Space archaeology: how to protect lunar sites?

For this new Space Law article on Space Legal Issues, let’s have a look at space archaeology. As private companies or NASA revive the space race to Mars, the Moon has once again become an important landmark in space exploration. How to protect the first sites of space exploration, when space is supposed to belong to everyone? The trace of the boot left on the lunar floor by Neil Armstrong in July 1969 is still intact, fifty years later.

Two golf balls, a work of art entitled “Fallen Astronaut”, a falcon feather, twelve pairs of space boots, ninety-six bags of excrement, and especially more than fifty remains of space vehicles, from stages of the rocket Saturn V, to the lunar exploration modules used by NASA… On the Moon, the traces of the passage of our specie remain immutable for fifty years, insensitive to the passage of time.

Really? In the wake of the renewal of space exploration, while NASA and private companies, SpaceX in the lead, announce wanting to send people to Mars, the Moon seems to have become a point of step in the race for outer space. The footprints of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and the astronauts who followed them, are still printed in the lunar dust, and it would be enough for a new explorer to venture a little too close to this historic site, to destroy its archaeological character.

Return to the Moon: a stage of space exploration,and space archaeology?

If Donald Trump wishes to return to the Moon in the next five years, as he has announced, it is primarily by political calculation. In 2020, the current president of the United States of America is expected to run for a second term, and such a promise is in line with its flagship slogan: “Make America Great Again”. Bringing the race to the forefront, with a return to the Moon announced for 2024, Donald Trump indirectly invokes the fantasy past of the Kennedy era, and hopes to reconnect with the era of American success.

NASA is not the only one to want to return to the Moon. Our natural satellite is an obligatory step in the conquest of the Solar System, and Chinese as Indians, in full development of their respective space programs, have already announced they want to go there by 2030. On the side of private companies, some entrepreneurs are more willing to promote space tourism. Others have put the Moon at the heart of their communication, like the Berlin company PTScientists, supported by Vodafone, which has already announced its willingness to install a mobile antenna on the Moon, in order to facilitate future scientific explorations…

The company does not deprive itself and announced its willingness to take advantage of missions to return to the landing site of the Apollo 17 mission, the last to have taken our specie on the Moon, interesting for space archaeology. “Outer space belongs to everyone, and with Mission to the Moon, we invite the world to join us at this pioneering stage of access to space exploration. The inspiration transmitted by the Apollo missions touched people who, like me, were not born and could not live them. Apollo 17 marked the end of a chapter in space exploration, but as we enter a new chapter, private exploration, I want to create a new Apollo Moment, to inspire a new generation of explorers, engineers and scientists”.

The Berlin company plans to visit the Apollo 17 site to photograph the abandoned rover on site. If it announced that it has partnered with For All Moonkind, Inc., an international NGO whose sole purpose is to preserve the historical legacy of our specie in outer space, and work hand in hand with NASA, its intentions have led to questions about how best to safeguard these historic sites.

Is outer space belonging to everyone?

But is outer space belonging to everyone, as Robert Boehme, from the Berlin company PTScientists, says? And should “Neil Armstrong’s footprints be on the moon for all eternity?” recently asked The New York Times. Let’s recall that the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force on October 10, 1967), in its Article I, states that “The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.

Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international cooperation in such investigation”.

Article II of the aforementioned international convention declares that “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”.

The first two articles provide that no state may appropriate outer space, so nothing protects the sites where the American astronauts landed, if not classical law. The legal regime of objects brought into outer space or on celestial bodies obeys the principles of protection of private property, and restitution to the owner. Unless a declaration of abandonment by the owner, which has never been the case, there is no concept of wreck in space law. It is the protection of objects and their constituent elements that is put forward. It is therefore forbidden to pick up a golf ball. But if the objects of NASA still belong to the American space agency, nothing prevents new astronauts, or even robots, to walk on the sites, on the footprints of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

As a conclusion on space archaeology, nothing in space law prohibits the U.S. from setting up facilities to protect archaeological sites, and artefacts, such as a “base-museum”. The only legal obligation is that those installations or sites remain accessible to other states. The other option, if the U.S.A. cannot afford to return to the Moon to build the facilities necessary for the preservation of the places, would consist to ask for “international protection by the inscription in the UNESCO World Heritage Centre”. This is the option favoured so far by the NGO For All Moonkind, Inc., which is working to create a text that would preserve the legacy of our specie in outer space, a first draft of which was publicly released last April. The NGO intends to propose to the United Nations a program for the preservation of lunar sites that has been pre-validated by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). If this proposition was to be accepted by the U.N., it would be the responsibility of all actors of outer space exploration, to preserve the archaeological sites beyond Earth, whether on the Moon, Mars or elsewhere. This is what can be said concerning space archaeology.