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Putting the moon in the state's orbit

California wants to register as historical resources the space junk (high-tech and otherwise) left behind by the Apollo 11 crew.

January 29, 2010|By Mike Anton
  • In this photo taken by fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin prepares to deploy the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package.
In this photo taken by fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, Edwin… (Associated Press )

When the Apollo 11 astronauts blasted off from the moon, they left behind not just the small steps of men but a giant pile of equipment and junk for all of mankind.

Some of the 5,000 pounds of stuff Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin abandoned at Tranquility Base was purposeful: a seismic detector to record moonquakes and meteorite impacts; a laser-reflection device to make precise distance measurements between Earth and the moon; a U.S. flag and commemorative plaque. Some was unavoidable: Apollo 11's lunar module descent stage wasn't designed to be carted back home, for instance.

Space history: An article in Section A on Jan. 29 about efforts to register items at the Apollo 11 landing site as an official California State Historical Resource said armrests from astronauts' cockpit seats were among the equipment left behind on the lunar surface. Although the Eagle lunar lander was fitted with armrests, the astronauts used them while standing; they did not have seats. —

The rest was cast aside to lighten the load of the Eagle lunar module and allow for takeoff. To compensate for the weight of moon rocks and soil samples, the astronauts gave the heave-ho to more than 100 items, creating a veritable yard sale of high technology and lowly debris. Space boots and portable life-support systems. The armrests from their cockpit seats. A hammer, scoops, cameras and containers. Tethers and antennas. Empty food bags and bags filled with human waste.

Low-impact campers they were not.

"They were told to jettison things that weren't important. So they starting tossing stuff," said Beth O'Leary, an assistant professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University and a leader in the emerging field of space heritage and archaeology. "They were essentially told, 'Here's eight minutes, create an archaeology site.' "

There are countless places on Earth that have been awarded protection to preserve their historic or cultural importance. The moon has none. But that may be about to change.

California is poised to become the first state to register the items at Tranquility Base as an official State Historical Resource. If the State Historical Resources Commission approves the idea at a meeting in Sacramento today, it would be a victory for scientists who want to build support for having Tranquility Base designated a United Nations World Heritage Site in advance of what they believe will be unmanned trips to the moon by private groups, and even someday by tourists. Proposals to place the items on historic registries in Texas and New Mexico are planned for later this year.

"There's a really good chance that we will be up there again in the next decades," said Jay Correia, a California state historian who manages the registration process.

"It's one of the most important historic events in the history of mankind. At first glance, it seems bizarre to even talk about it. But we have to talk about it. Can you imagine someone driving a cart over Neil Armstrong's first footprint? Wouldn't that be terrible!"

Because the moon has no atmosphere, Armstrong's left boot print remains in the gray powder just where he planted it at 7:56 p.m. Pacific time on July 20, 1969 -- a mind-blowing moment watched by hundreds of millions of TV viewers worldwide.

How to preserve such a treasure is a priority for the space heritage movement. The loose group of engineers, historians and anthropologists regards the Space Age the way other scientists do the Stone Age. It is an epoch of technological advancement and human exploration that scientists hope will be studied for generations to come.

More than 27,000 tons of rockets, probes and satellites have been hurled into space. The moon is the grandmother's attic of space junk, home to remnants from six manned Apollo missions and unmanned missions launched by the United States, the former Soviet Union, the European Space Agency, Japan and India.

"We lose a lot of stuff every day on Earth because of neglect, vandalism and erosion," O'Leary said. "As things are destroyed, we lose part of our knowledge about the past. On the moon, if you take the long view -- say, 100 years out -- there's a good risk that we will lose the information that is sitting there."

O'Leary is one of the founders of the Lunar Legacy Project, which cataloged the items at Tranquility Base by scouring government archives. She was drawn to the issue in 1999 after a student asked her an intriguing question: Can federal preservation laws be applied to the moon?

The short answer: It's complicated.

The United States is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Though its delightful name suggests a truce between Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless, its provisions are serious and clear. Nations own the objects they put into space, no matter where they land. But they cannot claim sovereignty over any part of space.

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