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#SpaceWatchGLThemes : Space Archaeology – Interview with Lisa Westwood

A pioneer of Space Archaeology, Lisa Westwood’s story is an inspiring one. Author of two books on humanity’s heritage in space, Westwood is a professional archaeologist and Cultural Resources Manager for ECORP Consulting and also a member of the Department of Anthropology at California State University-Chico and Butte College. Here, she speaks to SpaceWatch.Global about what drove her to spearhead the science of space archaeology and the importance of legislation in the fight to ensure that these historic sites in space are respected and preserved.

Location of Tranquility Base (Apollo 11 landing site)

Can you please begin by telling me a little about your background and how you became involved in the field of space archaeology?

On one level, this is really the hybridization of two of my long-standing interests: astronomy and archaeology. Decades ago, as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, I was exploring possible majors and was immediately attracted to a major of physics and astronomy. I was a small fish in a big sea of notable scientists, like James van Allen, but I loved it. I still remember my first meeting with the chair of the physics department and how he advised me on coursework that I needed to complete as part of my major. Shortly thereafter, the university suffered a horrific tragedy where a graduate student in the physics department became disgruntled and killed the chair and several other faculty members in the physics building. It was traumatic for all of us, and my efforts to find a major drifted towards my other area of interest, archaeology. My faculty at the University of Iowa were so passionate – so dynamic; they had a tremendous influence on where I am today.

I eventually became a professional archaeologist, and it wasn’t until my world came full-circle more than a decade later, where I found myself in front of a classroom of college students. I was teaching ANTH 112, an introductory course at California State University-Chico on archaeology and human prehistory. I was leading a discussion about “what makes a site important” and how age of that site is not necessarily a prerequisite for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, if that site achieved its significance recently, like Tranquillity Base on the Moon. I literally had an epiphany – if Tranquillity Base is so important, why hasn’t anyone sought to list it on the National Register? After all, there is a historic-era archaeological site on the Moon that represents the first time humans ever stepped foot on another celestial body, and that’s a pretty important piece of human history that exists nowhere else in the universe. There began my quest, and along the way, I met Beth O’Leary and Milford Wayne Donaldson, who were independently pursuing the same.

In addition to working full time as a professional archaeologist (as Director of Cultural Resources for ECORP Consulting), I am an active member of the anthropology faculty at California State University-Chico and Butte Community College.

In terms of legislative framework, what is the current situation in terms of preservation of historic sites in space?

Plaque left at Tranquility Base (on the LM Descent Stage) commemorating the first manned lunar landing, photographed by Neil Armstrong

Therein lies the problem – there really isn’t a framework for preservation of historic sites in space, which is – more or less – international territory. The regulatory context on Earth for historic preservation only developed in the past half century, and is designed to manage cultural resources in the more traditional sense – namely, archaeological sites and old buildings, and certainly, only those that are earth-bound. The closest mechanism we have, although still difficult to apply to international space, is the World Heritage List, maintained by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  I have published on the concept that a trans-national serial nomination of space heritage sites in many nations on Earth and sites in space would qualify a space heritage cultural landscape for inscription on the World Heritage List, but there are political and logistical obstacles that will need to be overcome first.

We received the news this week that a draft resolution of space as a driver of sustainable development will be considered by the United Nations COPUOS Scientific and Technical Sub-committee. How big a step forward for the space archaeology community is this and how receptive are policy makers to the argument that these historic sites/objects must be preserved for the sake of humanity?

Sustainable development is critical to the survival of the human species, and that will require doing so both on Earth and as we expand into space. While this resolution doesn’t appear to directly address space heritage, it does provide two key precursors of historic preservation: international cooperation and an elevated profile of the importance of managing our space heritage. Space archaeologists need both in order to further our mission on behalf of generations to come. However, perspective is important – the very act of expanding into space, with or without this resolution, is creating a future archaeological record of important milestones in human history. We should be careful not to trample upon this record so quickly after it is formed.

Do you see evidence of an increasing general awareness about the importance of preservation of our heritage in space (and our space-related sites on earth)?

Absolutely. Nearly a decade ago, my colleagues and I were successful in having Tranquillity Base on the moon listed on the California Register of Historical Resources and the New Mexico Register of Cultural Properties, and in doing so, it became the first time a site not located on Earth was listed on a historic registry anywhere. Immediately thereafter, a flurry of media coverage ensued and continues to this day. My colleagues and I don’t claim sole credit for raising the profile of historic preservation of space heritage; this has been a topic of great interest among sectors of the public and historian community for a long time. Take one step into the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington DC and all doubts about the importance of preserving space history will be erased from one’s mind.

What initiatives are you involved with that promote the preservation of the Apollo sites in particular?

Beth O’Leary and I founded the Apollo 11 Preservation Task Force about ten years ago, which really started out as a group of professionals interested in preserving space archaeology and heritage. I recently accepted the invitation to be a member of the Archaeology, Science, and Heritage Advisory Council of For All Moonkind, a non-profit. I have found that when enough people care about this issue, they can accomplish more together than apart.

Are you concerned about the growing number of private companies planning return to the Moon or to go to Mars and whether they have the knowledge and tools to respect these sites of archaeological importance?

I am very concerned about commercial entities returning to the Moon or Mars and how they may not respect the historically important sites that exist there now. Several years ago, NASA developed “NASA’s Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts,” which recognized the significance of the sites and took an important first step toward protecting them. It defined exclusion areas within the historic sites, identified concerns, and made recommendations associated with descent/landing, surface mobility and contamination. But there are no “moon cops” to enforce these guidelines. Therefore, raising the profile of the importance of preserving these important milestones NOW, before they are damaged, is critical.

Lisa Westwood

We talk a lot about the sites of historic importance in space, but what about those sites on Earth that gave birth to human endeavours in space? Are these sites under preservation orders or subject to any form of legislation to protect them?

There are many mechanisms by which cultural resources on Earth are managed, with the majority of those being within the United States. Sections 106 and 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 apply to all federal agencies – including NASA – that require the agency to take into account the direct and indirect effect that its planned undertakings will have on significant cultural resources before going forward with such undertakings. But many remnants of space heritage are now in private hands and don’t have as much protection, unless they seek permits or funding from the federal government. My recent book, “The Final Mission: Preserving NASA’s Apollo Sites” highlights many of the earth-bound space heritage sites that are in desperate need of preservation.

Finally, what are your personal hopes and dreams as a space archaeologist? What would you like to see happen in the future and how would you ideally like to see the science evolve?

My goal as a space archaeologist is to understand and interpret human cultural change in the area of human space exploration through the study of the material remains of the past, both on earth and in space. My goal as a historic preservationist of space heritage is to secure protection for Tranquillity Base on the moon, as it represents the first time humans stepped foot on another celestial body. For me, Tranquillity Base represents more than just a win for the United States in the Cold War era space race. It represents the success of the human species (independent of national heritage) to apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to overcome the challenges of physics, gravity, atmosphere, and the fear of the unknown to adapt our species to a new environment that is hostile to human life. That’s something worth preserving.



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