The United States has become the first country in the world – or anywhere else, for that matter – to pass a law protecting human artefacts in space.
The ‘One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act’ means that as of December 31, 2020, historic objects and traces from the first missions to the moon, including Neil Armstrong’s boot print, are now protected by law.
The law, which was introduced in Congress in 2019 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, officially establishes a perimeter around Tranquility Base – the site of the Apollo 11 landing – as well as the five other lunar landing sites visited by various Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972.
US Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, who introduced the bill, said it was ‘only fitting to recognise humankind’s achievements in space by preserving the lunar sites American astronauts first walked upon during the Apollo missions’ adding that the law was an example of NASA and the United States ‘guiding responsible behaviour in space,’ MailOnline reports.
As well as marking half a century since Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, the law aims to ‘protect and preserve the historic and scientific value of US government lunar artefacts’ at a time when more missions than ever before are slated to land on the moon in the coming years. At least six different countries have plans to launch lunar missions, including the United States, which is aiming to return humans to the moon through NASA’s Artemis program by 2024.
Objects covered by the new law include artefacts in six ‘keep out zones’, such as vehicles and equipment, remnants of experiments, and traces of human and robotic presence (i.e. tracks and boot prints.)
While the act, which was signed into law by former president Donald Trump in December 2020, doesn’t currently apply to foreign countries; lawmakers are also calling for the US government to draft an agreement to enshrine the protections in international law.
Realistically, the chances of anyone deliberately trashing old lunar landing sites is pretty remote. But although this new law is seen as largely symbolic, air and space law professor Michelle Hanlon writes in The Conversation that the measure ‘reaffirms our human commitment to protecting our history… while also acknowledging that the human species is expanding into space.’ In the future, it’s possible the law could be used to try and prevent other missions from landing on old Apollo sites, or at the very least would ensure that no one accidentally builds a moon colony on top of Neil Armstrong’s footprint.
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