Las Cruces — A movement to protect lunar artifacts undertaken by a New Mexico State University professor and her students more than a decade ago has sparked the idea in Congress to protect lunar landing sites. A bill filed this summer would protect sites like Tranquility Base by creating the first national park on the Moon.
"Passing a bill to acknowledge the importance of these artifacts would be a significant step for space archaeology and heritage," said Beth O'Leary, NMSU anthropology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. "My colleagues and I have reached out to many different agencies and lawmakers at the state, national and international level over the years. It is gratifying to see Congress get involved."
The "Apollo Lunar Legacy Act," filed July 8 by Texas Rep. Donna Edwards and Maryland Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, tasks the Secretary of the Interior with establishing the new national park within 12 months and coming up with a management plan for it 18 months later. The bill would also require the Department of the Interior to ask UNESCO to designate the Apollo 11 landing site a World Heritage Site.
"Over 10 years ago, my cultural resource management students and I began the Lunar Legacy Project to investigate the Apollo 11 site on the Moon," said O'Leary. "In April 2010, with six anthropology grad students, we successfully nominated the Apollo 11 artifacts and structures on the Moon to the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties. This bill in Congress is another step forward."
O'Leary and Lisa Westwood, archaeology professor at California State University, Chico, have spent the last decade working on efforts to raise awareness about the preservation of the lunar artifacts at Tranquility Base, where humans first walked on the moon. California and New Mexico are the first two states to place these artifacts on their historic registers. Westwood and O'Leary also met over the summer with Hawaiian legislators, who are working to place the lunar artifacts on their historic register.
"We have to plan for this now before commercial spacecraft start landing on the moon," O'Leary said. "If we don't have a preservation framework in place, we run the risk of destroying important cultural resources. Features such as Neil Armstrong's historic footprints on moon could be obliterated."
O'Leary was among a team of experts who worked with Rob Kelso, former NASA director of lunar commercial services, to develop NASA guidelines issued in 2011 for future visitors to the moon to help protect artifacts on the lunar surface.
NASA's guidelines propose the Apollo 11 and 17 sites remain off-limits, with buffers and no-fly zones to avoid damaging or destroying the historic equipment. Other areas may be open for limited activity. Although not legally binding because according to international treaty, the lunar surface has no owner, NASA's guidance for teams planning to land on the moon would help protect the historic and scientific value of the lunar landing sites. More on these guidelines is available at http://www.nasa.gov/directorates/heo/library/reports/lunar-artifacts.html .
The "Apollo Lunar Legacy Act" has been referred to both the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, in the House of Representatives. O'Leary and Westwood are continuing discussions about the legislation with the deputy counsel from the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.