NASA

Lunar encounter. An Apollo astronaut visits Surveyor 3, left behind on a previous mission.

NASA Aims to Protect Apollo Artifacts From Next Lunar Arrivals

NASA has begun wrestling with how to safeguard the historic and scientific value of more than three dozen sites on the moon. These remnants of America's golden era of space exploration, including the spot where Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. left the first footprints on the lunar surface, may become vulnerable as dozens of private teams, spurred on by $30 million in prize money from Google and the X Prize Foundation, race to return to the moon as early as next year.

Later this month, the agency plans to issue what it calls "recommendations" for spacecraft, or future astronauts, visiting U.S. government property on the moon. A 20 July version of the guidelines obtained by Science proposes, for example, that missions approach Apollo landing sites and artifacts at a tangent to avoid crashing into them. It also suggests no-fly and buffer zones to avoid spraying rocket exhaust or dust onto historic equipment. The document includes a research wish list, written by NASA scientists and engineers for any private team or country sending a craft to the moon. The list ranges from the mundane, such as taking close-up photographs of decades-old laser range-finding mirrors still used by Earth-based astronomers, to more far-out ideas, such as studying discarded food or abandoned astronaut feces.

NASA's recommendations won't be legally binding—according to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the lunar surface has no owner. But the agency is hopeful that the competing teams, which requested the guidelines and have been providing feedback to the agency, will sign on to a final version.

For the full version of this exclusive story, see the 2 Sept issue of Science.

Posted in Space