My Favorite Artifact: The Apollo Landing Sites
This space historian’s ideal exhibit is one that’s not quite ready to open.
Editor’s Note: Air & Space occasionally asks curators at aviation and space museums around the world to name their favorite artifacts—past, present, or in this case, future.
As a historian, Roger Launius is expected to analyze the past. But as a museum curator, he can’t stop thinking about the future. Launius, who chairs the National Air and Space Museum’s Division of Space History, is waiting for the day when the items that Apollo 11 astronauts left on the moon on July 20, 1969, can become part of the collection. “I’ve told NASA for years that I would gladly volunteer to go there to put up the ropes and stancheons around the site and make it ready for the tourists to come visit,” says Launius. “It may not happen in my lifetime, but some day, somebody will return to Tranquility Base. And what they’ll find is a fairly disheveled campsite—that’s okay, though. You know, the guys [Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin], they went there, they did their business. They essentially tossed overboard everything that they didn’t have to bring back with them, to lighten the load.”
In addition to the lunar lander itself, the Apollo 11 remains include experiment packages, tools, assorted carrying cases, pieces of the spacesuits, and a camera. Armstrong and Aldrin also planted a U.S. flag at Tranquility Base; it might, however, have been knocked down by the exhaust blast of the return vehicle. “There are some people who’ve said that [the toppling of the flag] is almost a certainty,” says Launius. “But nobody really knows.”
Launius also considers the footprints that Aldrin and Armstrong stamped into the moon’s powdery surface to be artifacts worthy of preservation, and he is already thinking ahead to the time when Tranquility Base, and indeed all of the Apollo landing sites, will need to be protected. “There was a move afoot to declare them a world heritage site, which is run through the U.N.,” says Launius. “And nothing came of that. There was also a proposal offered to the National Park Service to delare it a national historic landmark, which is the highest designation for historic sites. And it’s certainly worthy of that. But again, the National Park Service said we don’t have jurisdiction for anything on the moon. I think at the point where there is the serious possibility of us returning to the moon, there needs to be an effort to ensure the preservation of these enormously significant historic sites.” Until then, Launius’ favorite artifacts lie in wait.