Written by Beth Laura O’Leary, coauthor of The Final Mission: Preserving NASA’s Apollo Sites
“Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars.”
—“Fly Me to the Moon” (1954)
Lyrics and music by Bart Howard
The moon is one of humanity’s oldest fascinations. It plays a part in all cultures around the world. It is in our stories, calendars, explorations, and scientific investigations. Many have dreamed of going there. Even the popular song “Fly Me to the Moon” was written before humans actually set foot on the moon. On July 20, 1969, this song was actually the first music played by cassette on the moon at Tranquility Base by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
What Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did that day, while Michael Collins circled above, was create one of the most extraordinary archaeological sites in history. They are responsible for a fabulous assemblage of artifacts and structures that they used and left behind. Yet it is humanity who should ultimately be credited with creating the site because it took the brains, talent, and hard work of numerous scientists and engineers from all over the world to develop the vision and take the risks to land humans on the moon. History tells us that more than 60,000 people worked to create the wonderful machines, structures, and spacecraft that helped these astronauts get to the moon and stay there for approximately 21 hours. Our book, The Final Mission, reviews the history of the Space Age and makes the case for preservation of sites associated with it.
The Final Mission looks at the exploration of space and especially the moon from an archaeological perspective. What is on the lunar surface at Tranquility Base? There are such everyday objects as discarded astronaut boot covers, food wrappers and a hammer, and symbolic artifacts like a gold olive branch and a mission path commemorating Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee who died in a tragic fire during a test at Cape Canaveral. Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s behavior can be studied by looking at this historic archaeological site. A series of trails—bootprints made by the astronauts—map the paths of two humans as they set out to explore around their spacecraft. Small areas where they collected regolith (lunar soil) and rocks mark exciting moments in an incredible journey. But because there has been no archaeological survey done on the moon since their visit, we don’t know the full extent of what can be found there.
Have there been changes to this archaeological site after 48 years? The American flag that was placed as one of the astronauts’ first activities may be a bleached skeleton or in pieces on the surface after years of highly fluctuating temperatures and micrometeorites. Surprisingly, though, the lunar environment is relatively benign because it doesn’t experience the natural erosion that affects sites on Earth. The trails are clearly visible in the recent (2009) Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images taken from a spacecraft mapping the moon. Some Apollo artifacts are actually still in use, like the lunar laser ranging retroreflector used for scientific experiments by international observatories. The lack of subsequent visits to the site has also meant no human looting or disturbance.
The Final Mission is a book that blends historic preservation and the history of the Space Race. It begins with the story of places that contributed to lunar exploration, from Robert Goddard’s rocket test stands to astronaut training in remote places on Earth that mimic the lunar surface. With the rapid expansion of technology, many landmarks in the history of human space flight face damage and destruction and many have already been lost. In the future, commercial exploration of the moon could potentially destroy important aspects of the first lunar landing site at Tranquility Base. The book examines current preservation efforts, both successes and failures, and challenges that lie ahead.
Why is archaeology important? Aren’t historic documents enough to help us understand our past? Archaeologists who specialize in space exploration and heritage can answer important questions about human activity in the past because they come from a unique perspective that investigates the relationships between material culture—like lunar landers, tripods and trails—and human behavior. The astronauts in 1969 knew that they were taking a giant leap for mankind. What they probably did not realize is that they were creating a lunar legacy. They have left us one of history’s most significant archaeological sites. This site needs to be preserved for future generations who will take humanity back to the moon and far beyond it.
Beth Laura O’Leary is coauthor of The Final Mission: Preserving NASA’s Apollo Sites. She is professor emerita of anthropology at New Mexico State University and coeditor of Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology, and Heritage. For the past sixteen years she has been involved with the cultural heritage of outer space and the preservation of sites related to space exploration. A recipient of a grant from the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium (NASA), she investigated both the archaeological assemblage and the international heritage status of the Apollo 11 Tranquility Base site on the moon. In 2010, through the efforts of O’Leary and her colleagues and graduate students, the objects and structures at Apollo 11 at Tranquility Base were placed on both the California and New Mexico registers of cultural properties. O’Leary was part of a team selected by NASA to write NASA’s Recommendations to Space-faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts. She received an award from NASA for her work in 2012.