On a Saturday morning in the year 2313, the Follansbee kids are bored. Mom and Dad, always on the lookout for cheap but educational activities, decide to take the five-year-old twins and their older sibling, age seven, to a favorite park. They pile the short ones in the car, depressurize the airlock, and tell the computer to de-orbit from Lagrange Colony Armstrong to the Apollo 11 International Historic Park on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility. They watch the video in the visitors center’s auditorium for the 13th time, let the kids run loose in the battered low-gravity climber, and spend beyond their means in the Eagle Has Landed gift shop. But the kids are happy, and that’s all that Mom and Dad care about.
As a parent who once had small children, it’s easy to imagine this scenario. It came to mind after reading about a pending bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, HR 2617, which would create the Apollo Lunar Landing Sites National Historical Park. According to Space Industry News, artifacts left on the surface of the moon from the Apollo 11 through 17 missions would be preserved under the bill, proposed by Rep. Donna Edwards, D-MD. The proposal says nothing about footprints, tire tracks, and other evidence of human exploration, and the bill’s scope does not cover unmanned exploration, such as the Surveyor missions of the early 1960s. And, of course, the bill doesn’t mention non-U.S. exploration; the Soviet Union sent a number of probes to the moon during the Space Race. Edwards and her colleagues should address these omissions as the bill moves through committee.
Creating a historic park on the moon (apart from the obvious logistical problems) is harder than you might think. No one “owns” the moon, meaning Congress can’t set boundaries of a park in the same way it can designate boundaries or buy land for an earthly park. In fact, the U.S. may have undermined any property rights it or its citizens could claim by signing the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which declares Luna “the province of all mankind.” Plus a 1979 treaty, though not signed by the U.S., prohibits the exploitation of any moon resource by a single nation. Does this include cultural resources? Congress and the United Nations should clarify this.
Perhaps the best section of HR 2617 requires the Secretary of the Interior to submit the Apollo landing sites as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the premier list of places that played a key role in the development of human civilization. A listing encourages a host nation to preserve the site for future generations. Currently, no off-Earth sites are listed. Any place in the solar system outside Earth that shows evidence of human exploration older than a certain period of time (50 years is the standard for national historic sites in the U.S.) should be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Furthermore, responsible governments should protect historic spacecraft–including those still in flight–in the same way they protect historic ships, as movable reminders of our space-faring past. Someday, I’d like my descendants to visit these places as the people of the 20th and 21st century found them.