Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Dangerous “Trek” to Tranquility Base

Astrobotics has announced an exciting and ambitious effort to land a robotic rover on the lunar surface at the site of the Apollo 11 landing as part of the Google LunarX Prize competition. Dubbed the “Tranquility Trek” they plan to land and explore the historic site where humans first set foot on the moon using caution to not disturb the site. As exciting and admirable as Google’s initiative to promote private efforts to return to the moon is this specific plan by Astrobotics to visit and explore the Apollo 11 landing site merits reconsideration and a call by NASA, Google, historians and leading space authorities to preserve the landing site from those that now wish to explore and those that at some point may wish to exploit the site by retrieving artifacts for return to earth. Astrobotics promise to not “disturb” the site is not enough. We need look only to the Titanic for a lesson in what could happen to a site of historical significance. Once thought unreachable after it was discovered and visited in 1985 for exploration it didn’t take long for the commercial exploitation to begin. In the twenty-three years since it was rediscovered the site has been damaged by frequent commercial visits and salvage operations. To prevent the same fate from befalling the Apollo 11 site we must act now. It took seventy-three years to find and reach the Titanic - it has only been forty-years since Apollo 11 landed on the moon, but the pace of technological achievement is rapidly providing private enterprises and countries around the world with the capability to disturb and exploit a site that otherwise would be preserved for hundreds of millions of years.

The steps we need to take –
  • Enact legislation that designates the Apollo 11 site as a historic site to be preserved.
  • Prohibit organizations from exploring or exploited the site for commercial gain.
  • Prohibit the sale or possession of artifacts removed from the site in the United States
  • Implement a series of actions for companies or individuals that violate the ban.
  • Eliminate federal funding, federal support or contractual opportunities for any company that violates the ban.
  • Encourage the President and Senate to work internationally to designate the Apollo 11 site as an International Historic Site of significance to all peoples.
  • Work to implement a treaty banning disturbance or removal of artifacts from the site.
As more nations and more private efforts take robotic and manned missions into space and back to the moon it is inevitable that some will try to exploit history in the name of exploration. There are those that believe that we never reached the moon and therefore this is just another attempt to “cover-up” an event that never happened. Soon new lunar orbiting vehicles will photograph the Apollo 11 site and end any doubts. However, for Astrobiotics mission and any other efforts that could potentially reach the site there are five other Apollo sites in relative close proximity to Apollo 11 that could be reached and used for the same research and analysis, but the Apollo 11 site should forever remain off-limits. As the saying goes “it may take an Act of Congress” and that’s exactly what we need right now.