Apollo Artifacts: Which to Sell, Which to Protect?

Apollo Artifacts: Which to Sell, Which to Protect?

This year is the 40th anniversary of the last — or perhaps “most recent” — human visit to the Moon and it is starting off with controversy over whether the astronauts who participated in the Apollo program have the right to sell mementoes of those missions.  At the same time, some historians are trying to preserve the artifacts that remain on the lunar surface as companies and other countries make plans to send robots or people there.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, himself a former NASA astronaut — though from the space shuttle era, not the earlier Apollo missions — met with four Apollo astronauts yesterday to discuss the rules that guide whether their personal mementoes are their property or the government’s.   Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell, Apolllo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan, Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke, and Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickert, met with Bolden along with representatives of other astronauts and NASA personnel.   Bolden said in a press statement that the meeting was to talk about “how to resolve the misunderstandings and ownership questions regarding flight mementoes and other artifacts.”   Bolden called the men “American heroes, fellow astronauts and personal friends who have acted in good faith” and promised to work on resolving “the right policy and legal paths forward…”

NASA has not taken kindly to the actions of some Apollo astronauts who have sold or attempted to sell mementoes in their possession.   Quite recently, Lovell reportedly sold a checklist from his ill-fated Apollo 13 mission at auction for $400,000, setting off the latest wave of concern. Bolden said that he believes there have been “fundamental misunderstandings and unclear policies” and the agency will “explore all policy, legislative and other legal means” to clarify ownership and “ensure that appropriate artifacts are preserved and available for display to the American people.”

While those discussions proceed, others are focused on preserving artifacts left behind on the Moon.   Resurgent interest in the Moon not only for scientific studies or human exploration, but also potential commercial activities, could mean that sites and items of historical interest could be damaged or destroyed.   Should the Apollo 11 landing site and the bottom half of its lunar lander, which remains on the Moon, not to mention the American flag implanted by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, be preserved for history or are future robotic or human explorers free to tread upon or take whatever they find?

Writing in the The Space Review in November 2011, Matthew Kleiman, who chairs the space law committee of the American Bar Association Section of Science &Technology Law, concluded that the only guarantee for “comprehensive protection” would be an international agreement.  He added, however, that “international space law and traditional property and tort law” offer “limited mechanisms.”

NASA issued a set of recommendations last year, posted on the CollectSpace website, about what exactly should be preserved on the lunar surface.  Entitled “NASA’s Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities:  How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts,” the document was issued on July 20, 2011, the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing — the first time humans walked on the Moon.  Google Lunar X-Prize, which is sponsoring a competition where a team can win a bonus if its robotic spacecraft makes a “precision landing near an Apollo site or other lunar sites of interest,” applauded release of the document in an October 13, 2011 statement.

The New York Times took note of the debate over preserving lunar artifacts on the Moon yesterday, but did not mention the corollary debate over what the Apollo astronauts can do with their own mementoes.

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