Can astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's "giant leap for mankind" be permanently preserved? Two House Democrats want to do just that: They proposed a bill to create a national historic park for the Apollo 11 mission — on the moon. The legislation would designate a park on the moon to honor that first mission, as well as preserve artifacts from other lunar missions
But Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson from Texas might have a legal hurdle to memorializing those first lunar steps, taken 44 years ago on Saturday.
What countries can and cannot do on the moon is dictated by a body of international treaties, says Dr. Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. He tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that most of those agreements were negotiated during the "space race" with the Russians in the 1960s.
"Probably the most important one is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty," Pace says. "Nations cannot claim sovereignty over celestial bodies. So you can't plant a flag on the moon and claim it for the United States."
So, Pace says, it doesn't look like there will be a U.S. national park on the moon any time soon because the legislation appears to contradict international law.
"That being said, the issue that the legislation tries to address is, in fact, actually a real one," he says. "There are a number of historical sites on the moon that I think people would feel strongly about — not only American sites, but also Soviet and Russian sites. And arguably there will be other people there in the future."
In order to make way for these kinds of celestial memorials, countries would have to agree to new rules.
Without creating new laws, what are other ways to honor those famous first steps? Pace can imagine a way for tourists to experience the moment, even without actually going to the moon.
"One can imagine robotically controlled rovers roaming around on the moon. There are even more advanced proposals for landing people on the moon, but I think those are actually quite a ways in the future," he says. "But robotic rovers on the moon controlled by others who want to go and visit and sort of peer virtually at former lunar landing sites, that's certainly within the realm of possibility."
As for the broader future of human-space interaction, Pace envisions four possible scenarios: space colonies, Everest, Antarctica or a North Sea oil platform. Each of the models depends upon the answers to two fundamental questions, he says: "Can you live off the land?" and "Can you do anything to pay your way?"
If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then space colonies are possible. If the answer to both questions is no, then space is like Mount Everest: "People go there for adventure — even tourists go there — but nobody really lives there. It's a symbol."
If you can live off the land, but there's nothing commercially useful, "then space is like Antarctica," Pace says. "We have tourists, we have scientists and researchers, and it's an international cooperative effort, but again, no one lives there."
What if we can do something commercially useful, like mining, but the land is not inhabitable? You end up with something like a North Sea oil platform: You go there for business, but you don't live there.
"We don't really know which [scenario] is going to happen," Pace says. "And the purpose of exploration is to find out what kind of future — if any — humans have beyond the planet. That's one of the more profound questions I think we can ask."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BRUCE MCCANDLESS: OK, Neil. We can see you coming down the ladder now.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
You're listening to what 500 million people watched, mesmerized in black and white on their TV screens 44 years ago today in 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps on the moon.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NEIL ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
LYDEN: Those historic boot prints from the Apollo 11 mission are actually still there, as are many other artifacts of America's space exploration. The last manned mission to the moon was in 1972. Two House Democrats want to preserve the site of the moon landing. They proposed a bill to create a national historic park on the moon. Yeah, you heard me right.
To tell us if this is even possible is the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, Dr. Scott Pace. Dr. Pace, thanks for coming in to the studio.
DR. SCOTT PACE: Thank you very much for having me.
LYDEN: So what does current space law - I didn't even know there was such a thing - say about what countries can and cannot do in outer space?
PACE: Well, there actually is a body of international treaties, most of which were negotiated in the 1960s during the space race with the Russians, about what one could do in space. Probably the most important one is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty: nations cannot claim sovereignty over celestial bodies. So you can't plant a flag on the moon and claim it for the United States.
LYDEN: So with this all in mind, can Congress create a national historic park on the moon?
PACE: The short answer is no.
LYDEN: I didn't think so.
PACE: The fundamental problem with the legislation is that it would arguably contravene international law. That being said, the issue that the legislation tries to address is in fact actually a real one. There are a number of historical sites on the moon that I think people would feel strongly about, not only American sites but also Soviet and Russian sites. And arguably, there'll be other people there in the future.
LYDEN: And I guess what is actually still left behind on the surface of the moon is equipment, vehicles, things like that.
PACE: Right. The items that are on the moon are still U.S. government property. Protecting the hardware is not too hard. Protecting the historic sites, such as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's footsteps, which I think we would probably like to see preserved for all time, there is a way to do that. Basically, international law is whatever sovereign countries agree to. It can be a treaty, it could be a - simply a set of nonbinding guidelines, but the key is that it be internationally recognized.
So something that the U.S. does merely by itself is probably not going to be good enough.
LYDEN: People have certainly been talking about, in their own ways, recreating the Aldrin-Armstrong moon walk. Do you think that's a possibility, that tourists could conceivably intrude on this area?
PACE: Sure. But not just tourists with their own footsteps. One can imagine robotically controlled rovers roaming around on the moon. There are even more advanced proposals for landing people on the moon. But I think those are actually quite a ways in the future. But robotic rovers on the moon controlled by others to want to go and visit and sort of peer virtually at former lunar landing sites, that's certainly within the realm of possibility.
LYDEN: Is there any future, do you think, to human beings being in space, whether it's to create space colonies or to research or for any other reason?
PACE: The way I like to think of it is space has to be an answer to a question. Asking whether humans have a future is kind of like asking whether there's intelligent life in the universe. The answer is either yes or no. And either answer is really quite intriguing. Can we be a multi-planet species, or are we always going to be here on Earth?
And I think the question breaks down into two parts. One is can you live off the land, or do you always have to come home to Earth? And two, can you do anything to pay your way? And the purpose of exploration is to find out what kind of future, if any, humans have beyond the planet as one of the more profound questions, I think, we can ask.
LYDEN: That was Dr. Scott Pace, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. Thank you very much for being with us.
PACE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLY ME TO THE MOON")
ASTRUD GILBERTO: (Singing) Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars. Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.