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Buzz Aldrin next to a solar wind experiment at the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The site has just been designated as a historical resource by the state of California.

A lot of us have been scratching our heads lately about Newt Gingrich’s recent promise to have a permanent Moon base. Not only will Newt have it ready in less than 10 years, but by the end of his second term nonetheless! Sad to say, he’s not exactly alone in concocting crazy space schemes. The Japanese branch of Dominos proposed building  a new restaurant on the Moon last year, apparently responding to Pizza Hut’s highly publicized delivery to orbiting cosmonauts.  The founder of Cirque de Soleil, Richard Bigelow, is planning on launching the first space hotel by 2016. In case you can’t afford the $1 million-a-night fee, you can always purchase a bit of Moon property for the much more reasonable sum of $16-20.

As space increasingly becomes the playground of private enterprise, a fascinating conversation is emerging: what to do with the cultural heritage that lies beyond Earth? Since the launch of Sputnik over 50 years ago, people have been blasting all kinds of things into space. What will these artifacts tell future generations about the cultures and societies responsible for these technical innovations?

This is where space archaeologists come in.

There are a number of conflicting definitions for what exactly space archaeology entails. For some, it is simply the usage of remote sensing technology for archaeology on Earth. Others see it as artifacts found it in space, even allowing for the hypothetical possibility of uncovering alien civilizations in the distant future. For this article, we will focus on human material culture in space.

So, what sort of human material culture we do we have in space?  Most of these artifacts are usually referred to as ‘space junk’. These are little bits and pieces left over from various missions over the years, including decommissioned satellites and space probes. Notable examples include the US Vanguard 1 satellite (the oldest human-made object in orbit) and the Soviet Lunik 2 on the Moon. More often, space junk consists of smaller and less spectacular objects. Lunar boots, airsickness bags and even urine containers may be found on the Moon. Scientists estimate that there are more than 100 tons of worth of scrap metal and plastic on over eighty sites on the Moon. Because of the lack of air and an atmosphere, chances are that these artifacts are incredibly well preserved.

The historic significance of Buzz Aldrin’s lunar footprint and the American flag at the Apollo 11 landing site may be clear, but why care about the smaller items? Space junk is just space junk, right? Not quite.

The Vanguard 1 in 1958. It is the oldest human-made object still in orbit.

All of these artifacts are testament not only to the remarkable scientific achievements of the Human Race, but relics of a very specific culture and political situation. The Space Race was essentially yet another proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union. Space was the ‘ideological vacuum’. It was Terra Nova and Manifest Destiny all over again: a blank slate waiting to be filled with human ideals. For both sides of the Cold War, demonstrations of science and technological prowess were a means to win the allegiance of Third World nations.  Vanguard 1 for instance was a direct affront to the Soviet Sputnik, serving as an ideological ambassador for the United States. Today, this ‘dead’ satellite is waiting for a future archaeologist to use it to make inferences on the cultural, technological and behavioral patterns of the mid-20th century United States.

CRM (cultural resource management) laws already exist to protect sites of historic, cultural and natural importance on Earth, but the legal status of human artifacts in space is much murkier.  The 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty dictated that ‘space debris’ legally remained the property of the governments that shot them into space in the first place. However, the treaty made no allowances for the jurisdiction of the land on which these artifacts may rest. For instance, Buzz Aldrin’s footprint is property of the United States government, but the Moon dust on which it was made is not.

With more private individuals attempting to enter space, in theory there could be actual looting of  potential heritage sites. Space artifacts already have proven to be hot commodities in the past. The title to the Soviet robotic spacecraft Luna 21 and Lunakhod 2 has already been sold for over $60,000, and a lunar core sample from Luna 16 went for $400,000. It’s only a matter of time before we see the gold replica olive branch left by the Apollo 11 crew on ebay.

Don’t panic yet though! It’s not all doom and gloom out there. California registered the Apollo 11 landing site as a historical resource in 2010. New Mexico, Florida and Texas are pondering similar moves. If their results are successful, the site could become a national monument and a UNESCO world heritage site.  Space archaeologists are also becoming increasingly vocal activists for space heritage, spreading the word before these reminders of the Space Race are gone forever. At the rate things are going, archaeology and cultural resource management may boldly go where no man has gone before!