Back in 2010, during his now infamous speech at the Kennedy Space Center, then President Barack Obama airily dismissed the idea of returning to the moon, saying, “We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there.” Seven years later, as Bloomberg notes, numerous companies and countries are preparing to mount expeditions to the moon. Lunar return has become so mainstream that it has got the lawyers worried.

Property rights on the moon

With a number of private companies proposing mining operations on the moon, the United States and Luxembourg have already passed laws affirming the rights of such enterprises to own the material they extract.

As I noted recently in the Hill Newspaper, a space version of the Homestead Act, consistent with the Outer Space Treaty, could be passed that gives companies de facto if not de jure Property Rights to their area of operations. The preference of the private sector is that countries do not go back to the 1967 treaty but rather craft laws that both respect property rights and adhere to the agreement.

But what about cultural artifacts?

However, one issue that may need visiting by the world community is the protection of cultural artifacts on the moon, specifically the six Apollo landing sites. The fear expressed by some preservationists is that future treasure hunters will tramp all over the sites, wiping out the decade's old foot prints, and start grabbing artifacts left by the Apollo astronauts.

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NASA has requested that a 75-meter quarantine zone be respected around the sites, however, the request is not legally binding. Most of the participants in the Google Lunar XPrize competition have agreed to comply with the integrity of the landing sites.

An organization called For All Moonkind is campaigning to have the Apollo landing sites on the moon recognized by the United Nations and the international community as common human heritage, to be protected. The group would like laws to be passed to prohibit the trafficking of lunar cultural artifacts.

No doubt, sometime in the future, the Apollo landing sites will become a destination for tourists. Regulations will have to be developed that will accommodate the desire of people to see where history was made and at the same time preserve the integrity of the sites in question. How such a regime can be developed and how it can be enforced are issues that have not been fully answered as of yet.

Perhaps, by the time that lunar tourism becomes a reality, a lunar settlement could become the governing authority that will be tasked with protecting the Apollo landing sites. People will drive up to a visitor’s center, buy some souvenirs, then go to the observation area, just outside the quarantine zone, and look on and marvel what their ancestors accomplished.