Preserving Neil Armstrong’s Footprints on the Moon Is an Easy Decision

Deciding what else to protect as we have more “firsts” in space will be a lot harder.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin with the seismic experiment. Solar panels have deployed on the left and right and the antenna is pointed at Earth. The laser reflector is beyond the antenna and, in the distance, the TV camera is silhouetted against the black sky.
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong took his famous “small step for man, giant leap for mankind.” Just in time for its anniversary, Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson introduced a bill called the “One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act,” which would require all spacefarers using a U.S. license to tread lightly around the Apollo 11 landing site, called Tranquility Base, as well as other historic landing sites. (Its counterpart in the Senate passed Thursday.) “On the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, it is only fitting to recognize humankind’s achievements in space by preserving the lunar sites American astronauts first walked upon during the Apollo missions,” Johnson said in a press release. “As our nation and others look to return to the Moon, we must preserve these sites for the historical, archeological, and inspirational value they hold.”

But the moon is just the beginning of humanity’s adventures in space. We’re on the verge of more expeditions that are obviously historic from the get-go, like the first crewed mission to Mars. The first settlements on planets or asteroids would be important firsts as well, but it’d defeat their purpose to freeze them as preserved monuments when humans would likely need to use that infrastructure daily. Figuring out what should be preserved is going to be even more challenging than figuring out what to do about Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s footprints.

Already, there are more than 100 sites on the moon that show evidence of human activity, says Michelle Hanlon, a professor of air and space law at the University of Mississippi and co-founder of For All Moonkind, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving human sites in space that helped senators develop the One Small Step Act. As we continue our exploration of planets and asteroids, we’ll be making history at every turn, creating loads of potentially preservation-worthy sites. How to determine which of those sites should be preserved is still very much up in the air, as well as who will actually make those determinations.

Even just sorting out the stuff on the moon will be a tough call. A 2011 NASA report detailing how to protect and preserve lunar artifacts includes a list of our “assets” on the moon. While some of them are no-brainers to preserve—the flag planted by Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, for instance—others would be considered trash in any other context. For instance, there’s a defecation collection device and a handful of urine receptacles left over from Apollo 11 mission, and some used wet wipes from the Apollo 17 crew.

“Trash for archaeologists is really important,” says Beth O’Leary, a space archaeologist. “What may be considered unimportant or obsolete can give us insight into what happened.” If our ancestors do go deep into space and come back in 2,000 years, they’d probably find our urine receptacles pretty intriguing as a glimpse into primitive technology. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should leave everything where it is forever. Instead, says O’Leary, a governing committee with delegates chosen from participating countries could develop criteria to determine what is preserved and how.

That’s no small task. The burgeoning field of space law has no existing structure to handle such designations. The One Small Step Act is a nice gesture, but its terms would only apply to entities who seek licenses from the U.S. to operate in space. (The United Nations’ 1967 Outer Space Treaty dictates that spacefarers must be licensed by a country, which is then responsible for their activities.) The U.N. might be a good place to start; here on Earth, the U.N.’s Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization designates World Heritage sites and those are protected by international law, but there’s no equivalent governing body or space law that could protect sites in space. To complicate things further, the Outer Space Treaty established that no country can own land in space, and therefore, there’s no one entity that can preside over a protected site. Figuring out how to preserve sites on the moon requires wading into still-murky questions about property in space. “If you have sites on the moon that nobody can touch, that’s opening the door to figuring out how we’re going to regulate private activities in space, and space resource utilization,” says Hanlon. That’s going to take time.

The legal red tape might slow down our ability to preserve sites, but so might our norms about what makes something historic. Often, it takes time to recognize the full worth of a historical moment, site, or artifact. While many blasted Elon Musk’s Roadster launch stunt as space junk, perhaps in 50 years we’ll see some historic value to it. O’Leary started thinking about historic preservation of the moon around 30 years after the Apollo 11 landing, when she was teaching a class about federal preservation law. “A student asked me during class, ‘Does it apply to the moon?’ And I said, ‘Whoa, I never thought of that’—and that started my interest.”

In American historic preservation circles, the usual convention is that sites become eligible for the National Register of Historic Places after they hit 50. “It seems that 50 is just a golden barrier: It’s a line you cross. When people have their 50th anniversary, or a half-century passes, all of a sudden people start to recognize the path as important.” But what’s seen as “history” may also vary from culture to culture; Hanlon mentions a Greek colleague of hers who balked at 50 years as a milestone for moon “artifacts,” given the legacy of ancient relics from her home country. These different cultural perspectives could make it hard to agree on things. Hanlon says the dozens of experts she’s been working with have discussed this for months, but still have yet to agree on a definition for “heritage in outer space.”

Firsts are an obvious place to start, but there are lots of ways to conceptualize what it means to be the first of something. Many countries have sent probes to the moon, and many more will; in just a few days, India is set to launch its first moon lander after its initial launch attempt earlier this week was scrapped. Neil Armstrong might’ve been the first man to walk on the moon; Buzz Aldrin was the first man born in New Jersey to walk on the moon. “Everything on the moon could have a ‘first’ in it,” says Hanlon. “What should be preserved are historic firsts for humankind.”

O’Leary suggests that places with significance for scientific or historic purposes could also be preserved. As more of human history is lived out of space, we’ll inevitably pivot toward preserving not just firsts, but the same kinds of achievements we commemorate here: battle sites, places associated with notable people. If we’re following UNESCO’s lead with conventions for designating World Heritage sites, space explorers may also consider protecting especially beautiful or scenic locations. Given how often preservation of natural spaces conflicts with resource extraction here on Earth, the issue could quite possibly arise elsewhere in the universe.

No matter what happens with the One Small Step Act, we’re just at the beginning of unraveling what it means to preserve humanity’s legacy beyond the lands where we were born. Here, we have a chance to learn from our mistakes on Earth and think more broadly about what we want our spacefaring to look like. “We see this as an opportunity to guide how humanity explores space,” says Hanlon, “and how we take the next step for our civilization.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.