Moon Mission: Georgetown Grads Seek to Protect Lunar Landing Sites

Astronaut's footprint on the moon

Buzz Aldrin stuffed the pouch of mementos in the upper-arm pocket of his spacesuit, the place where astronauts carry things like pencils and sunglasses. Inside were five objects: a small silicon disc containing messages from four U.S. presidents and 73 other world leaders; a patch honoring the three U.S. astronauts who died on the Apollo I mission; medals for two Russian cosmonauts who were also lost in space; and something that NASA hadn’t requested but that Aldrin thought was appropriate.

“The olive branch was quite significant,” Aldrin said years later, describing how he had gone to a local jeweler before the July 19, 1969 launch and picked out four “little pins that looked like olive branches,” three for the Apollo 11 astronauts and their wives, and one to leave with the other objects on the dusty surface of the moon.

Michelle and Tim Hanlon, the husband-and-wife team that founded the nonprofit group For All Moonkind, didn’t mention the pins in a recent interview, but the Georgetown graduates would have understood the sentiment: Indeed, they’ve felt it themselves. In the spirit of Aldrin’s gesture, their organization is seeking an international agreement to protect the six Apollo lunar landing sites, which they say belong to all people.

“They are tangible evidence of one of the greatest achievements of humankind—ever,” said Michelle, a lawyer and graduate of Georgetown University Law Center.

Tim, a communications professional who has managed media relations for America’s Promise and other companies, foundations, and individuals, is a graduate of the University’s master’s program in Liberal Studies. With Michelle concentrating on the legal and political work, and Tim handling the branding and messaging, they hope to get the United Nations to support a multilateral agreement, tentatively called the Convention on the Preservation of Human Heritage in Outer Space, modeled after the convention that has resulted in the naming of more than 1,000 UNESCO World Heritage sites here on Earth. Their goal is that by 2019—the 50th anniversary of that first manned mission—there would be an agreement.

Protecting Earth’s Natural Satellite

The urgency of their mission is a little like the space race itself. In the years since the last manned mission in 1972, the moon’s very desolation—its lack of wind, water, and erosion—has left the sites undisturbed.  But the Hanlons say that is going to change soon, with China, Russia, and the United States, as well as a number of private entities, all contemplating renewed manned and robotic exploration of the moon. Europe and China have even floated the idea of collaborating on a moon colony.

“It is not difficult to imagine the damage an autonomous vehicle or an errant astronaut—an explorer, colonist, or tourist—could do to one of the Apollo lunar landing sites, whether intentionally or unintentionally,” Tim said.

The two became interested in space exploration through their son, Ned, who started designing solar panels for small cube satellites three years ago as part of his aerospace studies at the U.S. Naval Academy.  A corporate lawyer, Michelle became intrigued by the field of international space law. Its foundational document, commonly known as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, prohibits signatories from claiming ownership of all or part of the moon or using it to test weapons. In addition, it stipulates that anything left on the moon remains the property of the nation that put it there, but it is largely silent on how that property should be protected.

“Now space is becoming very commercialized, and the law isn’t keeping up,” Michelle said.

The commercialization itself is not necessarily a problem. The moon contains vast amounts of Helium-3, an isotope of helium that might one day provide a clean energy source for Earth, if it could somehow be mined. Scientists have also talked about governments or private entities using the moon as a jumping off point for future space travel, thus avoiding the expense of having to building rockets that can escape earth’s gravity.

While all these developments are exciting, the Hanlons said, we cannot forsake the past in the name of the future. Without formal protection, all the material left on the moon from the Apollo sites and other unnamed missions—everything from Aldrin’s pack of mementos, to scientific instruments, to scores of spacecraft left by the United States, the former Soviet Union, and other countries–-could be damaged or destroyed.

A Mission in Need of a Message

Michelle was so motivated by the issue that she decided to go back to school. She has just completed requirements for an LL.M. degree in Air and Space Law from McGill University in Montreal.

After attending scientific presentations on space, Tim concluded that the wonders of space exploration needed a communicator’s touch to appeal to lay people.

“As a general matter, the speeches and slides lacked focus,” he said. “There was no crisp narrative or memorable ‘Just do it’ type message. Sure, it worked for the space nerds, but if you want the general population – and kids -- to get on board, you need to articulate the importance of space better.”

One intriguing use for the moon sites is in the emerging field of space anthropology. Just as archeological sites yield secrets of humanity's history on earth, so might the space sites reveal something about our society during the Golden Age of moon exploration.

“What did we take? What did we leave?” Michelle asked. “What does that say about us? What did we think was important in 1969 that we no longer think is important?”

Beyond all this is the intrinsic value of the sites themselves and what they say about this singular achievement of humankind.

“Years from now,” Michelle said, “when our children and grandchildren travel to the moon on their way to the asteroid belt, we can say, ‘This is where it all started.’”

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