In 1999, two graduate students, Ralph Gibson, and John Versluis, submitted a proposal under our Graduate Student Research Program at New Mexico Space Grant. They wanted to determine if it was possible to have the Apollo 11 landing site at Tranquility base designated a World Heritage site. This project became a tale of passion, perseverance and respect for the heritage of man’s first footprints on the Moon. You can visit the website at http://spacegrant.nmsu.edu/lunarlegacies.
These students, neither one had any scientific or technical background, were convinced it was time to act. They were concerned about the future not only of the landing site, but also of the artifacts left on the Moon. The students posed a question during a seminar on cultural resource management, their first class with Dr. Beth O’Leary in the Department of Archaeology at NMSU. “Does U.S. federal preservation law apply on the Moon?” Dr. O’Leary said she didn’t know but they would find out together.
When I first read the proposal I thought it might be tough to justify the funding of this project to NASA. I remember reading the proposal and knew I wanted to read the results of the study. When I read studies by our students, I never forget how talented they are. The archaeology study was unusual. I met the students and Beth, and was convinced they would take their responsibilities seriously. They did!
These students could not have been luckier than to have Beth O’Leary as their faculty advisor. She said she would help them. Twelve years later, multiple publications later, including the book “Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology and Heritage”, the project is continuing to grow, and Beth is still involved.
Recently Beth and I spoke because she is hosting Rob Kelso from NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC), to speak on this project. He will address the audience during the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight on October 20th during lunch. Later in the day, Rob will speak to students and faculty on the NMSU campus. Rob is the manager of Beyond- Low Earth Orbit Commercial Initiatives at JSC.
Beth has been participating in a NASA panel with Rob to help NASA prepare recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts. Rob recently briefed the Google Lunar X-Prize teams on this project, and participated in a panel discussion at the Lunar Science Forum held at Ames Research Center in California.
Back in 2000, the two graduate students spent the summer at Johnson Space Center going over their records in the Lunar Laboratory to catalog and map all known Tranquility Base artifacts. Their list of 106 items is the most extensive list NASA has of the site, it is on the Lunar Legacy website. The Space Grant Program Manager at the time, E. Julius Dasch, felt the project was so important; he brought the students to NASA Headquarters to meet with NASA attorneys. The conclusion was NASA really has no jurisdiction over the artifacts.
Beth said, “The goal is to preserve the archaeological information and the historic record of Apollo 11. We also hope one day to preserve Tranquility Base for our planet as a World Heritage Site. We need to prepare for the future because in 50 years many travelers may go to the Moon. If the site is not protected, what will be left?” The remoteness of the moon will preserve the artifacts for now. The site is under no imminent natural threat. Yet, there is no framework or commitment in place to preserve the site, and the multiple lunar landing sites are left vulnerable to future space travel by humans. The current state of knowledge determined a series of agreements and protocols will be necessary to develop for heritage conservation. None exists for lunar preservation.
Recently on September 11, 2011, we remembered those lost at Ground Zero, in Shanksville and at the Pentagon. This may also be a good time to remember one of mankind’s greatest achievements, landing two men on the moon and returning them safely to earth. We are capable of great things. Let’s remember.
In 2006, New Mexico designated artifacts left behind at Tranquility Base a Cultural Property and listed them in the Archaeological Records Management Section (ARMS), the state archaeological and historical database.
John Versluis, graduated in 2000 with a degree in Public History (M.A.) at NMSU; and Ralph Gibson received an M.A. in Anthropology in 2001.