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Antiquity Vol 80 No 307 March 2006

The cultural heritage of space, the Moon and other celestial bodies

Beth Laura O'Leary

Space has always been the cultural property of the world's people. Celestial bodies have been named, used to navigate, track the seasons and tell stories. The Moon features in stories created by cultures from Australia to the Arctic. Every culture from prehistoric times can rightfully claim the Moon as a part of its cultural heritage (Figure 1).

The history of exploration of space in general and the Moon in particular, however, is mostly a Cold War phenomenon. In 1945 the US and USSR engaged in a race to acquire both German rockets and rocket scientists (Gorman & O'Leary 2006). The V2 rocket became the basis for missile technology. Its descendants launched the first satellites such as Vanguard, which is the oldest human object in space, and later propelled the first humans into space. The Cold War was played out through military, political, and social manoeuvres in space as well as on Earth. The 'Space Race' focus became the Moon. Apollo Astronaut Borman said the Apollo program was a battle in the Cold War (Borman 2001). From 1966-1976, 29 manned and robotic missions placed more than 40 objects into lunar orbit (Johnson 1999). Around 50 sites on the Moon's surface are the result of missions sent out from the both the US and USSR. The Soviets have 14 'Luna' robotic sites; the US sites include 5 Ranger and 7 Surveyor sites as well as the 20 Apollo sites on the Moon (Figure 2). The lunar landscape is littered with an estimated 100+ metric tons of man-made debris (Johnson 1999). In 1969 600 million humans watched and listened as Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong set down his left foot on the Moon (Figure 3).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Carving from the Moon House, Old Village, Yakutat, Alaska 1901 (de Laguna 1972: Plate 88)
Figure 2 (Click to view)

Figure 2. Sites plotted on near side of the Moon (not all sites visible). Courtesy of NASA. Click to enlarge.

These sites on the Moon are critical heritage components of the Cold War era. With funds from NASA's New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, the 'Lunar Legacy Project' (LLP) was created which focused on the Apollo 11 landing site at Tranquility Base as an archaeological site. The project also chose this lunar site as a test case for US federal law and relevant international law. We developed a lunar site inventory, probably not yet truly complete, of over 106 artefacts and features ranging from the footprints and an American flag to solar wind composition staff and emesis bags ( Many of these objects are examples of extraordinary technology. For example, the laser ranging retro reflector for the first time measured the exact distance from the Moon to the earth and is still returning data. Since we couldn't revisit the site, LLP created the only extant quasi-archaeological map based on the USGS Surface Traverses map with revision based on a Binfordian toss zone model as the Apollo 11 crew jettisoned artefacts before they left the Moon (Figure 4).

The sites on the Moon have been protected from any adverse impacts by their very inaccessibility and remoteness, but it is the locational integrity of the objects, structures, and features on the Moon in situ which is the most critical part of their significance.

Who should be responsible for space heritage preservation in the future?
According to UN Treaty no one nation nor individual can own the Moon, but objects in space or on other celestial bodies remain under the jurisdiction of those who put them there. Tranquility Base meets all eligibility criteria for a National Historic Landmark (NHL) under US federal preservation law, but when queried relevant preservation authorities stated that taking steps to preserve it would be perceived as a US claim of sovereignty over the Moon and they do not consider the US government to have sufficient jurisdiction (Stephens 2000) nor consider it appropriate (Shull 2000). The only difference between the Apollo 11 Launch Pad (currently part of an NHL), and the Tranquility Base site is that the archaeological assemblage from the latter is on the Moon. In effect, Tranquility Base is a critical component of the cultural landscape of space exploration. Other lunar sites are equally worthy of preservation. Without commitments to preservation and lacking legal structures to deal with space sites as cultural resources, we leave them vulnerable to impacts in the future by many varieties of space travel.

In 2004, US President Bush laid out a timeline for a manned lunar mission as early as 2015. There are new commercial interests in space. The US has a new Spaceport from which Britain's Virgin Galactic plans to transport tourists into suborbital space by 2008. EU, Japan, Russia, India, Canada, Australia and China and others have space programmes (Figure 5). The 'New Space Race' has components of Cold War nationalism with many more new players. Now is a critical time to prepare for space heritage.

Figure 3 (Click to view)

Figure 3. Lunar footprint - Apollo 11. Courtesy of NASA.
Figure 4 (Click to view)

Figure 4. Tranquility Base Site Base (Revised) from Apollo 11 Lunar Traverse map prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey and published by the Defense Mapping Agency for NASA. Courtesy of NASA and the Lunar and Planetary Institute. Click to enlarge.

Sites on the Moon are not the kind of property envisioned when preservation laws were written. They are recent past properties, the artefacts are on another world, at a different scale, and they are not strictly within anyone's national boundaries. Space exploration is a still a living system. If space sites are unclaimed and not treatable under current agreements we must find new ways to address preservation on an international scale.

In 2003, a resolution was adopted by the World Archaeological Congress for a Space Heritage Task Force; we had our first meeting at the Society for American Archaeology in Montreal in 2004: The Task Force seeks to recognise the material culture and places associated with space exploration, consider how and what elements of this heritage should be preserved using a set of criteria which benefits humankind, and work with interested parties to create an international structure to manage the cultural heritage of space exploration properly for future generations.

Figure 5 (Click to view)

Figure 5. Drawing of future space travel on the Moon. Courtesy of NASA.


  • BORMAN, F. 2001. Interview with Apollo 8 Astronaut, Col. Frank Borman. Jan. 23, 2001. Videotape and transcript on file New Mexico State University, Rio Grande Archives.
  • DE LAGUNA, F. 1972. Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit. Part Three. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • GORMAN, A. & O'LEARY, B. 2006 (in press). An Ideological Vacuum: the Cold War in Outer Space, in W. Cocroft & J. Schofield (ed.) A Fearsome Heritage: Diverse Legacies of the Cold War. London: UCL Press/Cavendish.
  • JOHNSON, N.L. 1999. Man-Made Debris in and From Lunar Orbit. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. IAA-99-IAA.7.1.03.
  • STEPHENS, R.M. 2000. Letter dated August 18, 2000 from Deputy General Counsel (NASA) to Lunar Legacy Project regarding NHL Designation of lunar artifacts. On file, New Mexico State University, Rio Grande Archives, Las Cruces, NM USA.
  • SHULL, C. D. 2000. Letter dated June 11, 2000 from Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places to Lunar Legacy Project regarding NHL designation of lunar artifacts. On file, New Mexico State University, Rio Grande Archives, Las Cruces, NM.

Beth Laura O'Leary, Ph.d.: Department of Sociology and Anthropology, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA (Email:

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