Anthropologist helps protect lunar artifacts

The New York Times recently ran a story about legislative efforts to protect objects left on the moon by NAASA, especially during the Apollo 11 and 17 missions, including landing modules, flags, boots (and their footprints), and bags of urine. Anthropologist Beth O’Leary (New Mexico State University), prompted by a student’s question about the celestial jurisdiction of US federal preservation law, spearheaded efforts to gain protection for the artifacts of the American space program. The United States owns the abandoned objects, but under the international Outer Space Treaty, no country can claim sovereignty over parts of the moon itself. Turns out, protections (at this point, at least) are based at the state level, secured by states such as California and New Mexico that allow for legislation pertaining to objects “associated with,” even if not physically present within, the state. Now that India and Russia plan to send robotic probes to the moon, and that Google is sponsoring a prize for private lunar exploration plans, the stakes have been raised. Aside from state and federal claims, there are global implications. Will Tranquility Base be added to the United Nations’ list of world heritage sites? Will Earthly, much less the proverbial Martian, archaeologists of the future thank us for protecting the moon’s cultural sites from ourselves? Stay tuned…

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