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NMSU graduate students launch effort to protect moon landing site

New Mexico State University graduate students Ralph Gibson and John Versluis said Friday they are not surprised their efforts to have Apollo 11's landing site on the moon preserved and protected have drawn national attention.

Ralph Gibson, left, and John Versluis, right, pose with Beth O'Leary, the NMSU anthropology professor in whose class they first conceived the idea of preserving the Apollo 11 moon landing site as an historic monument. (NMSU photo by Deja Cloud)

And even though their plan has hit some road blocks -- some thrown up by NASA and the National Park Service -- the two say they are not giving up.

"We think once people recognize the site is threatened and that it's not protected they'll want to see it protected, and recognized nationally and globally," Gibson said.

Gibson, an NMSU anthropology graduate student, and Versluis, who completed a master's in public history at NMSU last year, came across the issue in 1998, in Prof. Beth O'Leary's graduate seminar on cultural resource management.

"We were discussing federal preservation law and one of them asked me whether that law would apply to the artifacts left behind by the first moon landing. It was a good question. I didn't have the answer," O'Leary said this week.

"I said, 'Let's start researching it,' " she added.

Over the next five months, Gibson and Versluis began digging in two widely separated fields: National Historic Landmark criteria; and the 1967 international treaty on outer space, which has more than 146 signatories.

"We had to merge those two areas to see if we fit the National Historic Landmark criteria, but still didn't violate the international treaty," Versluis said.

In May 1999 they submitted a pre-proposal to the National Parks Service and in December 1999, with a $23,000 grant from the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, they began researching an inventory of articles left on the moon, as is required for submitting a National Historic Landmark nomination.

Their research took them to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. They soon learned their research was making a contribution they hadn't anticipated.

"We found out there really isn't an inventory of articles left on the moon," Versluis said. "NASA issued a press release in 1969 saying there were 25 items and the Smithsonian has a list of about 60. We now have a list of over 88."

But the 1967 outer space treaty clearly states that no nation may claim the moon or any part of it, and this summer both the National Park Service and NASA sent Gibson and Versluis letters saying they could not support their efforts to have Tranquility Base declared a National Historic Landmark by the United States.

The two researchers said their goal all along has been to have the site declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- but to do so the United States must first place the site on the National Register of Historic Places or certify that it is eligible to be placed on the list.

"We wanted to nominate it as a 'district of objects and structures,'" Gibson said. "That way we would not be laying claim to the soil beneath the objects."

The effort to get protection for the site is urgent, because further visits to the moon may not be that far in the future, both from other nations and from private companies, Versluis said.

"Lunacorp, a private U.S. company, is proposing to send a 'lunar rover,' similar to the Mars rover, up there. For $7,000 a person could visit the site on the Internet and control the rover with a joy stick. For $1.2 million, Lunacorp proposes to let you bury someone's ashes on the site," he said.

The danger, both said, is that such visitors might disturb or destroy historic artifacts on the site.

Gibson and Versluis were interviewed in April by ABC correspondent Lee Dye who put a column about their effort on ABC's news Web site ABCNEWS.com.

They said they didn't receive any more public attention until recently, when an article on them ran in the October issue of Discovering Archeology. Mike Stowe, an associate editor of the national magazine, is also an NMSU graduate student and was in O'Leary's class in 1998 when Gibson and Versluis raised their fateful question.

Since the article appeared, another article has appeared on USA Today's Web site and the two have been interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Co., on Albuquerque's National Public Radio affiliate KANW, and by a Washington, D.C., radio station.

The attention is welcome if it helps them achieve their goal, they said.

"This is not a project to nationalize the moon for the U.S.," said Jon Hunner, head of NMSU's public history program and a co-sponsor of Gibson and Versluis' grant proposal to the New Mexico Space Consortium. "It's a project to preserve one of the key historic sites in this century, or to go even further, one of the key sites in all human history,"

Photo below is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/gradmoon.jpg.
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CUTLINE: Ralph Gibson, left, and John Versluis, right, pose with Beth O'Leary, the NMSU anthropology professor in whose class they first conceived the idea of preserving the Apollo 11 moon landing site as an historic monument. (NMSU photo by Deja Cloud)

Jack King
Sept. 29, 2000