Tranquility Base and NMSU’s role in its preservation
Every year, New Mexico Space Grant (NMSCG) issues a call for research proposals from faculty across New Mexico. As Director, I have the privilege to review proposals which range from simple to complex. A recent proposal requested support to work on development a heat transfer technology to bleed off heat from spacecraft during phases on orbit where they are blasted by the heat of the sun. Dr. Krisna Kota, a member of the faculty at New Mexico State University in the Department of Chemical Engineering is just beginning this work and it could be a game changer for NASA.
Ok, good news, this article will not be about this project because the field of research is not what you might encounter in your daily reading. But one woman and two former NMSU graduate students started a research project on the Apollo landing site that is still in the news today. On July 19th, in a Scientific American published an online article titled, Should the lunar landing sites be protected? In the article, Beth O’Leary, professor of archaeology and anthropology at New Mexico State University made the case for protecting the site and all it 106 artifacts. “There’s over 110 metric tons of cultural material on the moon-not just a few random artifacts and golf balls. That material culture really tells a story about a certain period of time where we explored off the planet. It’s as important as any site on Earth, and we have to figure out how to preserve it.”
Why would an Anthropology professor study the moon? It was her student, John Versluis, who asked her a question, ‘Does federal preservation law apply on the moon?’ Together, Ralph Gibson a History major and John wrote a four page proposal in 1999 to NMSGC to try and get funding to answer to their question. They outlined their objectives to determine whether World Heritage site status could be granted for the Apollo 11 landing site, Tranquility Base. If so, it would provide for preservation of the sites and its artifacts. They requested $10,000 to study the preservation question and whether it was possible to have the Apollo 11 site protected from being disturbed, or even worse, have the artifacts retrieved and sold. It was forty five years ago on July 27th, that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. World Heritage status is granted to earth sites, never had the question been raised for off-earth sites.
The Scientific American article captures the current status of years of work and advocacy, “O’Leary is among those who have led the effort to formally protect the Apollo landing sites. These concerned scholars and space history buffs have petitioned to get the spots added to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historical Places and the UNESCO World Heritage List, so far to no avail. A House of Representatives resolution called the Lunar Landing Legacy Act would create a national historic park on the moon, but it is currently languishing in committee. “It’s been a long journey,” O’Leary says.
John, Ralph and I became friends during the two years they worked on this project. I still hear from John at Christmas. They needed travel funds to study the archives at the Lunar Planetary Institute (LPI) in Houston. Part of site preservation required them to track down every item that went up and came back. Then determine what was left on the moon and to map its location. Usually we fund scientists and engineers, and teachers who want to study NASA fields or for classroom curriculum development.
Our NASA Program Manager. E. Julius Dasch, was coming to New Mexico to speak at a meeting. Dr. Dasch has over 150 publications, including publications on lunar samples. So, to hedge my bet, I asked the students to prepare a presentation for him while he was in the state. Julius loved the project. He invited the students to NASA Headquarters increased their funding to $25,000.
They met with NASA lawyers and discovered ownership of the artifacts had been transferred to the National Parks Department after the end of the Apollo program. It was suggested they go to New York and see what the UN says. I got a frantic call from the guys and ok’d the New York trip. When they returned they were on fire. They knew if they worked hard, did the research and mapping of the artifacts, NASA would rely on them to keep the project going to a final conclusion. You can go to this link and see what is still to come. The project research is captured and constantly updated at http://spacegrant.nmsu.edu/lunarlegacies/index.html
The Scientific American article can be found at: