There's been a long-standing tradition throughout human history of nations and empires laying claim to newly-visited territory. It made sense in the past, of course, that if you were the first to arrive somewhere, and you needed a place to live, you could set up shop and call it yours.
There hasn't been much word of that kind of thing happening in more recent times, however this new bill going before the U.S. Congress — House Resolution 2617 — seems to imply that the tradition was still in effect right up until 1969, since it proposes to establish the Apollo Lunar Landings National Historical Park on the Moon. Maybe that Reddit.com user who superimposed the map of the United States onto the Moon was on to something, since it would seem that a piece of land would need to be part of the United States before they could put a national park there.
The site certainly meets other criteria for a historical site, since the Apollo Moon landings were of great historical significance to the United States, so I don't begrudge them wanting to set up some kind of protection there. After all, there are plans in the works to get people to the Moon in the near future, like those of Space Adventures and Golden Spike. I'd like to think that anyone who goes on one of those missions wouldn't mess around with something as 'sacred' to human space exploration as the Apollo landing sites, but having some kind of official protection would be nice (at least to discourage people from collecting 'souvenirs').
However, whereas the United States still owns all the objects left behind on the lunar surface, they can't own the land. The Outer Space Treaty — established in 1967, with the United States as one of the nations who signed it — says "outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." Sure, it's been 46 years since the treaty was signed, so maybe it's slipped from a few memories, but cordoning off the land with American flags would probably still draw some kind of international protest.
However, there's another take on this that I didn't think of when I first read about the bill. According to Brett Scruton, from PolicyMic.com, the bill doesn't stand much chance of getting past committee and it has even slimmer chances of being enacted, but the fact that it includes a requirement that the historical park be established within one year of the bill being enacted is very interesting. This requirement becomes even more interesting when you look at the fact that the bill introduced right before this one, House Resolution 2616, proposes to set NASA's budget for the next three years. As Scruton writes: "After all, how can we establish a national park without the shuttle funding to get up there?"
So, is this a way to put pressure on congress to give NASA more money, and get Americans to the Moon ASAP?
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Earlier this year, NASA chief Charles Bolden said there weren't going to be any more manned American missions to the Moon (although he left the door open to help with other nations' attempts), in favour of a mission to tow an asteroid into lunar orbit. However, another bill was introduced recently that seeks to reverse everything that Bolden said, taking the money from that asteroid mission and putting it into a trip to the Moon.
This all adds up to an interesting play.
There may be claims that it would cost too much, or that it's a frivolous or silly idea. However, what's going to happen, down the road, when we actually have people walking around on the Moon again, and the American public finds out that someone drove off with a lunar rover, or took the flag down from one of the sites as a souvenir? With the emotional investment they have in the Apollo landing sites, I can't imagine they'd be very happy with the politicians who denied the area protections. Maybe those in congress should give this bill some serious consideration after all.
As for the 'land-grab' angle, the last part of the bill does state that it would seek World Heritage Site designation for the site one year after the national park was established, so it looks like they aren't trying to claim the Moon is theirs.
(Photo courtesy: NASA)
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