Protecting The Historic Human Record In Space
This story is part of our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. View the rest of our special coverage here.
Forty-eight years ago, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin emerged from Apollo 11 and became the first humans to set foot on the moon. In addition to leaving their iconic footprints, the crew left equipment and memorabilia scattered on the lunar surface.
Archaeologist Beth O’Leary says that the landing area constitutes an archaeology site that should be preserved.
“It’s preserved now by the fact that it’s so remote,” O’Leary says. “We haven’t visited it with any manned spacecraft in a long time. It’s also pretty expensive to get there. but it lies in a very grey legal area because it’s really governed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which didn’t address historic preservation — they just wanted to get there. So it is preserved by its remoteness, by its cost to get there, but … we will go back to the moon … and so how do we decide which sites are important?”
O’Leary thinks the Apollo 11 site should be preserved in the same way other historic sites on Earth are preserved.
“I mean I’d argue for Apollo 11 right off the bat because that is the first lunar landing and as an archaeologist we’re very concerned with the first landing of Columbus in the Caribbean, the first footprint, for example in Tanzania, which is 1.6 million years old.”
Even though the moon is currently protected by its remoteness, Ann Darrin, managing executive of the Space Exploration Sector at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, says it won’t always be so difficult to get to outer space.
“When space tourism happens, whether it’s 50 years from now or 100 years from now, if we don’t have some safeguards of how far away people can be or where they could go or where the rovers can go, then we stand to lose that heritage,” Darrin says. “We’ve lost a lot on Earth, so I think it’s important that we we think about now, what do we want these early space sites … how well do we want these to be preserved so that in the future generations can visit and see them and study them?”
The site of the first lunar landing is not the only human artifact in space that archaeologists think about preserving, studying and possibly visiting in the future. There are some half million objects of “space junk” currently in orbit around Earth. Vanguard 1 for example, which was launched in 1958, is the oldest satellite still in space. O’Leary, however, says it might not be a good idea to retrieve that piece of history.
“You don’t think of museums floating around on Earth but very few museums have lasted 600 years or even 240 years,” O’Leary says. “So that locational integrity — that orbit in effect is preserving it, and if you take it down, if you grab it somehow, I think you lose part of that extraordinary significance … We also have models of Vanguard 1 in the Smithsonian.”
Both Darrin and O’Leary agree, however, that it’s necessary to establish some sorts of guidelines for preserving historic space sites. Darrin says NASA has already made a good start.
“NASA in 2011 went ahead and issued a series of guidelines and that was a sea change from when I started in 2000 when I proposed to them to make the Apollo 11 lunar landing site a national historic landmark and they said no,” Darrin says. “They came up with a series of recommendations. They used a panel of experts — physicists and engineers … we wrote down really what people should do that come back to the moon to visit — and it was for commercial spacecraft and also for nations that come and visit the moon.
“And what they tried to do was look at the effects of landing on the moon — mostly robotics and how that would affect the heritage objects, the important significant objects left on the moon. And they set aside Apollo 11, the first one, and Apollo 17, the last one, and said within the radius of two kilometers you can’t even go there. So essentially that is now in place from NASA.”
Beth O’Leary is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Ann Darrin is Managing Executive, Space Exploration Sector at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
You’ve probably heard about the space junk problem. In case you haven’t, let me inform you that there are half a million fragments of man-made stuff flying up there around the Earth in orbit. The junk is composed of everything from entire decommissioned spacecraft to nuts and bolts and even tiny flecks of paint. China, which has blown up at least one satellite, creating a huge litter of junk, launched a test vehicle last week to try to clean up some of the mess. I don’t know if that was related or not.
But not all of the junk is trash. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Landmark satellites float in this landfill. Remember Vanguard 1? It was launched in 1958, went dead in 1964. It is the oldest satellite still in space. Is it possible to preserve some of these historic artifacts in space?
What about the landing sites, like the footprints on the moon, the flag, the moon buggies that are up there? And what makes something space trash or treasure?
My next guests are here to talk about space archeology, keeping track of all the human artifacts we’ve left in orbit and out in space. Beth O’Leary is professor emeritus of Anthropology at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. She joins us from KRWG. Welcome to Science Friday.
BETH O’LEARY: Thank you for inviting me.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Anne Darrin is the managing executive of the Space Exploration Sector at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Welcome to Science Friday.
ANNE DARRIN: Thanks, Ira. Happy to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Happy to have you. And if you folks think there’s a certain spacecraft or a landing site you think is important to preserve, we want to hear from you. Give us a call– 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. You can also tweet us at SciFri.
Beth, let’s talk about– NASA keeps all kinds of schematics and models of all these satellites and landings. Give me the case for preserving all of these things. How is it different than anything else?
BETH O’LEARY: Well, material culture is very different. Archeology is the study of the relationships between material culture, which are artifacts, and sometimes we think of junk sites and human behavior. So where they are the actual physical manifestation of these things is important to study the history of technology, and certainly the history of space exploration. We tend to have a very great deal of material culture that’s associated with space exploration. But we thought it was time to turn our gaze outward towards space, and see what was up there, and decide what is significant and what should be preserved.
IRA FLATOW: And doesn’t NORAD and NASA keep track of all those half million objects we’ve sent up?
ANNE DARRIN: Well, certainly they keep track of them. But there are some that are significant, particularly of a historical significance. And those are the ones we’re really interested in. For example, APL built NEAR. NEAR is the one that you mentioned was cruising out there. It’s hitchhiking on an asteroid. And it’s out there, and it comes around. It’s in a Mars orbit, but it does come near Earth every so often, every so many years. And it’s sitting there quietly, enjoying its ride. It landed on Eros in 2001, and it’s one of our favorites. But I love the idea of thinking about these historic significant spacecraft that are out there.
IRA FLATOW: So what’s the plan, for example, for the moon? How do we preserve all those landing sites and all the artifacts that are up there?
BETH O’LEARY: Well, I think it’s preserved now by the fact that it’s so remote. We haven’t visited it with any manned spacecraft in a long time. It’s also pretty expensive to get there. But it lies in a very gray legal area, because it’s really governed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which didn’t address historic preservation. They just wanted to get there. So it is preserved by its remoteness, by its cost to get there. But again, it falls into this area of we will go back to the moon. I think both Anne and I think that.
And so how do we decide which sites are important? I’d argue for Apollo 11 right off the bat, because that is the first lunar landing. And as an archaeologist, we’re very concerned with the first– the first landing of Columbus in the Caribbean, the first footprint, for example, in Laetoli, Tanzania, which is 1.6 million years old. Well, we’ve got a set of footprints up there that were made in July of 1969.
IRA FLATOW: Would it be possible to capture– I was talking about the Chinese spacecraft that was trying to clean up some of the junk in space. Would it be able to capture– I think it was in a James Bond movie, they sent the rocket up. Do you remember that movie? And they captured a satellite. Would it be possible to capture Vanguard and bring it back? And would anybody pay for that?
ANNE DARRIN: Well, of course it would be possible. It’s technologically possible. It is up a little bit high. It is in an elliptical orbit. It will, at some point, deorbit.
But Beth can talk a little bit about trying to preserve things in situ as long as they’re not doing any potential damage. And so Vanguard currently is beautifully preserved where it is. Because of its orbit, it definitely is possible. It’s expensive. And a good question is is anybody going to pay to go get it.
BETH O’LEARY: Yeah. And I think, too, that really the preservation– you don’t think of museums floating around on Earth, but very few museums have lasted 600 years or even 240 years. So that locational integrity, that orbit, in effect is preserving it. And if you take it down, if you grab it somehow, I think you lose part of that extraordinary significance. And we also have models of Vanguard 1 in the Smithsonian.
IRA FLATOW: Is it possible to bring some of the satellites down from orbit? You’re saying that you’d rather leave them up there? Is there a place to park them where we can all find them in one spot?
ANNE DARRIN: Oh, certainly. There’s something that’s got a marvelous name of the graveyard orbit, which is a great place. And actually, what you have in geosynchronous satellites and geostationary orbits is we require now– and this has been on since 2002 under FCC– that you actually push spacecraft up into a higher orbit– kind of a useless orbit, in some manner. And that’s about 500 kilometers above where they were.
So we have a lot of commercial satellites up there in the graveyard floating around where they won’t do any harm to anybody. We can certainly push satellites up. And you can actually, of course, deorbit satellites. And of course, nature assists us with being able to deorbit satellites.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the NEAR. You mentioned in passing that the spacecraft is sitting on an asteroid. It was parked there.
ANNE DARRIN: It was a fabulous story. And we’re really fond of it here, because, of course. It actually was launched in 1996, and it flew by an asteroid named Mathilde. So we like to say, well, it’s seen by Matilda. But it went on to enter into orbit around the asteroid Eros on February 14th of 2000. What a great day to go into orbit around Eros. So Eros looks like an Idaho potato if you can think of a 20-mile-long Idaho potato. So it went into orbit.
So now we have a spacecraft that is now a satellite. It’s an orbiter. And at the end of mission, everybody said, well, what are we going to do now? And someone said, well, why don’t we just land it? So of course, this was never built to be landed. It actually- we did bring it down on to this giant asteroid and landed it. We actually operated it for a while there. And that asteroid has given it a free ride. And it’s in a nice elliptical. It does come around the Earth. It was just here in about 2012. It was near enough to us. At some point, if we ever get into a grand tour of great spent spacecraft, perhaps we’ll get pictures of it and see it again.
IRA FLATOW: That could be great space tourism, if you think about it.
ANNE DARRIN: Oh, I think the grand tour. You can get up there and see quite a few things. There’s a lot on the moon to be seen. And certainly, we’ve got some Mars mysteries of some of our little landers and why they don’t work anymore, or why they stopped working prematurely.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the moon. I know that the Russians also send quite a few probes to the moon. Are you not working on a project to find two of their landers, the Luna 9 and the 13?
ANNE DARRIN: Oh, yeah. This is so much fun. So the Soviets– and of course, we did the same– the Soviets, in the ’60s and the ’70s, they put many unmanned probes on to the moon. And in 2009, NASA launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. So we’re up there taking really good surface pictures, and we found a few of the objects. We found Luna 16 and Luna 20. Dr. Jeff Plescia, who has been working with us, found two of them. But we’re still missing a few, and they’ve been missing for 50 years. How exciting. I would love to find them.
So what we’re doing here at the– we have an Intelligence System Center– we are having a team. There is a contest. We have 45 engineers and scientists right now who are all in a contest to develop algorithms using machine learning to go through all of the images we’re getting from LRO and find Luna 9 and Luna 13. So stay tuned. We hope we’ll have good luck in a few months.
IRA FLATOW: After a– well, I’m wishing you luck, because we’d all like to see that, all those places on the moon. Are the footprints still there? And the flags still flying, so to speak, do you think?
BETH O’LEARY: As far as I know, they are. They may be changed in terms of the swings of temperature on the moon. But when the LRO images were first broadcast, the digital images, it was amazing. It’s a great tool for archaeologists, using remote sensing to look at archaeological sites and exactly what’s up there.
IRA FLATOW: So I know that after Neil Armstrong died, tools from Apollo 11 were found in his closet. My question about this is who owns this stuff. Didn’t we, as taxpayers, pay for it? Or is there some sort of agreement that astronauts can take some of the stuff home privately? I think, whenever I hear and I see all these auctions going off of NASA material, that don’t we own that stuff? Shouldn’t it be in public display somewhere instead of somebody’s basement in a showcase someplace?
BETH O’LEARY: Can I address this one? Because he was my hero. I wanted to be an astronaut. And that’s his personal archaeological collection. After his death, his wife gave it to the Smithsonian. So he had a McDivitt purse– and it was going to be jettisoned, anyway– and a waist tether and a 16-millimeter digital camera. And that’s all now with the Smithsonian.
But I think the heroes– the astronauts that risked so much to get there– should be allowed to have a few things and come back. Though the big problem, of course, is the traffic on eBay in different sites or in actions online that auction off space material. And so NASA does retain rights to the things that they create. And I think we should forgive Neil Armstrong for having them in his closet for a little while.
IRA FLATOW: I didn’t mean to single him out. But because there’s so much junk being sold on eBay, space stuff, from doors and things, parts of spacecraft that I think belong to the public. We paid for it, and we should see it and be able to see it.
BETH O’LEARY: And it should still be there, Ira. When space tourism happens, whether it’s 50 years from now or 100 years from now, if we don’t have some safeguards of how far away people can be or where they could or go where the rovers can go, then we stand to lose that heritage. And we’ve lost a lot on Earth. So I think it’s important that we think about now, what do we want these early space sites– Phil [INAUDIBLE] calls it the Lunar 1 era– how well do we want these to be in preservation, be preserved, so that in the future, generations can visit and see them and study them?
IRA FLATOW: That brings up a thought about what does a piece of space junk– I’ll use that term for everything– orbiting look like? It’s been up there 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years. Isn’t there space weather-ification that happens to it?
ANNE DARRIN: Oh, there absolutely is. Of course you’ve got the radiation effects, ionizing radiation. There’s space. There’s plasmas up there, especially in Leo. We have the solar environment. You might run into micrometeoroids and different types of debris. There’s Leo. There’s neutral gases. There’s all sorts of things happening, so we can learn a lot by how our different spacecraft degrade.
A good example is– you mentioned Vanguard at the very beginning. Vanguard, when it first went up there, people started estimating, wow, it might be up there 2,000 years. But solar radiation, pressure, atmospheric drag, the effects of space, weather of space, have really produced significant perturbations to the [INAUDIBLE]. And so what we’re seeing is a significant decrease in the lifetime. So we’re expecting it to come down closer to 200, 240 years. But maybe we need to grab it before it re-enters instead of letting it burn up. It might be something really special.
IRA FLATOW: I’m all for that. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Beth O’Leary from– she’s professor at of Anthropology at New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, Ann Darrin of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics laboratory.
A tweet says are there– Carl Johnson wants to know, are there any living organisms? Could they be single-celled? Do we have plant, animals on any of these satellites that might be worth studying? We sent up this stuff. I’m sure it wasn’t totally free of this stuff, right? Wouldn’t that be interesting and informative to learn about?
ANNE DARRIN: Well, it’s a fascinating question. Of course, we do everything in our power to get these as clean as possible before they go up. So I can’t really answer this. I’m not a space biologist. But we do try to keep these things clean.
BETH O’LEARY: Excuse me. For example, on Surveyor 3 when the Apollo 12 astronauts– who are really the first space archeologists– went over to look at it, they took a piece of tubing and a camera, and they found some streptococcus bacteria that had been on there, put on there about a year and a half previous. And it looked like somebody might have sneezed before the Surveyor 3 went up. So they brought some of that back to Earth. But in terms of what’s up there–
IRA FLATOW: Was is still viable?
BETH O’LEARY: They could identify it. But again, Anne and I are not space biologists.
IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ve talked to other people who have said that probably the Viking has been contaminated and that we brought already living things to Mars, single-celled stuff. And it’s very interesting.
So where do you go from here? How can you create something that brings to fruition space archeology?
BETH O’LEARY: Well, NASA in 2011 went ahead and issued a series of guidelines. And that was a sea change from when I started in 2000 when I proposed to them to make the Apollo 11’s lunar landing site a national historic landmark and they said no, I don’t think so at all. And what they did was they came up with a series of recommendations. They used a panel of experts– physicists and engineers, myself, Roger Launius from Smithsonian. And we wrote down really what people should do that come back to the moon to visit. And it was for commercial spacecraft and also for nations that come and visit the moon.
And what they tried to do was look at the effects of landing on the moon, mostly robotics, and how that would affect the heritage objects, the important, significant objects left on the moon. And they set aside Apollo 11, the first one, and Apollo 17, the last one, and said within a radius of 2 kilometers, you can’t even go there. So essentially, that is now in place from NASA. And there has been a buy-in by the different people involved in the Google XPRIZE to say we’re going to avoid those.
IRA FLATOW: A landing-free zone. This is quite fascinating. Thank you, Dr. Beth O’Leary, professor emeritus of anthropology, New Mexico State University Las Cruces and Dr. Anne Darrin, managing executive of the Space Exploration Sector at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Have a great weekend.
ANNE DARRIN: Thank you very much. It’s been a delight.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you.
BETH O’LEARY: Thank you.