On Sept. 13, 1959, a day that we can pretty much guarantee was clear and sunny on the moon, the Soviet Union crash-landed its Luna 2 spacecraft in a region east of what is known to Earthlings as the Mare Serenitatis. A decade later, the U.S. landed the first human beings on the moon in the Mare Tranquillitatis. The Soviets left the wreckage of their unmanned craft where it landed, but the Apollo 11 Lunar Module known as the Eagle — after 21.5 hours on the surface of the moon and walks by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — reconnected with Apollo 11 so the astronauts could return home, leaving behind a U.S. flag, a plaque and human boot prints, which remain, incongruously enough, visible in the lunar dust nearly half a century later.
Now, there’s an effort underway to extend the designations and protections of the United Nations’ World Heritage sites to these two historic moon locations and other locations in space that represent significant advances in humankind’s explorations.
As National Public Radio reported Thursday, the nonprofit space historical preservation organization For All Moonkind is trying to find countries to sponsor a U.N. declaration that would create a mechanism for designating and protecting locations significant to space explorations, beginning with the landing sites of the Luna 2 and the Eagle. Under international treaties, no country has a right to make any territorial claims in space. But presumably the U.N., speaking on behalf of the entire planet, could attempt to set some rules for the treatment of these two historic locations and others.
Admittedly, the protection of some detritus and dusty footprints 238,000 miles from U.N. headquarters at Turtle Bay should not be that organization’s top priority. On the other hand, what’s the harm in trying? In 1969, Apollo 12’s lunar lander inadvertently sandblasted the unmanned Surveyor III craft that had landed on the moon two years earlier. And future missions could — inadvertently or intentionally — damage more significant landing sites. If the Moonkind folks are concerned for the future, the U.N. is the appropriate place for a discussion on how such sites should be weighed for historic significance and then protected.
More moon shots are being contemplated. China recently landed an explorer on the dark side of the moon, and it has joined the U.S., Russia and Japan in contemplating future manned missions. As we look to the future of space exploration, there’s no harm — and perhaps some value — in protecting the past.