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Should Neil Armstrong's footprints be on the moon forever?

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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."

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.)

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".

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.

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