Taken For Granted: One man's space junk is another's history

Lift off. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin and I were pulling G’s and climbing toward the stars. And that’s the closest I ever got to space travel — sharing an elevator ride with this famous voyager to the moon.

I was 15 when the Russians launched the first satellite in 1957; a spindly little aluminum ball that did nothing but whirl around the Earth and beep. At night we strained our eyes to catch a glimpse of this tiny moving dot in the sky.

The first feeble efforts of the U.S. to launch a satellite were almost comical; one Redstone rocket after another crashed and burned on the launch pad. Rocket scientist Werner Von Braun became that contradiction in terms: a good Nazi. We desperately needed the knowledge he and his German rocket scientist pals had gained building the buzz bombs fired at London during World War II.

As a product of the first TV generation, I was raised on Captain Video, Tom Corbett Space Cadet and Flash Gordon. I loved airplanes and wanted to be a jet pilot, but bad eyesight ended that dream.

Like millions of kids my age, I got caught up in President Kennedy’s challenge to beat the Soviets to the moon. I took every science and math course I could get in high school anticipating becoming an aeronautical engineer. After two years of college engineering, I crashed and burned just like our early space launches and switched to liberal arts.

Alas, the country would have to put a man on the moon without my questionable math and science skills.

I vividly remember that July day in 1969 when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. My sole connection to the event was a family member who worked on the moon-lander. He took understandable pride in his contribution to the space program, but whenever his chest swelled, recalling the object he had designed that sat on the moon’s surface, his equally brilliant daughter was quick to remind him that she also had a claim to space fame, having built a portion of the Mars rover which sits contentedly on the red planet!

All of this was brought to mind by a recent article in the New York Times regarding what are now considered to be historical artifacts left on the moon. Archaeologists who normally spend their time digging for ancient pottery shards in the Middle East have become concerned that any future visitors to the moon may not pay due respect to the trash our Apollo astronauts left behind.

In addition to 26 international teams preparing to compete for the Google Lunar X prize by being the first to reach Tranquility Base — the site first explored by Armstrong and Aldrin — the Russians, Indians and Chinese are planning to put robotic landers on the moon. The Outer Space Treaty, signed by 100 nations, precludes claims to sovereignty over any portion of the moon, but does not restrict future visitors from disturbing what archaeologists now consider historically sacred ground.

The National Park Service has turned down a request to designate such moon sites as national historic landmarks, but California, New Mexico and Texas have prepared lists of items on the moon manufactured in whole or in part within their state boundaries.

In response, NASA has prepared a catalog of all such artifacts, recommending that future visitors to the lunar surface remain a minimum of 75 to 225 meters away from Apollo landing and exploration sites. NASA has also issued guidelines for the approach paths of future vehicles, which will limit the likelihood that rocket vapors might disturb these lunar sites.

While these are only recommendations with no international legal standing, it is hoped that the United Nations will add these locations to its list of World Heritage sites. Hopefully, this will eliminate the chance that the footprints left by Neil Armstrong’s size 17 space clodhoppers or Alan Shepard’s golf divots might be lost to posterity.

PAT GRANT has lived in Glendale for more than 30 years and was formerly a marketing manager for an insurance company. He may be reached at tfgranted@gmail.com.

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