Moon garbage is, as your elementary-aged small fry might say, a thing. It’s real and there’s a lot of it. How much? According to William Park at BBC Future, the detritus of 300 hours of human presence on the moon resulted in over 100 manmade items sitting on its dusty surface.
The presence of garbage on the moon might seem to conflict with the ethos of exploration most children learn before their first nature walk: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” “Moon samples in, garbage out,” might be a more accurate description of the reasoning behind the motley collection of waste bags, boots, golf balls, and cameras noted in the BBC report.
Moon garbage is simply a necessary evil borne of practicality. Equalizing the weight of the craft to guarantee the safety of the crew and protect government investment by having something to show for lab coats back home were primary considerations. After all, one cosmonaut’s floaty plaything in zero G might prove expensive and weighty to tote back home once the crew calls it a day and everyone starts that final descent to terra firma.
What does our moon garbage say about us? If astronauts are bringing pictures and samples from the moon’s surface, what treasures would a future interstellar explorer hope to find?
While there is not a complete listing of everything humans have left on the moon, the Apollo Lunar Landing Site Legacy Project at New Mexico State University created a fairly exhaustive listing of the items that can be found at Tranquility Base, the site of Apollo 11’s moon landing. Moon garbage cataloging from afar for its own sake is not the sole objective of the Lunar Legacy Project. This rather unusual effort towards material culture preservation is intended to protect the integrity of the site from future visitors by declaring it a national landmark. The idea of devoting time and resources to the preservation of moon garbage might have been thrilling to the graduate anthropology students in Las Cruces, but not everyone shared their excitement.
Leonard David, Space.com’s Space Insider columnist, reported that the Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act, House Resolution (H.R. 2617) as introduced in 2013 by Rep. Donna Edwards of (D-Md.) and co-sponsored by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) proved to be a touchpoint for controversy. Watchdog groups such as Citizens Against Government Waste were less impressed by the moon site and more inclined to declare the proposal was garbage.
Beth O’Leary, an Associate Professor of Archaeology at New Mexico State University and creator of the Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Program, stressed the importance of the work she and her students have been doing since 2010.
“We have to plan for this now before commercial spacecraft start landing on the moon. If we don’t have a preservation framework in place, we run the risk of destroying important cultural resources. Features such as Neil Armstrong’s historic footprints on moon could be obliterated.”
Smithsonian’s Lucas Laursen recognized the archaeological value of the moon’s trove of space garbage, but he also noted that questions of ownership of the items remain undefined. There was still some debate about the need to protect the moon landing sites and how responsibility for that would be interpreted within the terms of existing treaties. If no one owns the moon, who should take care of it?
A quick glance at the Planetary Society’s list of reports from current missions in progress indicates a greater proportion of resources have been dedicated to fact finding expeditions that range far afield of our moon. Coupled with the expense and technological hurdles to extraterrestrial tourism, this could keep the trove of cameras, crashed vehicles, and simple bits of garbage are safe from further disturbance for now
The question of exactly how long is uncertain. moon garbage may be existing on borrowed time. While the U.S. has their sights trained elsewhere, according to Pallab Ghosh of BBC News, the E.U. and Russia have revived talks of creating a habitable moon base. If this becomes a reality without the administrative devices in place to preserve those sites of early exploration, Neil Armstrong’s famous footprints could very well be lost. All of that moon garbage is fun to speculate about, but what if Tranquility Base does not get the nod for greater efforts to preserve it as a national park, a world heritage site? In the future we might see eBay listings for moon garbage.
[photo by NASA/Getty Images]