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Why We Should Be Wary Of Moon Tourism

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Forty-eight years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin packed up the moon rocks they had gathered and blasted off of the moon for their trip back to Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET BLASTOFF)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The astronauts were on the moon for less than a day. But Beth O'Leary, who's an expert in the anthropology of space at New Mexico State University, says they left a lot of stuff behind.

BETH O'LEARY: There are prosaic items like empty food bags, and then there are also some very symbolic items, like a gold olive branch and recorded messages from the world leaders at the time.

INSKEEP: There are also things like footprints and the paths the astronauts walked along. O'Leary says not a lot of that has changed.

O'LEARY: The sites themselves are fairly well-protected because they don't have an atmosphere. It's a vacuum. There's no wind.

GREENE: Well-protected, but it might not stay that way. Earlier this year, the private space travel company SpaceX released a video promoting its mission to send two private citizens around the moon next year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Quite the ride.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Yeah, quite the view.

INSKEEP: OK, to be clear, they're going around the moon, not on it. And some experts doubt the SpaceX trip will really launch on time. But moon tourism could be a reality someday. O'Leary thinks we should be wary of what might happen to artifacts like those left behind by Apollo 11. She points to other places that once were largely inaccessible but now cater to tourists.

O'LEARY: For example, in Antarctica, there's been quite a bit of looting because tourism has increased. So I think as we realize we're losing important, significant places, then people step in and say we should do something about it.

GREENE: OK. And Beth O'Leary is trying to do something about it. She was in Washington this week advocating for protecting the Apollo landing sites and those historical artifacts on the moon. But there's a problem here. It's not clear how those sites can be protected. Under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 - yes, that's a thing - the surface of the moon is not owned by anyone.

O'LEARY: The whole thing has to happen internationally. It has to be a series of agreements between nations so when we go back to the moon these very early sites, these sites that are the most extraordinary, in my opinion, will be preserved.

INSKEEP: One small step for man now requires a giant leap for anthropology.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADAM YOUNG'S "EARTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.