To Boldly Go Where No State Preservation Commission Has Gone Before

In a bizarre act of extraterrestrial heritage imperialism (at a time when the state’s historic parks and heritage sites are suffering from crippling budget cuts and staff reductions) the California State Historical Commission voted on January 29 to declare the collection of artifacts left behind at Apollo 11’s “Tranquility Base” during the 1969 moon landing as a State Historical Resource.

With this vote, the lunar site containing the discarded landing platform of the lunar module, the American flag planted in the moon dust by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and various tools and discarded equipment is– at least technically protected by California’s state heritage regulations.

This unprecedented administrative move declares that California’s cultural resource protection law extends to a site outside the state’s territory and, in fact, beyond the surface of planet Earth. 

According to State Historic Preservation Officer Milford Wayne Donaldson, California’s will not be the only claim on the lunar site.  The Historic Preservation agencies of New Mexico, Texas, Georgia, and Florida will soon make similar declarations.  The reason?  These states all are home to firms, R&D labs, and government agencies that played large roles in NASA’s Apollo program.

I am not aware of any previous heritage claims granted on the basis of commercial or administrative connections– territorial sovereignty, yes; community significance, yes; but government contracts?  Will Halliburton or Blackwater now lay claim to the ancient sites of Iraq?

Not content with that innovation, representatives of all the states hope jointly to nominate Tranquility Base for UNESCO’s World Heritage list.  Problem 1.) the UNESCO World Heritage Convention deals only with this planet; 2.) all World Heritage sites implicitly recognize a nominating state’s sovereignty over the designated property.  Such a US claim is likely to receive something less than an enthusiastic endorsement by the current member states of the World Heritage Committee.

There is no question that space heritage is heritage (as recognized by, among others, the World Archaeology Congress) and should be at least theoretically protected if and when landings on the moon resume.  But this ham-handed declaration by the State of California shows how corporate power has actually acquired historical standing– and how antiquated, parochial, and irrelevant our heritage frameworks have become.


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