‘Culturally Significant’: Google Prize to Honour Sacred Lunar Sites

One of the iconic images from Apollo 11 was Buzz Aldrin's photograph of his own bootprint in the ancient lunar soil. The NASA-Google agreement will hopefully ensure that sites of such cultural importance remain undamaged. Photo Credit: NASA

Scattered across the Moon’s surface, hundreds of artefacts tell the tale of humanity’s first foray to our closest celestial neighbour. On the Sea of Tranquillity lie the imprints of the first human feet to touch this alien soil. Elsewhere, on the Ocean of Storms, is a little Hasselblad timer, which Al Bean hoped to use to photograph himself and his friend, Pete Conrad. Further east, in the Fra Mauro hills, a couple of golf balls sit in the dust. At higher elevations, a falcon’s feather lies at Hadley-Apennine, the remains of a Sun-blackened photograph of Charlie Duke’s family at Descartes and the last human footprints at Taurus-Littrow.

That is not all. Half a dozen Apollo lunar module descent stages and flags, three battery-powered rovers, a hand-pulled cart, several experiments, backpacks and overshoes, food packages, urine bags and other unwanted detritus dot the most hostile landscape ever visited by our species. All played their part in humanity’s greatest adventure…and all may still be at risk from the exploits of future explorers.

Not far from the Apollo 16 lunar module, in the Moon's Descartes highlands, Charlie Duke left a photograph of himself and his family on the surface. In the unfiltered sunlight, the photograph quickly began to brown and blacken. Photo Credit: NASA

The risk was reduced by Thursday’s announcement that the Google Lunar X Prize will accommodate NASA guidelines to protect all six Apollo sites from destruction. In recent years, there has been much international interest in studying the Moon, to say nothing of the Prize itself, which is currently soliciting proposals from 26 teams to land and operate a privately funded rover on the surface by December 2015. Although NASA’s guidelines are not mandatory, they exist to help mission planners to properly preserve the legacy of the past and enable the exploration of the future.

Based in Playa Vista, California, the X Prize Foundation will take the guidelines into account as it judges its teams’ mobility plans on the Moon. At present, the teams include competitors from the United States, Russia, Canada, Germany, India, Romania, Brazil, Italy, Chile, Hungary, Israel, Spain and the Netherlands. Whichever team succeeds in making landfall on the Moon must manoeuvre its rover for at least 500 m and return high-definition imagery, before it can claim the $20 million Grand Prize. Smaller prizes will go the second-place winner and for teams which travel beyond 500 m or survive the frigid week-long lunar night or verify major scientific discoveries, such as the detection of water ice.

Controversially, though, a $4 million bonus exists for photographing the landing site of a manned Apollo or unmanned Surveyor spacecraft, whilst on the surface. This ‘Heritage Bonus’ has raised more than a few eyebrows and has caused great consternation, because the sites of our first lunar exploration are today considered as culturally significant. Several archaeologists have already demanded that the Heritage Bonus should be cancelled and that landings within 100 km of any Apollo or Surveyor site should be banned.

'Revisiting' heritage sites on the Moon was first done in November 1969, when the Apollo 12 crew landed close to the unmanned Surveyor 3 probe. The X Prize Foundation argues that its 'Heritage Bonus' will allow proper debate on how best to respectfully visit old sites, but others counter that intrusion of any kind will cause incalculable damage. Photo Credit: NASA

However, the X Prize Foundation counters that the bonus will serve to foster debate about how to respectfully revisit old sites and adds that such revisits have already taken place; the Apollo 12 astronauts having landed within a couple of hundred metres of Surveyor 3 in November 1969. As for the surviving Moonwalkers themselves, many are staunch supporters of the spirit of adventure that drives the Prize. Buzz Aldrin, who appeared in its initial announcement, was a member of the Apollo 11 crew and became the second man to set foot on the lunar surface in July 1969.

As they peered through the windows of the lunar module ‘Eagle’, that summer’s night, long ago, Aldrin and Neil Armstrong beheld a view never seen by human eyes; a virgin land with dust and soil and rocks which had lain undisturbed for a billion years or more. The level plain upon which Apollo 11 landed – at lunar co-ordinates 0.67409 degrees North by 23.47298 degrees East – would come to be known as ‘Tranquillity Base’. For the last four decades, it has remained essentially unchanged. Google’s acknowledgement of the cultural importance of historic lunar landers means that the preservation of this most distant archaeological site can remain pristine.

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