Although only three nations have managed to successfully put humans in space and return them safely in the near sixty years since Yuri Gagarin’s historic first flight, an influx of private space organizations and national level programs in recent years is beginning to make it look like mankind’s days of loitering in low earth orbit may finally be numbered. With national level plans for long term space stations orbiting and even on the surface of the moon and multiple private organizations planning trips to our closest celestial neighbor, the United States is beginning to worry about just how to protect important historical lunar landmarks, like the original Apollo landing sites.

Future visiting vehicles landing near, flying over, or roving to the Apollo lunar landing sites could cause damage to scientific value of the artifacts, mar footprints left by our early explorers or damage ongoing science experiments,” reads a new report released by the White House and produced by the federal government’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

NASA’s Apollo astronauts left a good deal of gear on the moon’s surface. Some of it was left intentionally for symbolic or scientific reasons, others simply to reduce weight for the return trip home, but nearly all of falls under some category of significance. With important landmarks like the location of Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man,” on one end of that spectrum and things like laser ranging retroreflectors on the other, NASA and the White House are now hoping to establish international norms regarding the protection of these and similar historic sites.

Even trash left behind by astronauts could have significant scientific value to researchers working on ways to prolong the functional lifespan of the equipment and materials carried into space. For instance, 189 pieces of various gear were cataloged and left on the lunar surface by Apollo 15, “including the descent stage of the Lunar Module, the Lunar Roving Vehicle, the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, and a wide variety of miscellaneous items.” A mission sent to carefully recover or examine those items could shed light on the long term effects of space exposure on the types of materials NASA uses in manned space flight operations.

The problem, however, is that there truly is no governing body in space that could be leaned on to enforce norms regarding the treatment or total avoidance of previous missions. In fact, the report even states, in no uncertain terms that currently, “there are no legal definitions of ‘preservation’ and ‘protection’ precisely applicable to lunar sites and artifacts.”

One of Buzz Aldrin’s boot prints from the Apollo 11 mission in July of 1969. (NASA)

The report does, however, lean on he 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), to help establish the precedent for ownership and responsibility. According to the White House, an interpretation of a number of articles within the treaty dictates that space-faring countries have an “obligation to exercise control over their own activities in outer space as well as those activities of their private actors.”

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“Any activities in space that could interfere with U.S. space objects—including equipment on the Moon—should include advance consultation with the United States.” It goes on.

The report also suggests the establishment of a new international treaty, or an update to previous treaties like the OST, that allows for the new shape of manned and unmanned space travel in the years to come. It also recommends that the American government work alongside international partners to find a common ground when it comes to the laws nations, and corporations, will be expected to abide by when conducting operations on the lunar surface and elsewhere.

The report also acknowledges concerns about claimed sovereignty on earth’s only non-artificial satellite. “Some states might see a U.S.-led attempt to protect space artifacts as a subterfuge for securing indefinite rights over lunar territory,” the report says, “and perhaps even creating a mechanism to ‘plant the flag’ and claim additional territory in the future under the guise of preservation and protection of lunar sites and artifacts.”

While it does offer executable suggestions, this new report is, in effect, little more than a formal acknowledgement of just how complicated things in orbit around our little blue dot promises to become in the coming decades. As more nations field space programs, and more companies join the fray, the space between the earth and the moon is going to grow pretty crowded… and with very few laws governing this new realm of exploration and enterprise, things are bound to get pretty interesting.

Feature image courtesy of NASA