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NMSU professor attempting to preserve record of human space exploration

Beth O'Leary, assistant professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University, is taking one giant leap for archaeology.


In the June issue of Smithsonian magazine, O'Leary expresses her concern for the anthropological record currently resting on the moon, in light of the Lunar X Prize's offer of $20 million to any private team that lands a robotic rover on its surface and $5 million for snapping a picture of artifacts there.

O'Leary and other anthropologists are concerned that this lunar land rush will threaten mankind's first celestial anthropological sites, including Tranquility Base, the landing site of Apollo 11. Tranquility Base is one of many such invaluable sites on the Moon and is home to Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin's personal life support system pack and Aldrin's and Neil Armstrong's footprints, among other artifacts.

After receiving a grant for the Lunar Legacy Project from the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, a part of NASA, to learn more about the archaeological significance of Tranquility Base, O'Leary and the members of her team did so by using archives to compose a catalog of artifacts there.

The other members of the project team are Jon Hunner, professor of history and public history director at NMSU; John Versluis, an NMSU master of arts in public history graduate; and Ralph Gibson, an NMSU master of arts in anthropology graduate.

"It is, I believe, the first time an archaeologist looked at a site on the moon as an archaeological property and evaluated how it can be preserved," O'Leary said in an essay May 26 on BBC Radio 3.

The 106 artifacts cataloged range from technical equipment, such as the laser ranging retroreflector that for the first time provided the exact distance between Earth and the Moon, to more basic equipment, such as a hammer and trenching tool, to simple evidence of human presence, such as empty food bags.

While artifacts left on the Moon remain under the ownership and jurisdiction of the nation that left them there, an international agreement stipulates that no nation can claim property rights over the Moon itself. Therefore, when the team attempted to register the base as a National Historic Landmark, in order to ensure some protection of the site, it was not supported. The site also qualifies as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, but O'Leary said no country, including the U.S., has nominated it to the list.

New Mexico has helped to preserve the site by listing it as Laboratory of Anthropology (LA) 2,000,000 in the state's Archaeological Records Management Section (ARMS) database. Since ARMS only accepts sites within the state, Tranquility Base is tied to and hosted in New Mexico by the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, N.M. O'Leary also is part of an international space heritage task force, which will meet at the World Archaeological Congress in Dublin, Ireland this month.

Now, with novice scientists and inventors aiming for the Moon, the historical record appears to be in danger of being irreparably altered. Although the Lunar X Prize requires participants receive approval of landing site locations and that they exercise caution to avoid damaging existing sites, there is little specification of proper conduct, not to mention the high risks and lack of enforcement abilities in space.

"Without a commitment to preserve space sites, they are vulnerable to impacts of the future by many varieties of space travel," O'Leary said in her radio essay.

O'Leary added that much of the importance of the artifacts is linked to its specific placement and position on the Moon.

"Without locational integrity those artifacts lose part of their significance," she said. "The place is as important as the assemblage. The context is as critical as the components."

O'Leary said the Lunar Legacy Project will continue with increased focus on the effects of space on the archaeological sites of the Moon as well as a nomination of the Tranquility Base to the New Mexico Register of Cultural Properties.

In 2009 she and co-editor Ann Darrin of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory will publish "The Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology and Heritage." O'Leary said it will discuss both the engineering feats and history of the space age and discuss what and how space artifacts and sites should be preserved.

"First, we need a legal framework for visiting historic sites on the Moon or other celestial bodies; a series of protocols and agreements, perhaps with those who signed the outer space treaty, so that historic sites are not damaged or looted in the future," O'Leary said.

For more information go to the Lunar Legacy Project Web site, hosted by the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, at http://spacegrant.nmsu.edu/lunarlegacies/.