The Current

Space archeologist says heritage protections needed to stop people trampling the moon landing site

Fifty years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the moon, some scientists are arguing that we should preserve our space heritage the way we would any historical site on Earth. We look at the push to protect historical sites that are out of this world.

'Space junk' are important artifacts for archeological study, says Dr. Beth O'Leary

Neil Armstrong stepped into history on July 20, 1969 by leaving the first human footprint on the surface of the moon. (NASA/Newsmakers/Getty Images)
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Fifty years after humans first stepped on the moon, a space archeologist warns there's nothing to stop another expedition landing in the exact same spot — and trampling all over those famous footprints.

"There are no legal restrictions," said Dr. Beth O'Leary, a space archeologist, and professor emerita at New Mexico State University.

"But we would hope that the social sanctions of destroying one of the most extraordinary sites that humankind has ever created would prevent anybody from getting that close."

O'Leary argues that protecting our history shouldn't stop at the upper atmosphere. She told The Current's guest host David Common that could mean designated heritage sites that are literally out of this world, and also studying the "space junk" that helped us get there. Here is part of their conversation.

What is the likelihood that someone would destroy what has been done in terms of the work on the moon, or elsewhere in space?

I think the risk is inadvertent. ... We don't exactly have the technology now — commercially — to be as precise as we need to be.

It's a risky mission going into space. And if you know about the Apollo 11 landing, Neil Armstrong was supposed to land one place and he looked at the surface, and said, "Not a good place to land," and piloted to a place that was safe.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969. Dr. Beth O'Leary said we should do more to protect sites like the moon landing for posterity. (NASA)

What kind of protections exist, if any, to preserve things, whether it's on the moon or elsewhere?

The 1967 [Outer Space] Treaty really said that those nations that put objects or personnel on another celestial body, like the moon, retain ownership.

There's a group of regulations — actually I should call them recommendations, by NASA in 2011, that kind of lays out where spacefaring nations should go.

Those guidelines should be able to guide people into how to not affect the area. 

But I hear you saying "should be protected" and I hear you saying "guidelines." I don't hear you saying rules or laws or things that people are definitely following.

That's right. And there isn't yet. It needs to be international in scope. … You know, space is not a vacuum. We carry our culture into space.

We need to find ways that all nations would agree, that these sites are extraordinarily important. 

The moon has been important to many cultures throughout history, long before we travelled to reach it, O'Leary said. (Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

How do you do that?

You do it through the UN probably; you do it through agreements among spacefaring nations, that these sites should be preserved for all mankind. And that's essentially what Neil Armstrong said when he stepped off onto the surface of the moon.

If we look at humanity and all the brilliant minds, and the scientists, and the physicists going back in time, it's humanity's site. Every culture has the relationship to the moon, whether they've been there or not. The moon is a presence in the night sky that's important to First Nations people, to Native Americans, to all people all over the world.

We talk about the things that are worth preserving — does that include stuff that we've thrown out there? Space junk?

The word junk is really what archeologists trade in. ... The word "junk," to us, means "artifacts."

Those artifacts are important material culture that can be studied, [so] that we can understand the evolution of our technology to get into space.

A model of Sputnik — the Earth's first man-made satellite — at the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, Russia. Sputnik burned up while re-entering the atmosphere, but O'Leary said that even 'space junk' is important for the archeological record. (Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press)

It costs a lot of money to get all the way up there. [It] costs a lot of money just to get into space. So how do you do archeology work when you can't get to the place?

Well, we're very lucky. We have a lot of documentation. NASA took many, many photographs, has a lot of documents.

The LRO mission in 2009 … that was the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which took pictures of the lunar surface and got down to about 15 kilometres from the surface. And we could see the actual tracks, the trails of the Apollo 11 astronauts, and some of the artifacts that were left. 

I'm hoping that in the future, many nations will join in really evaluating what's up there, and saying: What is it that we need to preserve?- Beth O'Leary

So that's the kind of thing that you continue to work on when you speak of space archeology?

That's right. ... We look through documents, we look through photographs, make maps of the site — just in the same way we would do it for a historic site in Toronto.

I'm hoping that in the future, many nations will join in really evaluating what's up there, and saying: What is it that we need to preserve, and what's the best way to preserve it?

Because I think the time is now ... it's time to start preservation now.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Jessica Linzey. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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