|June 5, 2019
— The United States Congress could soon take action to preserve Tranquility Base on the moon.
The "One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act," a bipartisan bill recently introduced into the Senate, requires that all U.S. licensed missions to the lunar surface include an agreement to protect the site where humans first landed on the moon.
"The landing of the Apollo 11 spacecraft and humanity's first off-world footprints are achievements unparalleled in history," reads the bill (S.1694), sponsored by Senator Gary Peters of Michigan and cosponsored by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
"As commercial enterprises and more countries acquire the ability to land on the moon, it is necessary to ensure the recognition and protection of the Apollo 11 landing site and other historic landing sites together with all the human effort and innovation the sites represent," the legislation states.
Rather than draft new rules for protecting Tranquility Base, the act relies on a set of guidelines published by NASA in 2011. The space agency's recommendations, which until now have been non-binding, address the approach paths of spacecraft descending to the lunar surface, touchdown targeting and "keep-out zones" in order to avoid the purposeful or inadvertent disturbance of the Apollo landing sites.
With the enactment of the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act, all U.S. federal agencies that issue licenses for companies or other entities to conduct activities in space would, going forward, include a provision that the mission operators abide by NASA's lunar artifact protection recommendations or face penalties.
"A federal agency issuing a license ... may assess a penalty fee on the holder of such license for conduct that violates one or more of terms of the license relating to the agreement," the legislation provides. The penalty fee amount assessed ... shall be commensurate with the nature and extent of the violation and sufficient to deter future violations."
The licensing agency could issue an exemption though, if, in consultation with NASA, the proposed intrusion into the Apollo 11 landing site was found "to have legitimate and significant historical, archeological, anthropological, scientific or engineering value." (NASA, as a federal agency, needs no additional licensing to stage its own missions to the moon and therefore requires no exemption.)
The introduction of the bill follows a 2018 White House assessment that there is value in protecting and preserving the Apollo landing sites for historic, cultural and scientific reasons. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) stopped short, though, of advocating for new international treaties.
The licensing provisions in the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act only apply to U.S.-based missions, so the bill also addresses the need for foreign accords.
"It is the sense of Congress that the President should initiate a diplomatic initiative to negotiate an international agreement," the bill reads.
While the 1967 Outer Space Treaty provides the legal foundation for the United States to still claim ownership of the artifacts it left on the moon, there are no existing protections to dissuade the disturbance of the Apollo landing sites. The One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act is the first bill introduced in the U.S. that treats the issue of the preservation of lunar landing sites as an international issue.
For All Moonkind, a non-profit advocating for the protection and preservation of human heritage sites on the moon and in space, worked with Senator Peters to draft the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act. The organization is pushing for the bill to become law in time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in July.
|Tranquility Base, the Apollo 11 moon landing site, as photographed on July 20, 1969. New U.S. legislation seeks to protect the site from purposeful or inadvertent disturbance 50 years later. (NASA)