Human Heritage in Outer Space

On September 13, 1959, the first human-made object, the Soviet Union’s Luna 2, reached the surface of the Moon.  Ten years would pass before millions of people watched as the first human footprints were set on the Moon’s desolate surface. The robots, the footprints and the astronauts who put them there were envoys of all humankind, propelled to the heavens on the ingenuity and perseverance of thousands of scientists, engineers, tool workers and dreamers from around the globe. The artifacts and boot prints have been undisturbed for nearly six decades. Preserved by the vacuum of space – and by the fact that no human, and only a handful of rovers, has returned to the Moon since 1972. But that’s about to change.

It is clear that we stand on the threshold of the spacefaring age, and that our Moon is about to get very crowded. Japan, China, Russia and the United States all are weighing crewed Moon missions within the next decade. Private crewed missions may get there even sooner on the backs of SpaceX or Blue Origin. More robots will be deployed to the Moon by nations and private interests as early as 2018. And Europe and China continue to tease about collaboration on a potential Moon colony.

Each of the Apollo Lunar Landing Sites and the robotic sites that preceded and followed the Apollo missions are evidence of humanity’s first tentative steps off our planet Earth and to the stars. They mark an achievement unparalleled in human history, and one that is common to all humankind.   They hold valuable scientific and archaeological information. They also serve as poignant memorials to all those who work — and have worked in the past — to make the spacefaring human a reality. In short, they are unique and irreplaceable cultural and scientific resources. They must be protected from intentional or accidental disturbance or desecration.

Such protection is not unprecedented.  In 1972, the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) introduced the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The World Heritage Convention, now boasting 193 State Parties, recognizes “that deterioration or disappearance of any item of the cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world.” Regardless of sovereignty, the Convention emphasizes “the importance, for all the peoples of the world, of safeguarding this unique and irreplaceable property, to whatever people it may belong.”

The UNESCO World Heritage Convention has been a great success, helping preserve natural and cultural landmarks around the world. From the Tsodilo in Botswana to the Taj Mahal in India, the achievements of humankind have been recognized and conserved — including fossilized footprints of a long-forgotten hominin species in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, evidence of the development of human bipedalism.

Shouldn’t our first footprints on the Moon merit the same recognition?

But the World Heritage Convention is not equipped to recognize territory in outer space. As such, For All Moonkind’s growing team of entirely volunteer space lawyers and policymakers from around the world are developing a new convention designed to protect our human heritage in outer space. It will be based in part upon the successful World Heritage model, as well as other Earth-based treaties like the Underwater Cultural Heritage Convention.

Currently, there are more than 80 historical archaeological sites on the Moon from the crash site of Luna 2 to Apollo 11’s Tranquility Base to the tracks of Yutu. Each bears witness to moments that changed, and advanced, our human civilization irrevocably. No longer are we tied to our Mother Earth. In incremental steps, the heavens have been opened for exploration, and celestial bodies for settlement. Certainly not every movement of human – or human-guided robot – on the Moon needs to remain sacrosanct. However, guidelines and the framework for potential protection should be set in place before revisits occur. The idea is not to stifle exploration, but to preserve, for present and future generations, those sites that meet certain agreed criteria.