Opinion – For All Moonkind, to Preserve Outer Space Artifacts

Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene Cernan drives the lunar roving vehicle during the early part of the first moonwalk at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The Lunar Module is in the background. Credit: NASA/Harrison Schmitt.

By: Michelle Hanlon, co-founder, For All Moonkind, Inc.

“Made on Earth by humans,” proudly proclaims the circuit board of the “midnight cherry” Tesla Roadster launched into space on SpaceX’s game-changing Falcon Heavy. In the glove box are, among other things, a copy of Douglas Adams’ iconic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a towel (of course) and a tiny quartz storage disc, prepared by the Arch Mission Foundation, containing Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. A plane engraved with 6,000 SpaceX employee names was also placed in the vehicle for posterity.

Elon Musk’s first words in the wake of this historic launch? “Holy flying f—k, that thing took off.” And just like that, Mr. Musk’s Tesla, one of the first ever made, is headed to the asteroid belt, destined to orbit our sun for millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of years.

Now fast forward a century or two. Humanity has figured out how to harness the resources in space and have established colonies throughout our solar system, both on celestial bodies and on space stations – though hopefully our real-life “Belters” will not become the “second-class citizens” depicted in The Expanse. Imagine what happens when an exploring spacecraft spots the Tesla? Indeed, it is squarely within the realm of possibility that the vehicle has continued to be tracked through the centuries on http://www.whereisroadster.com/charts.html and humans have finally achieved the technology to intercept.

But who does it belong to now? The United States? Elon Musk’s estate? Finder’s keepers? Should the materials be salvaged to the extent possible? Or should the vehicle be sold to the highest bidder for private use or display? What if it belongs to all of us — all humankind? After all, it is an object of immense scientific and cultural value. And just as we revere and protect the pyramids of Egypt – erected by kings as monuments to themselves – shouldn’t we venerate this Tesla, launched by a technology leader as a monument to his own achievement? Certainly, the floating Tesla fulfills many of the criteria considered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in determining whether a site on Earth should be included on the tremendously successful World Heritage List:

  • It “represents a masterpiece of human creative genius;”
  • It “exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time . . . on developments in . . . technology;”
  • It “bears a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;”
  • It is “an outstanding example of a type of . . . technological ensemble . . . which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;”
  • It is “an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;” and
  • It is “directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.”

Fanciful? Perhaps. But it is not far-fetched with respect to other human material left in space. Forty-nine years before Elon Musk sent his car into space, the first humans set foot on the Moon. It was an achievement unparalleled in history; one built on the backs of centuries of science and engineering pioneers from all corners of the world. Indeed, while the crew were American, the very first feet on the Moon – the feet of the lunar lander itself – were in fact Canadian, made in Montreal by Quebec’s Heroux-DEVTEK.

Unlike the Tesla’s circuit board, the plaque left behind on the lunar lander does not simply proclaim that the hardware was “made on Earth.” Instead, it announces the peaceful intent of Earthlings. With the plaque are not books by beloved science fiction authors, but a disc etched with messages of peace and hope from leaders of 74 terrestrial nations. And the words uttered upon arrival were a bit more eloquent than Mr. Musk’s as Neil Armstrong acknowledged that his historic step was made with and for all humankind.

Six Apollo missions followed this feat, with five leaving the material culture of Earth on another body in our solar system. These landing sites, and the robotic sites that preceded and followed the Apollo missions are the first archaeological sites with human activity that are not on Earth and bear witness to some of the most important technological developments in human history. They tell a story of science, technology and culture and serve to capture the imagination. And they memorialize the work of thousands of scientists and engineers, like Ontario-born Owen Maynard (and a number of other former Avro Canada engineers) who helped design the lunar module and ultimately became the chief of the systems engineering division in the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office.

Imagine if these sites, memorials of our first off-world footprints, preserved till now by the vacuum of space, were erased or damaged? Many will tell you we have nothing to worry about. Some say it will be a long time before humans return to the Moon. Others say that the first traces of humans in outer space are already protected – albeit obliquely – under current space treaties. None of these statements is true.

While an Expanse-like settlement system may be centuries away, a working human outpost on the Moon may only be decades away. India plans to send a rover to the Moon this April. And a number of other countries and private companies, like PTScientists and Astrobotic, plan to send rovers to the Moon within two years. The United States, China, Russia, Japan and the European Union are developing projects that will put humans back on the Moon before 2030.

Certainly, it is not to be suggested that any of these private companies or nations would intentionally damage historic sites on the Moon. However, the fact is that no enforceable laws exist to prevent or even inhibit defilement or vandalism. Even the most well-intended visitors may be unaware of the damage they are doing while roaming around a site. What’s worse are those who would take a “piece of history” for themselves or on behalf of a private collector. And worse still, those who would plunder human heritage for profit.

We have a unique opportunity to protect these sites before any damage is done. Preservation is not antithetical to progress. It is a sign of progress. We must manage the preservation of these sites, and all our heritage in outer space, not only for history, but also because they will likely yield scientific information valuable to humanity’s future moon, Mars and deep space missions.


In 2013, two well-meaning but woefully misinformed legislators from the United States sought to have the United States Department of Interior administer the Apollo Lunar Landing Sites as United States National Historic Parks. The Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act of 2013 was ill-conceived and in violation of United States treaty obligations. First, the Act implied that only the United States should be recognized for the Apollo program, and yet many countries contributed personnel, capabilities and resources, including tracking stations and emergency landing sites to the Moon-shot effort. And second, it also implied that the United States has the ability to make sovereign proclamations in respect of the Moon which is categorically incorrect and a violation of international law and the Outer Space Treaty by which the United States is bound.

Article II of the Treaty states that “[o]uter space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation or by any other means.” It is a principal so fixed in the bedrock of space exploration that it considered by many to be not just a treaty obligation but customary international law. The Outer Space Treaty, and its progeny, forcefully reiterate the concept that outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not and cannot ever be the territory of any single nation, but only the realm of all humankind.

With this in mind, For All Moonkind, Inc. was formed in July 2017 to reset the discussion. We believe the international community must act formally to protect and preserve our heritage in outer space, starting with the lunar landing sites.

Unfortunately, the international path to preservation is complicated. The UNESCO World Heritage Convention relies on the concept of sovereignty when considering additions to the World Heritage List – a concept that is anathema in space. But the Outer Space Treaty and its progeny are silent with respect to preservation. While some detailed technical guidelines were promulgated by the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration, these are voluntary and pertain only to US sites.

Pursuant to Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty, items left in space remain under the ownership and control of the nation that put them there. Article IX of that treaty requires all activities in outer space be conducted with “due regard” to other States, which suggests that States should not interfere with or otherwise despoil the objects of another. And Article V of the Return and Rescue Agreement, is clear that any object removed from the Moon, must be returned to the State of origin. But the research value of the landing sites requires that the objects within their bounds be observed and scrutinized in situ. Which raises a whole multitude of new issues. Leaving the objects in situ essentially results in perpetual occupation of the surface upon which they rest. This runs afoul of the principle of non-appropriation encapsulated in Article II of the Outer Space Treaty. Thus, leaving the lunar landing sites untouched gives rise to the appearance that those sites belong to the United States, Russia or China, as the case may be.

They do not.

The Honorable Russell E. Train, who has been called the “father of World Heritage,” well-articulated the need to recognize and preserve our shared culture:

“World Heritage [is] something more than simply helping to assure protection and quality management for unique natural and cultural sites around the world–as critically important as that goal is. Above and beyond that goal, I see the programme as an opportunity to convey the idea of a common heritage among nations and peoples everywhere! I see it as a compelling idea that can help unite people rather than divide them. I see it as an idea that can help build a sense of community among people throughout the world. I see it as an idea whose time has truly come.”

These values must also follow us to space.

In January 2018, the concept of creating a program to identify universal heritage sites in space was included in a draft resolution for consideration by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Science and Technology Subcommittee. Unfortunately, the subcommittee meeting concluded without agreement on the matter. While perhaps understandable given the framework of the United Nations, it is nevertheless unacceptable to leave our heritage in limbo.

We challenge the international community – sovereign nations, national space agencies and commercial entities – to join us in addressing the void left by current space law in respect of human heritage in space. Our entirely volunteer team of space lawyers and policymakers are working to develop reasonable and practical protocols that will balance development and preservation and include systems to select, manage and study relevant sites. In so doing, we seek to promote the exploration and development and open the debate on equally pressing issues of property and resource extraction.

And the red Tesla floating through the heavens? Hopefully we will have an answer before it is intercepted. Ultimately, international consensus on space history preservation will set a needed global tone for a future where “Made on Earth by humans” remains a statement which makes us all proud.

Editor’s note:  For All Moonkind was recently listed as one of the World’s 10 Most Innovative Companies 2018 in the space sector as published by Fast Company “for galvanizing agencies to preserve moon artifacts.”

Contributed by: Michelle Hanlon is a space lawyer. She is a Co-Founder of For All Moonkind, Inc. and a founding partner of ABH Aerospace, LLC. She earned her J.D. magna cum laude from the Georgetown University Law Center and her B.A. in Political Science from Yale College.

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