To California, Moon Junk Is State Treasure

Posted by Ian on Feb 2, 2010 in blog

I just read this at the weekend on my way to New York. What are your thoughts? I’ve stuck a few questions at the bottom as a comment so you can comment and respond to…

To California, Moon Junk Is State Treasure

Published: January 29, 2010
SAN FRANCISCO — In one small step for preservation and one giant leap of logic, the official historical commission of California voted Friday to protect two small urine collection devices, four space-sickness bags and dozens of other pieces of detritus, all currently residing nearly a quarter of a million miles from the state.

The shadow of Neil A. Armstrong fell on Tranquility Base, where the first moon landing took place, on July 20, 1969.

This is not a joke. I repeat, Houston, not a joke.
Saying it wanted to raise awareness of both the state’s cosmic contribution to the Apollo 11 moon mission and the potential threats from lunar interlopers, the California State Historical Resources Commission voted unanimously to designate more than 100 pieces of space trash, scientific apparatus and commemorative tokens to its list of protected resources.

Milford Wayne Donaldson, the state historic preservation officer, said the reasoning behind the first-of-its-kind designation was simple: Scores of California companies worked on the Apollo mission, and much of their handiwork remains of major historical value to the state, regardless of where it is now or what it was for used for then.

“It has a significance that goes way further than whether it came from a quarter million miles away or not,” Mr. Donaldson said. “They are all parts of the event.”

While Apollo 11 was indeed a landmark mission — during which Neil A. Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon and he and Buzz Aldrin apparently ditched their boots — it wasn’t exactly tidy. Worried about the weight of their landing capsule, the harried lunar explorers left behind tons of trash, including empty food bags, electrical equipment and, yes, several receptacles meant for bodily waste.
There is also a collection of artifacts of historical note and emotion: Mr. Armstrong’s footprint, for example, and an American flag. Apollo 11 also left behind a mission patch from Apollo 1, in which three astronauts died in a fire, and a message from world leaders.

And while some of the garbage might seem like, well, garbage, California is just one of several states seeking protection for the items in the face of possible lunar missions by other nations as well as a budding space tourism industry.

In New Mexico, home to early Apollo test sites like the White Sands Missile Range, a similar measure is expected to be considered by the state’s cultural properties review committee in April.
Beth O’Leary, an assistant professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University and an expert in “lunar archeology,” said she had screamed with delight when she heard the news from California. But she admitted that persuading people to safeguard Apollo’s space junk was often a challenge, if only because it is on — you know — the moon.

“I don’t think anyone argues with it being a major event in the history for humanity, right up there with the invention of fire,” Ms. O’Leary said. “But people don’t tend to think of it as something we need to be protecting.”

So for the last decade, she and other historians and archeologists have been pushing for protection through their Lunar Legacy Project, which has an inventory of items left behind at Tranquility Base where the astronauts landed in July 1969, including a plaque spelling out exactly who made the mess.
“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon,” it reads. “We came in peace for all mankind.”

Mr. Donaldson said he hoped his commission’s vote might help goad the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization into placing the landing site on the World Heritage List, an international compilation of famed landmarks.

“I think there’s a threat from private companies,” Mr. Donaldson said. “And with today’s technology, they could probably pinpoint this.”

That said, Mr. Donaldson admitted that there were no “space cops” available to safeguard the state’s newest historical resource. But, like the Apollo astronauts themselves, he seemed optimistic that Friday’s vote might lead to bigger and better things.
“Hopefully,” he said, “this will take off.”


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  1. Ian
    2 February 2010

    Is it a potential problem that US states are claiming cultural resource beyond not only their borders but also beyond the realm of earth? What is there to stop them from claiming ownership of articles in other countries? What if there are competing claims over extraterrestrial heritage?

  2. Hollis
    3 February 2010

    These are very provocative questions– puts me in mind of the History of the World in 100 objects, episode 1 (I think) in which there is discussion of Egyptian artefacts being displaced. I suppose I don't have answers to your tough questions, but a set of my own that they provoke: how do we co-opt the heritage of other regions/areas/communities? Is heritage always and already a process of co-option? Is it possible to posit, as the Egyptian writer in the podcast suggests, a SHARED short history of the world such that claiming the heritages of others is not imperialistic but inclusive?

    As a side note, check out this stolen artefacts board game

  3. Ian
    3 February 2010

    That hyperlink just cost me $23. We might just have a play of the game at some stage over the course…

    This is a very pertinent issue though Hollis. The subtextual question is – 'is a world heritage possible?' Or is the strength/richness of heritage found in diversity?

    It think the power or strength of heritages are that they strive to engage both universal questions of the human condition, the body, etc. while also problematising this universality through diversity, complexity and historical/narrative nuance and archaeological context.

    But your picking up on that point from the podcast cuts to the heart of this outreach initiation by the British Museum – how to handle what is a monument of the imperial, colonial ambition of Great Britain – can such a charged space/collection escape the history of their situation?