Sunday, 21 October 2012

Moon Landing Sites Protected

The age of private space travel is upon us. At first it was just Russia who managed to get into space, then America quickly followed. Many years later China and Japan jumped in, then France, the UK, India... today there are a dozen or more nations with astronautical capability. But in the past the huge cost and complexity of launching rockets and sending craft across the heavens made it always the realm of governments; however nowadays private companies are making serious plans to put rockets... and even people... into space. To encourage them, Google has launched a competition: the Lunar X Prize, for any privately-funded project that can launch rocket to the moon, deploy a mobile lander onto the lunar surface, have it travel half a kilometre and then send a radio signal back to Earth, see:

One of the contestant teams, founded by an American company called Astrobotic Technology, announced its chosen landing site as being near Tranquility Base, the supposed landing site of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module. It then planned to send its mobile lander into the vicinity of Tranquility Base to take photoes and video footage of the LM descent stage, the flag and all the other things supposed to be there. NASA's reaction to this was to approach the Google X Prize organizers and asked them to observe a set of exclusion zones around the landing sites of at least two of the Apollo missions; probably the others will follow. These zones will be between 75 and 225 metres across. This is in order, so they say, to preserve the locations in their pristine condition and let them remain untouched for future historians and scientists to study. The no-go area will include a no-fly zone for ascending or descending rockets above the sites so that even a rain of rocket exhaust vapour does not pollute the stasis created there from 1969 to 1972. See: There is a major political statement being made here; because it's a far-reaching issue to say that a national space agency, or any other terrestrial authority, can decide who has access to a location on the surface of a heavenly body. The landing sites of the Apollo missions were not intended to be beachheads for an empire or colony of any kind. This may constitute a breach of the 1967 Treaty on the Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use Outer Space, the Moon and other Celestial Bodies.

On the one hand I can see that there's good sense in requesting such an action because there are, allegedly, very delicate items of historical importance there: equipment used by the Apollo astronaut's, the footprint of Neil Armstrong's "one small step", which will not fade naturally on a world without wind or rain. It would be the decent thing to do and I'd support that. In fact a professor at the University of New Mexico, Prof. Beth O'Leary, wants the all spacecraft landing sites to be declared national monuments: That brings us back to the question of whether the word "national" can be used to include anything not only beyond the borders of a sovereign state, but beyond the planet Earth! However wouldn't it make sense for NASA to take advantage of the opportunity by negotiating and cooperating with the Lunar X Prize organizers to maybe approaching the Apollo landing sites and studying them from a distance whereby nothing within them would be disturbed? It would be interesting from a historical and scientific perspective, as well as being a money-spinner in terms of publicity! Perhaps NASA have another motive for not wanting anybody to go near the Apollo landing sites: That they're simply not there! See here for more details:

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