Unlike historic sites on Earth, the Apollo landmarks on the lunar surface are unprotected.
As space tourism slowly becomes a reality, visitors could someday find themselves at Tranquility Base, unescorted by any public officials or under any observable rules. That means the first footprints made by Neil Armstrong, the U.S. flag, and the lander itself could all be disturbed and even destroyed — and there’s little anyone could do about it.
FOR ALL MOONKIND
In recent years, there’s been a movement pushing for more legal research to create space legislation that would protect these sites. One of the leaders of this movement, Michelle Hanlon, sat down with Supercluster to provide us with some insight.
Hanlon's father was an amateur rocket scientist, both of her sons are aerospace engineers, and her home is lined with science fiction novels. “I grew up a complete Trekkie, and I watched the original Star Wars probably 20 times in theaters. So, I’ve always loved space,” Hanlon tells Supercluster. “It was always in the back of my head. It was always something I loved. But when the boys were growing up and getting interested in space, I realized, I do love this.”
“I’m gonna blame them,” she jokes.
After a successful career in commercial law, Hanlon transitioned to space law. She’s now the Associate Director of the National Center for Air and Space Law, and Hanlon recalled the moment that prompted her career switch.
“It started with a press conference that Jan Werner, the head of the European Space Agency, had in China back in 2016,” Hanlon says. “He had been a huge component in the concept of a moon village — humans going back to the moon as an international community, not as a single nation, which I fully and wholeheartedly support.”
“Werner, at the press conference, said:
‘If nothing else, we have to go back and take those American flags down.’
He immediately said, ‘I’m joking, I’m joking.’ Of course he’s joking, but obviously, there’s something there,” Hanlon recounts. “I was actually at McGill studying space law when I stumbled into this, and that’s when I realized… it’s not protected.”
This experience inspired Hanlon, along with her husband Tim, to found For All Moonkind, an organization dedicated to ensuring the six landing sites from NASA’s Apollo Mission and other sites of similar significance are recognized as an integral part of our human history, preserving locations and artifacts for posterity.
It might seem obvious that an event as groundbreaking as the first moon landing would be something to commemorate. Yet there are virtually no laws that enforce protection of these sites. In the decades since the first Apollo landing, other countries’ space programs have basically observed an honor code when it came to who has jurisdiction, and where. 'Don’t trash my stuff, and I won’t trash yours,' has ruled the moon for some time.
“Under the Outer Space Treaty, any objects that you send remain in your jurisdiction and control. So, everyone thinks, ‘Oh, the objects are fine, they’re protected.’ But they’re protected by a concept called due regard,” Hanlon says. “That’s not a legally defined concept. It was intentionally left vague in the Outer Space Treaty.”
First ratified in 1967, the Outer Space Treaty is one of the only documents that sets a foundation for international space law. Since June 2019, the treaty has been ratified by 109 countries.
It isn’t that other space programs are completely flying blind. There are a few suggestions from NASA detailing the kind of conduct that would be considered appropriate when carrying out missions near historic lunar sites. These suggestions include: aiming projected landing points at least 2.0 km from any U.S. government site, using natural lunar terrain to block the spray of the landing craft, and ensuring that landers are at least 2.0 km away from these heritage sites during the breaking stage to prevent rogue space debris. Non-NASA rovers are essentially barred from entering all but two Apollo sites.
These boundaries are intended to apply to Apollo lunar surface landing and roving hardware, robotic lunar surface landing sites, impact sites, footprints, rover tracks, and even tools, equipment, and experiments left on the lunar surface. But these are only suggestions. Should any programs unaffiliated with NASA ignore these terms, NASA and the U.S. government would have very little legal recourse.
“The NASA guidelines were promulgated in 2011 with the view toward protecting those Apollo sites. They’re not binding on anybody, and they’re not enforceable,” Hanlon says. “The NASA guidelines were promulgated by NASA itself. They didn’t bring the state into the equation. The State Department was actually a little bit upset — because what we’ve done by having these guidelines is suggest that we should have safety zones. We’ve actually set a precedent.”
According to Hanlon, that precedent would allow other space-faring nations, like China and Russia, to create their own set of guidelines. These guidelines could outline virtually any landing requirements, since there exists no enforceable international agreement about zoning and property in space.
In 2019, a bipartisan bill was drafted in an attempt to turn those suggestions into law. The One Small Step Act would require the creation of a federal agency that would be responsible for issuing licenses for activity on the Moon. This license would then hold its applicants accountable to the recommendations and guidelines outlined by NASA for the protection and preservation of U.S. federally recognized lunar artifacts. The bill passed in the Senate on July 18, 2019 — two days before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It has yet to pass the House or reach the President.
Hanlon has been essential in drafting the bill and promoting its progress. “It’s a really, really important step,” says Hanlon of the bill, which is sponsored by Senator Gary Peters of Michigan and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. “At the very least, we can make [the NASA guidelines] binding on people who want the U.S. to license them to go to space.”
Should the One Small Step Act become law, it would largely apply to the commercial space industry. This means that private companies ranging from SpaceX to fledgling coastal startups would have a concrete set of restrictions when it comes to where their properties could travel on and around the Moon. To those concerned that regulations could stifle space tourism, Hanlon replies:
“It’s harder to do things sometimes when you’re a U.S. citizen because it’s better for the environment, it’s better for cultural heritage. But you also need a little bit of government so you can manage your risk a little bit better.”
The One Small Step Act wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. has taken the reigns in creating game-changing space legislation.
“It’s a signal to the world. The U.S. has always been a leader in space law legislation. Sometimes the world isn’t always happy about it. A lot of countries are unhappy with the Asteroid Act,” Hanlon says, referring to the 2014 House bill proposing to formalize the commercial use of asteroid resources.
“But we have been a leader. And this is an important step to show the world we are really committed to preservation.”
Still, the One Small Step Act sits in the House. Its paralysis represents a much larger problem facing heritage preservation on the Moon — a lack of interest and understanding.
“This is one of the biggest issues facing the space community. A lot of people have their heads in the sand about it… I think that’s our biggest challenge right now,” says Hanlon. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, Bezos and Musk — they’re creating public interest. But they’re not. They’re getting 3-4 million views. They’re not getting Taylor Swift views.”
Hanlon isn’t wrong. Taylor Swift’s official music video for “ME!”, released this past May, has over 288 million views. Elon Musk’s interview on Joe Rogan’s podcast, arguably one of the SpaceX CEO’s most memorable (albeit controversial) moments, has just over 28 million views. Musk’s single, “RIP HARAMBE”, has around 735,000.
It’s a lot easier to make folks passionate about a catchy, bubblegum pop earworm than zoning laws in outer space. For Hanlon, the need to change that narrative is urgent.
“I personally am really concerned about somebody going intentionally and taking the dust from Tranquility Base back to Earth and selling it. People say, ‘Oh, it can’t happen.’ We lost the first moon bag! And at a time when there were only two missions to the Moon each year,” Hanlon says, referencing the first lunar sample taken by Neil Armstrong that accidentally ended up in private possession and sold for 1.8 million dollars in 2017.
“That’s a real fear for me, and I know that it’s a very far afield one. But if we don’t have at least this designation of artifacts, I really fear that we could have a booming black market. You could really fund a lot of space travel by selling that kind of stuff.”
Despite the challenges, Hanlon remains optimistic.
“Humanhood… I’ve been so gratified that when I introduce this concept to people from everywhere else in the world, nobody is like, ‘Oh, that’s an American thing.’ Everyone recognizes that when Neil Armstrong set his foot down on the Moon, he took a step for all of humanity.”
For All Moonkind is striving toward turning those baby steps into giant leaps.
“We need to protect the stuff that’s on the Moon now because it’s our history. It’s our human history. We’re not going to survive space unless we all recognize that we’re in it together.”