Museum Dean Working to Preserve Space Legacy
One of the biggest events in the lives of older Americans happened when the United States put the first man on the moon in 1969. Even for people born later, this was a monumental event, repeated a few times then never done again.
So, what if you woke up one day and learned someone else had landed on the moon and, intentionally or unintentionally, wiped out all evidence that Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew were ever there?
If that happened, wouldn’t you think, “Gee whiz, why didn’t someone do something to prevent that from happening?”
Good news. John Versluis, dean of the Texas Heritage Museum at Hill College, along with scientists and historians from around the world are on it.
“Today, the U.S. doesn’t even have a spacecraft to take our astronauts to the International Space Station,” Versluis said. But space exploration continues in other ways, he said. “The latest thing is the Google X Prize, where private entrepreneurs are competing for a grand prize of $20 million for the first private group to get a robot to the moon with minimal governmental assistance.”
This is where Versluis and company became concerned. International treaties would prevent another country from disturbing U.S. Apollo landing sites, and the U.S. Historical Preservation Act would prevent a private U.S. company going there, if they launched from U.S. territory. However, under current laws, if a private company launched from another country, there are no rules.
Roll back to 1998 when Versluis and Ralph Gibson were taking a graduate anthropology course at New Mexico State University. The course, taught by Dr. Beth O’Leary, was Cultural Resources Management. Out of the blue, Gibson asked, “Are the lunar landing sites protected by the National Historic Preservation Act?” The answer, they all learned together, was “No.”
And so a project of passion began: The Lunar Legacy Project.
“Tens of thousands of years have gone by with our species looking at the sky and wondering if we would ever go there,” Versluis said. “Our voyages to the Moon in the 60s and 70s, I think are astonishing. It may be the most important exploration the human species has ever done.”
Dealing with government is never simple and dealing with multiple governments can be impossible, which is why the project that began with a simple proposal submitted to the National Historic Landmarks Survey in 1999 is still going on today. It is not a full-time job for Versluis, but he keeps a thorough file on it and can direct interested parties to books, articles, Internet sites and other resources numbering in the hundreds. There is much international interest in the project.
“Preserving the Tranqulity Base site on the Moon is only the beginning. We are establishing precedent for all future space exploration, “ Versluis said.
With two grants totaling more than $40,000, Versluis and Gibson went to Houston and then to D.C. to do firsthand research. What they found was startling. After all that time and $40 billion spent on the Apollo space program, only about 24 verifiable artifacts could be accounted for from those adventures.
“They worked by projects, with contractors. When a project was completed, everything was thrown away. Archiving was not even thought of,” Versluis said. “There was a lengthy list of items that had gone up to the moon, but none of them were kept.”
After years of work, Versluis, Gibson and O’Leary have upped that number to 106 artifacts, but much work remains to be done. There are still artifacts on the moon, including the American flag planted there by the first Earth visitors, lunar rovers, footprints in the moon’s surface … and even items disposed of just to reduce the weight of the craft for lift off from the surface of the Moon.
In 2010, the Apollo 11 Preservation Task Force consisting of Beth O’Leary, John Versluis, Lisa Westwood, and Ralph Gibson were able to list “The Nomination of Structures and Objects Associated with Tranquility Base” on the California and New Mexico State Registers of Historic Places.
Some of those things may be studied to see if bacteria survived. Others might be brought back to the Smithsonian Museum. But, many would remain on the moon, documented and protected.
Perhaps the most significant artifact, in Versluis’ opinion, is a silicone disk the Apollo 11 crew left at Tranquility Base. That disk bears goodwill messages from the leaders of 73 countries, and the Pope. It’s only about the size of a 50-cent piece, so all that information and more is microscopic. But in larger letters, around the rim, it says, “From Planet Earth. July 1969.”
“At the height of the cold war, for us to do this ... I think that silicone disk is the most moving thing … All these countries pouring in these messages of peace,” Versluis said. “For one brief moment, it unified the world.”
Ralph Gibson wrote his master’s thesis on the project. The three have presented at various international conferences, appeared on television and radio shows, and published many articles (including National Geographic) and several books, keeping the world up to date and the project moving forward, albeit slowly.“We are opening the door to a whole new era of historical preservation,” Versluis said.