tools have been exposed to four decades of ultraviolet rays, but there’s no need to bring them back to the Smithsonian.

"We are perfectly comfortable with leaving them on the surface of the moon as a historic place and documenting them and preserving them and making sure that they’re not misued, stolen, damaged over time.”

But what about when space tourists arrive?

Recognizing The Moon's Historical Landmarks

Republican Congressman Dan Lungren from Folsom met some of the first Apollo astronauts when he was a kid in Long Beach. He says he knows that someday in the future we'll return to the moon.

Professor Westwood approached him with a rather unique “what if.”

"Could people desecrate that site, that is go in and view it as an opportunity to take things from it, perhaps even sell on Ebay or something like that?” Professor Westwood persuaded Lungren to draft a bill making Tranquility Base a National Historic Landmark.

Lungren says some say it sounds romantic, or outlandish. But, he says, "it’s practical” to think of these issues now.

The site is already listed on California’s Register of Historical Resources. Westwood says the ultimate goal is to have the site declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

One problem: There are no security guards on the moon to enforce such a designation.

But Westwood says the listing would help inform the public about the importance of leaving artifacts in place. She says historically important sites on earth have been damaged by unthinking tourists. People go on vacations, she says "and they’re excited, they’d find an artifact on the ground and think, this would look so great on my mantle, it’s so neat to own a piece of history. They’d take it home with them, and then over time, there’s nothing left of the site.”

Congressman Lungren’s bill covers only the hardware on the moon, not Neil Armstrong’s footprints. No one owns the moon dust. Lisa Westwood says it may already be too late to preserve those. As soon as Neil Armstrong came down from the lander, she says, "then Buzz Aldrin followed him. So that very first footprint has probably been covered up by many other footprints.”

The U.S. isn’t the only country thinking about its space legacy. Two weeks ago, the head of the Russian space agency spoke about protecting Soviet “relics” on the surface of the moon.

Meanwhile, NASA has put out a set of guidelines to protect historic lunar sights recognized by the X Prize Foundation in Playa Vista. The Google Lunar X Prize is offering $30 million to the first privately-funded team to land a robot on the moon. There’s bonus money for a landing near an Apollo site.