In September 2018, Elon Musk announced that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will be their first space tourist. This year humankind will mark the 50th anniversary of the first person stepping on another celestial body; and now the fast emerging space tourism industry can become a real threat to the space cultural heritage.
On Earth, UNESCO has the role to protect the cultural heritage of humankind. The main treaty, which regulates this action, is the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention. The main problem for space heritage is that this convention does not apply in space. The US Congress tried through the Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act to nominate Tranquillity Base for the UNESCO World Heritage List, as a site of “outstanding international value”, but failed as the treaty only applies on Earth.
Firstly, one has to identify what needs protection on the moon. Currently there are 80 historical archaeological sites on the Moon. The 1972 UNESCO convention states that monuments, group of buildings and sites can be categorized as cultural heritage; therefore every site on the moon is eligible for protection.
Secondly, the currently existing space laws need to be examined. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (hereafter OST) is the backbone of space law, but does not mention the protection of space cultural heritage. Albeit there is no explicit protection laid down in the treaty, there is other relevant information about property rights in space that can become useful for the drafters of a possible future treaty. Article II of the Treaty prohibits states from claiming sovereignty over any part of space, which also includes the Moon, if we take into consideration, article 11 of the Moon agreement. The latter states that “the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind”. Article VIII of the OST states, however, that any objects placed in space remain the property of the state that put them there. This has been exercised on a national level too, with California passing a law in 2010 that designated protection for Tranquillity Base; although its effects are merely local.
In conclusion, we are clearly in need for a treaty that protects cultural heritage. NASA’s 2011 white paper that suggests a 2 kilometre keep-out zone near landing sites is a good place to start. This document does not have legal force, but it was enough to keep the Google Lunar X Prize competitors out of the Tranquillity Base. The treaty which can stand as a base model is the UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage. The main ideas that should be followed are the creation of a supervising committee, and defining what can be visited by “space tourists”. Having 80 archaeological sites on the moon, the treaty should categorize which site could be visited by tourists, and which only by scholars. Like the Underwater convention, this should also focus on the preservation, rather than removal of heritage.