Protecting Apollo 11’s Landing Site

September 5th, 2012

Credit: NASA

As a public memorial is being readied in Washington, D.C. to honor the recent passing of astronaut Neil Armstrong, work is underway to protect the Apollo 11 landing site on the Moon and make it a National Historic Landmark.

A New Mexico State University NMSU professor has helped to draft congressional legislation to do so, one aspect of the emerging field of space heritage preservation.

Beth O’Leary, an associate professor of anthropology in NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, has teamed with Chico State University archaeology professor Lisa Westwood on the effort.

O’Leary and Westwood have worked with California Congressman Dan Lungren and his staff to write a bill that would protect Tranquility Base and all the artifacts moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind on the lunar surface.

Cultural artifacts

“There’s a total of 190 tons of cultural material on the moon, which surprises a lot of people. It surprised me. For Apollo 11 we have counted about 106 artifacts,” O’Leary said. “What we’re trying to preserve are those really significant technological objects that got those two guys to the moon for the first time,” she added in a NMSU press statement.

California and New Mexico have already listed Tranquility Base on their state historic registers. The next step would be the National Historic Landmark designation. Once a property is designated a National Historic Landmark, it can be nominated for inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Westwood and O’Leary also have been working with ICOMOS, the World Heritage List’s advisory body, over the last three years to make the case for the Apollo sites to be added to this list.

“Sites on the list now include Chaco Canyon, the Pyramids at Giza, Stonehenge, so there are many sites on the Earth that are recognized by this group of people,” O’Leary explains. “Putting the first lunar landing on the list means we recognize this is an achievement for humanity.”


Objects at Tranquility Base are in a legal gray area. Countries own the property they have placed on the Moon, however, by treaty, no one can own the lunar surface.

In 2010, Robert Kelso, former director of NASA’s lunar commercial services, invited O’Leary to join a group of NASA scientists and engineers in creating guidelines to protect U.S. objects on the moon from future visitors. The recommendations were developed in response to a request from the Google X Prize.

Although it has no force of law, the paper, NASA’s Recommendations to Space Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts, took an important first step toward protecting these sites on the moon, according to O’Leary. The guidelines outline excluded areas and provide recommendations to prevent contamination of these sites.

Space archaeology

“Some of those guidelines include where these spacecraft can land and the distance at which they have to be,” said O’Leary. “They can image the objects, but we would hate for a rover that is mobile to go over the tracks that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made or to crash into some of the artifacts that are standing…some of them are scientific experiments.”

“I’m one of those believers that if it’s not in two years or five years or 20 years, we will go back to the Moon, I think first with robotics and second with humans,” O’Leary said.

It is O’Leary’s belief that if there isn’t a preservation framework in place, nor rules and ideas about what is important to preserve and how to preserve it, there’s the risk of destroying sites and artifacts.

“In archaeology, once you take away something, once it’s destroyed, it’s gone forever,” O’Leary concludes.

By Leonard David
Special thanks to NMSU writer, Minerva Baumann

One Response

  1. Michael Listner says:

    The National Historic Landmark Program as codified in United States’ Code of Federal Regulation Title 36 § 65 would not allow this. The Program concerns real property under the jurisdiction or ownership of the United States government. For the Apollo 11 site to be designated as such the United States would have to essentially make a territorial claim on the Moon in violation of Article II of the Outer Space Treaty.