Legislation to Protect Lunar Heritage Sites Clears Senate Committee – UPDATE

Legislation to Protect Lunar Heritage Sites Clears Senate Committee – UPDATE

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee today (July 10, 2019) approved a bill to protect lunar heritage sites — such as where Apollo 11 landed — as more countries and companies pursue activities on the Moon’s surface. The bill requires anyone getting a license from the U.S. government to conduct lunar activities to agree to observe recommendations developed by NASA in 2011 and any updates to it.  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a co-sponsor of the bill, said he would work with the House to pass the legislation and get it on the President’s desk “quickly.” [UPDATE: An amended version of the bill passed the Senate on July 18.]

The One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act (S. 1694) was introduced by Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and Cruz in May.  They offered a slightly amended version at the markup today.  It was approved along with several others without debate or recorded vote.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) at a May 14, 2019 Senate hearing.

Peters said in a statement today that “This bipartisan legislation will help preserve our human heritage in space for generations to come. I’m glad this bill has advanced in the Senate and I’ll be continuing to build support behind this effort.”

Peters asked NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine if  he supported protecting the Apollo 11 site during a May 14, 2019 hearing. Bridenstine replied: “yes sir, it needs to be protected” as a “monument for all of history.”

The bill requires any federal agency that issues a license to conduct a lunar activity shall require the applicant to agree to abide by recommendations in the 2011 report “NASA’s Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Artifacts” and any successor recommendations, guidelines or principles issued by NASA.  The requirement goes into effect no later than 90 days after the legislation is enacted.

Noting that the legislation applies only to U.S. entities, it includes a Sense of Congress statement that the President should initiate “a diplomatic initiative to negotiate an international agreement to protect the Apollo 11 landing site, other similar historical sites, and lunar artifacts” by requiring adherence to the NASA recommendations. [UPDATE: The amended version that passed the Senate changed this language to say the President should work with other countries to develop best practices, rather than to negotiate an international agreement.]

Among the changes in the committee’s revised version (adopted on July 10) is clarification that it applies only to lunar activities, not other activities in space. Lunar activities are defined as “intended to be lunar in nature, including lunar orbit, landing, and impact” or “has a greater likelihood than not of becoming lunar in nature, including unintentional lunar orbit and impact.”

The definition does not specify Earth’s moon, however.  At the moment it is the only moon in the solar system with artifacts on it from Earth, but that will change when the Dragonfly mission arrives at Saturn’s moon Titan in 2034.  NASA also has been directed to build a lander for Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Those are robotic probes, but the bill does include the robotic landing sites on Earth’s moon as being of “outstanding universal value to humanity,” not just the human landing sites. Earth’s moon is different from other moons because it is inextricably linked to Earth. Preserving artifacts on other moons may not have the same appeal.  Perhaps the scope will be clarified as the bill progresses through the legislative process.

It is difficult to assess the likelihood of the bill becoming law.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) at a June 9, 2019 Senate hearing.

The timing is good, coming as it does during the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 when many are focused on the historic meaning of that event, coupled with the imminent launch of India’s lunar orbiter/lander/rover Chandrayaan-2 on Sunday — a reminder that more and more countries have their own lunar exploration plans. China already has its second lander/rover on the Moon, Chang’e-4/Yutu-2.  Israel’s Beresheet-2 crash landed there last month.

Beresheet was built by a non-profit, SpaceIL, not the Israeli government.  That is just the first non-governmental lunar probe.  Several more are queuing up, like the three U.S. companies that signed contracts to deliver NASA payloads to the surface in 2020 and 2021 through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.  They are in the vanguard of NASA’s Artemis program that envisions sustained lunar operations with commercial and international partners beginning in 2024.

The Moon is getting to be a busy place and there is no time to lose if protecting heritage sites is a priority.

Still, the Trump Administration and many congressional Republicans tout their deregulatory/anti-regulatory stance. Creating any new regulations could face an uphill battle in the Senate, House, or at the White House.

On the other hand, no Republicans on the committee spoke against it today and Cruz — a strong champion for commercial space — clearly is enthusiastic.  In a statement he said “I urge my Senate colleagues to take up and pass this commonsense bill without delay to ensure that, as we ramp up our efforts to return to the Moon, these important parts of history are safeguarded.”

For All Moonkind, a U.S. non-profit, has been advocating for protecting lunar heritage sites domestically and internationally.  Its President is Michelle Hanlon, an Associate Director of the National Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi.  The organization tweeted its appreciation today.

Note: this article was updated to indicate that it passed the Senate on July 18, amended.  The most significant change in the Senate-passed version versus what was reported from committee is to the Sense of Congress language that the President seek international agreement on protecting these sites.  Instead of stating the President should take steps to negotiate an international agreement, it urges him to work with other countries to develop best practices.

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