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When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin visited the Moon 50 years ago, they left a hundred objects, including some of their lunar lander, the American flag and, indeed, various types of garbage.
These objects are still there, surrounded by rugged boot tracks that mark the first steps of humanity on another world. But this site, called Basis of tranquility, may not be as durable as the legacy that these impressions represent.
"Is there anything that stops you from driving in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong?" Said Steve Mirmina, a space law specialist at Georgetown University. "No, there is nothing, there is no rule, there is no US national law, no international treaty obligation to preserve them."
In other words, anyone able to visit Basis of tranquility could change what many think is an indispensable element of humanity's heritage, a place analogous to the archaeological sites of the Earth.
"Where are the objects, how are they sitting – this tells the true story and the story of the man on the moon", said Michelle Hanlon, space lawyer and co-founder of the non-profit organization For All Moonkind, which develops an international framework for the preservation of lunar sites.
You would not even have to go to clear Armstrong's footprints.
"Send a robot," said Mirmina. "Just use joysticks on the floor and roll on it."
The loss of lunar historical sites is not an abstract concern. With some crucial exceptions, what happens outside the world remains out of the world and activities on the lunar surface are largely unregulated. Many actors in the private space have already demonstrated a propensity to celestial shenanigans: Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, launched his car in space. Rocket Lab, the small rocket builder, has launched an object similar to a disco ball in orbit from New Zealand. And Vodafone hinted at building a cell tower on the moon.
More seriously, a modern space race between governments and private companies is about speeding up the project to return humans and robotic landing gear to the lunar surface. One of these companies, Berlin's PTScientists announced a plan to land near – and review – the site of Apollo 17, where humans crossed the lunar surface for the last time. Some now say that it is time to seriously tackle the preservation of humanity's heritage on the moon.
Preserve things that belong to no one
On Earth, many laws, both national and international, protect many sites of the heritage of humanity. the megaliths of Stonehenge, Yosemite National Park and the recently-classified Smith-Carter House in Madison, Tennessee.
In the space, it is different. As decreed by the United Nations Treaty on Outer Space in 1967 – signed by a multitude of nations while the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for primacy in orbit – the only one in the world. Space "will be free of exploration and use by all", with access open to all. areas of celestial bodies.
In simple terms, space is the province of humanity. No nation can "own" or claim this right, whether by use, occupation or otherwise.
This complicates the creation of protected areas or the limitation of activities in or under the six Apollo landing sites. Or the place where the Soviet spacecraft Luna 2 landed in 1959 and became the first element of material made by humans to touch another world. Or the site where, in January, the Chinese spacecraft Chang'e-4 made its first landing at the back of the moon.
"One can argue that, by saying," Oh, that footprint is an artifact, do not step on it "- the United States would claim a territory over the area where that footprint is," said Ms. Hanlon. "And as you can imagine, it would not be very diplomatic."
To be clear, she added, individual objects on the moon remain the property of the nations that installed them; as provided for in Article VIII of the Treaty on Outer Space. (Thus, warn, retrieve and sell golf balls, Alan Shepard of Apollo 14, or the appearance of a smiling face on the Chinese Yutu rover will most likely lead you to a troubled world.)
But until now, there has not been an easy way preserve the landing sites as they are, with the tread and intact footprints, as would an archaeologist of the future who may wish to study them. The modification of the Outer Space Treaty could take decades and there is no other obvious path to an international agreement.
"We are losing so much on Earth inadvertently," said Beth O'Leary of the State University of New Mexico, an archaeologist who has proposed to preserve the history of mankind. "Here we have the opportunity to plan what to preserve for the future – it's always wrong to do things in hindsight."
How NASA tried to protect Apollo sites
This does not mean that people have not tried to protect the lunar heritage of humanity.
Attempts to classify Apollo landing sites as US National Parks have failed precisely because this would violate the Outer Space Treaty. And the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which refers to World Heritage sites, generally considers nominations only from those countries exercising sovereignty over the proposed site – which can only be on Earth.
In July 2011, NASA published a non-binding set of recommendations to preserve the six "heritage" sites of Apollo and their associated artifacts. At the time, private teams ran to be the first on the lunar surface to claim the Google Lunar X Prize, and one of the bonuses of the contest would be awarded to a spacecraft having visited an Apollo site.
Experts fear that future visitors to the moon will be motivated in the same way, with perhaps less supervision.
"If you are a few students and you have a rover and an iPhone, you will of course want to drive and get to the Apollo landing sites," said Mirmina. "You'd like to take a picture of the first footprints, maybe see if the flag is still standing, or take a picture of all the poop bags that NASA left on the moon."
Thus, NASA has set guidelines for the preservation of these sites, including overflight restrictions, touchdown limits and the prohibition of close-up visits to Apollo 11 and 17 sites as they "are of historical and cultural heritage ".
Then the space agency reached an agreement with the companies that were fighting for the moon: they should follow NASA guidelines if they wanted NASA support.
"It's written with care and NASA has actually found some clever ways to try to enforce it," he said. Henry Hertzfeld, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
Last year, the Office of Science and Technology Policy of the White House released its own document highlighting the need to secure these sites. But Dr. Hertzfeld said the road to build a functional and applicable international legal framework for preservation was long.
Still, in May, Michigan Democrat Senator Gary Peters introduced a bill, the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space, which requires any federal agency that issues licenses to the community. lunar activities to require that companies comply with NASA's 2011 guidelines. The bill, co-sponsored by Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, must be voted on throughout the Senate.
"These are the first archaeological sites outside of the planet Earth and, as we evolve into a space society and civilization, it is right that we protect these giant leaps," Peters said. He added that "once degraded, they are lost forever by humanity".
What is preserved and who decides?
Although many key lunar sites are American, proponents say efforts to preserve lunar sites will not and will not be centered on the United States.
"It's a very human story and we want people all over the world to consider it a human story," Ms. Hanlon said.
But the fact that so many sites are the result of American achievements could foreshadow problems.
Restricting access to historic sites on the Moon could "limit freedom of exploration," Mari Eldholm, government relations manager at PTScientists, said in an email, and could also be considered a country appropriating something that belongs to all humanity.
PTScientists is designing a mission on the Apollo 17 site. As expected, this mission would use a landing gear and two lunar rovers. One of the objectives would be to investigate how the Apollo artifacts have been affected for nearly 50 years in the lunar environment, which necessarily implies a modification of the current state of the site.
And for the moment, PTS specialists could change Apollo 17's terrain as it sees fit, although Eldholm said the company would do its best to follow and follow NASA guidelines. But she points out that an international discussion on the balance between preservation of the moon, exploration and freedom is essential.
"We think it's necessary to discuss who decides and what to preserve," she said.
But there is no simple way to deal with preservation on the international scene today.
"We are entering the global political situation today and it is not a matter of concluding treaties," said Dr. Hertzfeld. "You have more and more countries technically able to access the space and make a lot of it there."
Ms. Hanlon – whose group, For All Moonkind – continues to raise the issue at UN assemblies – says that trying to protect these sites is worth it. Losing these records of humanity's first achievements in space would be devastating for future generations, she said.
"We have done so much on Earth, but we have many examples and experiences to use," she said. "I think we can do it directly on the moon and other celestial bodies."