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Is it time to save the Moon?

About the author

Richard is a science journalist and presenter of the Space Boffins podcast. He edits Space:UK magazine for the UK Space Agency, commentates on launches for the European Space Agency and is a science presenter for BBC radio. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Destination Moon
    One of science's greatest achievements was to put man on the Moon in 1969. (Copyright:Nasa)
  • First steps
    One of the first steps taken on the Moon: Buzz Aldrin's bootprint from the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the Moon on 20 July 1969. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Extraordinary landscape
    A snapshot from the Apollo 17 mission nicely illustrates Buzz Aldrin's description of the lunar landscape as "a magnificent desolation". (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Lunar rover
    James Irwin works on the Lunar Roving Vehicle on its first extravehicular activity during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Moon rocks
    Launched in 1972, Apollo 17 was the last mission to land men on the Moon. Harrison Schmitt, the only geologist in the astronaut corps, collects rock samples. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Driving on the Moon
    Everyone knows the first man on the Moon, but the last was Apollo 17 Mission commander Eugene Cernan - here taking the Lunar Roving Vehicle on a spin. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • New directions
    Nasa may not be putting humans on the Moon, but its GRAIL mission launched in September 2011 will create the most accurate gravitational map of the moon to date. (Copyright: Nasa)
Is it time to start taking steps to protect the Moon from avaricious governments, big business, space tourists and other earthly concerns?

I have always found the first words spoken on the surface of the Moon a little disappointing. All the “giant leap” stuff sounds a bit contrived and, strangely, underwhelming. I much prefer the last words, spoken by Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan on 14 December 1972.

“I’d just like to record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow,” he said. “We leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind,” he concluded. Then he climbed up the ladder, shut the hatch and headed home. Here was a man who could really string a sentence together.

Cernan still exudes a straight-talking confidence, and when I last interviewed him a few years ago, another phrase of his sticks in my mind: “When are we going back?” Until recently, it did not seem likely that we ever would. Over the last few years, the established agencies have lacked focus, ambition and, above all, cash – but now the competition to return to the Moon is heating up.

Twenty-six teams are currently competing to land a robot on the Moon’s surface for the Google Lunar X Prize, US company Space Adventures is urging multi-millionaire adventurers to sign up for its ‘lunar mission’ to circumnavigate the Moon, and China is talking about building a permanent base. If even a fraction of these ambitions are realised, could the Moon become a free-for-all: a final frontier, with no rules, no laws and all a long way from home? After all, no-one owns it.

“The Moon is meant to be the common heritage of all humanity,” suggests archaeologist and anthropologist Kathryn Denning from York University, Toronto. “But nobody has jurisdiction. Nobody is calling the shots, and when nobody calls the shots, everybody is calling the shots.”

Denning’s research covers a fascinating realm, taking in human endeavours in interstellar travel and the search for extraterrestrial life. Knowing what she does about human behaviour, Denning has become increasingly concerned about the future of the Moon, from its landscape to its heritage.

Don’t tread on me

Take a simple example: Gene Cernan’s final footprints in the Taurus-Littrow valley. Nasa recently issued guidelines to protect the Apollo 11 and 17 landing sites, describing them as “off-limits”, including “close proximity limits for ground-travel and no-fly zones to avoid spraying rocket exhaust or dust onto ageing but historic equipment”.

But, as we all know, saying “don’t touch” does not always work.

“Designating heritage on Earth doesn’t necessarily protect it that well,” says Denning. “It simply drives up the value, increases tourism and can increase looting. The surest way to make something very valuable is to tell someone they’re not meant to own it.”

It would certainly be a shame if Cernan’s steps were scuffed or a bit of Apollo hardware was damaged. But a few bootprints or the odd discarded Moon buggy are not Denning’s main concerns. “What I think [these sites] are doing is creating a territorial claim,” she says. “If you have sites that are enshrined as being the earliest occupation sites on the Moon, then that gives a sense of priority.”

So, although America may have claimed the Moon “for all mankind”, that does not necessarily mean we are all entitled to share it. Whoever gets there first could exploit the Moon for tourism, mining or perhaps use it as a staging post to the planets.

But does it matter?

One small step for a mine

“What we’re looking at here with the move to private space exploration will be private resource exploitation,” says Denning. “We’ll ask ‘who said you can do that?’ and the answer will be ‘well, no-one said that we couldn’t’. And I have a fundamental problem with that.”

Antarctica is a good parallel. Protected by international treaty since 1959, there would be an outcry if any nation started to exploit the continent’s mineral resources, let alone if a corporation began drilling for oil in the Ross Sea. Is the Moon – another vast shared wilderness – any different?

There is, at least in theory, a United Nations Moon treaty or “agreement”, signed by such spacefaring nations as Guatemala and Romania – but not, conspicuously, by Russia, the United States or China. It bans militarisation, uncontrolled exploitation and ownership. But, really, it is just a bit of worthless paper and is widely considered a failure (unless Guatemala does indeed have a burgeoning space programme that I have somehow missed).

Which leaves us with the Moon waiting to be surveyed, claimed, mined and exploited. A lot of people will not have any problem with that. And do not get me wrong, I love the idea of humanity going back to the Moon and reaching beyond to Mars and the outer planets. But perhaps before we do, we should think about how we do it.

When we return to the Moon, our first priorities should be to explore, investigate and preserve. We have managed to trash the Earth, so, as Denning suggests, should we start acting now to save our Moon?

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