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NASA asks future explorers to respect historic landing sites


May 27, 2012

The NASA guidelines are intended to protect historic US landing sites, such as Apollo 11's (Image: NASA)

The NASA guidelines are intended to protect historic US landing sites, such as Apollo 11's (Image: NASA)

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When the last American astronauts blasted off from the Moon in 1972, it seemed as if they were leaving behind monuments that would stand for all time. On a lifeless, airless satellite there would never be any scavengers or souvenir hunters, no wind to bury or wear down the abandoned spacecraft and artifacts, and no air to corrode metal. Even the footprints would still be there millions of years from now. Or so everyone thought. Now, with more and more nations and private organizations planning manned and unmanned missions to the Moon, NASA is worried that the Apollo landing sites and others could be endangered by the next wave of lunar explorers. To prevent this, the space agency issued a set of guidelines that politely asks everybody to keep their distance.

NASA left a lot of hardware on the Moon during its first phase of lunar exploration. In addition to the six Apollo landing sites there are the remains of five Ranger probes that were deliberately crashed into the Moon, seven Surveyor soft landers, five S-IVB Apollo third-stage boosters that were used for seismic studies and six Lunar Module Ascent Stages that were crashed at the end of their missions, as was the complete Lunar Module from Apollo 10 and an assortment of orbiter probes that ended up impacting the surface.

That is a lot of hardware and it’s also a lot of history. NASA is worried that without some guidance and agreement irreplaceable relics of the Space Age, such as Neil Armstrong’s first footprint on the Moon could be lost and sites needlessly disturbed. More than that, many of these sites are still of great scientific interest with experiments still going on after more than forty years. The Apollo landing sites, for example contain laser reflectors for accurately measuring the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Also, the spacecraft and equipment left behind are a valuable experiment in the effects of prolonged exposure to the lunar environment. Though there’s no air on the Moon, there are extremes of temperature in the hundreds of degrees, micrometeorites, cosmic radiation and intense ultraviolet light. The last is particularly destructive. If some future astronaut does visit an Apollo site, he might think that someone has run off with the nylon American flag or the gold plastic foil that wrapped the Descent Stage. In fact, the UV rays from the Sun destroyed both years ago.

Apollo 11's Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment is still operating today (Image: NASA)

With both history and science at stake, NASA feels that it cannot ignore the possible threat posed by Moon new programs, no matter how well intentioned they are. The space agency therefore recently took the opportunity to announce that the Google Lunar X Prize committee is agreeing to abide by guidelines issued by NASA in 2011. These guidelines, which cover Apollo landing sites, impact areas, unmanned probes, experiments and footprints and rover tracks, are intended to protect historic sites, prevent interference with experiments and to ensure that American property rights are respected, since all the vehicles and gear still belong to the U.S. government.

Effectively, the guidelines boil down to steering clear of U.S. lunar sites whenever possible. Future landings are asked to remain two kilometers from historic sites (especially those of Apollo 11, the first manned landing site, and Apollo 17, the last Apollo manned landing site). They are also asked to remain half a kilometer away from impact sites. This exclusion zone doesn’t just include landings, but also any flyover paths that a landing spacecraft might take.

A matter of dust

The reason for this is dust. One advantage of being on the Moon is that there isn’t any air to suspend dust particles. Unfortunately, that also means that there’s no air to slow down even the tiniest particle. An impacting object or the blast from a landing rocket can kick up huge quantities of dust and hurl them with such velocity that they can go into orbit around the Moon or even escape entirely. This was shown during the Apollo 12 mission when the astronauts examined the Surveyor 3 lander, which NASA had sent a couple of years earlier to scout out landing sites. Despite being far off, the Lunar Module Intrepid created such a storm of dust that the Surveyor suffered a miniature artillery barrage.

For similar reasons, rover operators are requested to keep speeds down in the vicinity of sites to prevent kicking up dust. Though rovers are requested to steer clear entirely from the Apollo 11 and 17 sites, they will be allowed within one to three meters of spacecraft and objects at the Apollo 12, 14 and 16 sites so long as they stay away from active experiments or places where soil samples were taken. The one thing NASA is emphatic about ensuring that any rovers in the area to move well away from the sites by the end of their missions. The last thing NASA wants is for a rover to “die” on site and start venting battery gases that contaminate the area.

A polite request

The important thing to remember about NASA’s guidelines is that they are exactly that - guidelines. The U.S. space agency has no power to enforce its rules on other organizations. Though there is a UN Outer Space Treaty to control how space explorers behave, not every nation is a signatory and the treaty is something of a Cold War statement of piety barring spacefaring nations from doing what they couldn’t do anyway, such as claiming whole planets. More to the point, the treaty may not apply to private organizations. Worse, it may not stand up to challenges based on precedents of salvage or maritime law. In other words, over half a century after Sputnik, space law is still a bit of a muddle.

Because of these legal question marks, NASA is taking the softly, softly route of issuing guidelines and requesting politely that everyone else respects them. It would clearly be a great pity if these guidelines aren't followed, but only time will tell whether the site of humanity’s first visit to another world remains untouched.

Source: NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

I don't think a polite request is going to help much stopping people disturbing the evidence of one of the greatest technological achievements of mankind.

Joris van den Heuvel

Law in space! Look at the joke it has become on this planet and how the nature of Earth has not been disturbed by any money-hungry corporations.

I think what NASA is suggesting is that the USA dictate rules in space as well as on Earth. As on Earth they want to choose the right to bomb and take over anything because they say so.

Bet this bomb explosion left a crater they don't want anyone to go near. http://www.thestar.com/sciencetech/article/707964--nasa-crashes-rocket-into-moon

Bobby Gill

"...monuments that would stand for all time." - For real!

For starters back in 72 it certainly wasn't expected that it would be decades or even years before the Moon was revisited and in fact many thought we would have a semi-permanent base on the planet by now (semi as in being able to evacuate in minutes).

@Joris van den Heuvel: Sure it will. It won't guard the sites forever but as long as those going to the Moon are scientists rather than tourists the sites will be respected. And this is regardless of those visiting are going in person or per remote tools.


My first thought on this was "great!"... the very fact that NASA are issuing such requests - rightly or wrongly, I don't want to get into that- shows that further exploration (or even exploitation) of the moon and its resources are seen as very real possibilities. Along with the Asteroid mining company recently instigated, this gives me much more hope that man will, in the not-to-distant future, be reaching out from earth.


There is no such thing as respect even in the scientific community. NASA asking for people to respect their various landing and experiment sites is like asking 5 year old kids not to fight about toys. There is always one kid that claims all the toys for them self, just as NASA is doing now. NASA abandoned these sites just by the mere fact that they have not returned to the moon in almost 40 years, and now they want a huge exclusion zone for areas they cherry picked for what they believed to be valuable sites and they don't want anyone else exploring these sites. If NASA wants to claim these sites, they need to be on these sites. Space law needs to follow the centuries old Maritime law.


It would be a tragedy if the Apollo 11 site in particular was trashed - but imagine the value of some of that equipment, if brought back to earth and sold to the highest bidder. It will be like the wreck of the titanic, and in fact, these sites will be more of a draw than anything else on the moon (who wants rocks?) to the first few private space buckaneers.


In a "non-serious" vein . . . Where in the Heck are the conspiricy theorists on this one? They should be chiming in with "The REAL reason NASA doesn't want anyone there is that they could see the fraud that was perpetuated on a gullible American and Soviet population!"

PicklePop Flyer

Please don't remove any props from the stage where the moon landings were filmed. That way we can preserve the equipment for posterity (when we need to film Mars landings later).

haha. end of conspiracy rant.

but seriously...

It is unfortunate that people have to be told to leave historical sites alone..and even then, it's unlikely they will do so.


@PicklePop Flyer at first I thought the same thing, but I guess you have to keep in mind that NASA only ask that they stay a few meters from 12, 14, and 16. but I find it hard to believe the first footprint is still there, unless Buzz and Neil made a conscious effort not to step in it. but it will be funny to see people still try and say we never went to the moon even after we go back and take pictures of the old sites from a few feet away.

The Pictures should be great.

NASA needs to make some terminators so they can launch them up to the landing zones to protect the areas, nothing bad could happen then…

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