Thursday, February 04, 2010

California Shoots for the Moon

Faced with budget constraints that are forcing the imposition of furlough days and weeks on Office of Historic Preservation staff, and facing a surge of Recovery Act projects requiring Section 106 review, California’s Historic Resources Commission has taken bold action. On January 29 it added Tranquility Base to the state’s Register of Historic Resources.

That’s right, Tranquility Base, on the Moon, where on July 20 1969 Neil Armstrong uttered the famous words: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

According to the Associated Press, quoting California State Historic Preservation Officer Wayne Donaldson, the Commission’s action is part of a five-state effort to promote designation of the site as a National Historic Landmark (NHL) under the Historic Sites Act of 1935. The other states involved, according to the AP, are Florida, Alabama, New Mexico and Texas. NHL designation is a National Park Service (NPS) responsibility.

Even if one doesn’t consider it a little hubristic for a state to extend its system of historic place designation to another heavenly body, even if one doesn’t think (as I, perhaps a minority of one, do) that historic place designation systems are inherently outmoded and counterproductive, even if one doesn’t think that Mr. Donaldson and his people might really be well advised to tend to the state’s business instead of launching outer space adventures, the move to designate Tranquility Base an NHL is ill-considered. I very much hope that other states – even California’s alleged co-conspirators – will think long and hard before supporting it.

Let’s stipulate that Tranquility Base is a highly significant place in the history of humankind’s exploration of space. Let’s stipulate that, as Mr. Donaldson is quoted as saying in justification of his commission’s action, it may eventually be threatened by thoughtless space tourists. Let’s stipulate that the public, that posterity, that life forms near and far would be well served by somehow protecting the site from such desecration. None of this makes NHL designation sensible or responsible.

Designation is the knee-jerk preservationist response to the intersection of historic significance and potential for change. The place is threatened? Put it on a list! Influenced by the long history of European landmark scheduling and local historic district ordinances, preservationists assume that if you put the place on a list it will be protected. Never mind that there’s no lunar historic district commission to impose design standards on touristic ventures in the Sea of Tranquility; it must be that making Tranquility Base an NHL will protect it from those rampaging space tourists, right?

Wrong, of course. Under Section 110(f) of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), NHL designation would require U.S. government agencies to consider the effects of their actions on the site. But no one seems to expect the Corps of Engineers to initiate watershed improvements around the Sea of Tranquility; it’s unregulated space tourism that Mr. Donaldson and his colleagues fear. NHL designation won’t control that.

So why push designation? There actually is a reason, of sorts. In the U.S. system for proposing places for inclusion in the World Heritage List – a list of places ostensibly having international significance as natural or cultural resources, maintained by a sub-body of UNESCO – NHL designation is a necessary first step. The NPS authors of the rules for World Heritage List nominations in the U.S. sensibly assumed that if we weren’t willing to recognize a place as being significant enough to be an NHL, we ought not propose it for the international list. Placement on the World Heritage List would obligate nations party to the World Heritage Convention to give Tranquility Base some degree of consideration in their actions, presumably including whatever regulatory scheme a nation, a group of nations, or the international community might impose on space tourism. So World Heritage List designation makes a degree of sense, and if the U.S. wants to propose such a thing, via its existing designation system, NHL designation is a necessary step.

But that’s a big “if.” World Heritage listing isn’t necessarily the only or most straightforward way to achieve protection for something like Tranquility Base – which is, after all, hardly more a part of the world than it is a part of the U.S. or the state of California. And NHL designation generates some risks that at last report the Department of State – very sensibly, I think – did not favor incurring.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty – technically the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” to which the U.S. is a party, specifies at Article II that “outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” In other words, neither the U.S. nor any other country can stake a claim to the moon or any part thereof. While we “cultural resource experts” in the U.S. know that designating something an NHL or putting it on the National Register does not constitute an “appropriation” by the U.S. government, this understanding is not very widely shared. If it were, we wouldn’t see private property owners getting as exercised as they sometimes do over proposals to list their houses, farms, fields and factories on the Register. We certainly cannot expect the other nations of the world, a few of which tend to look at U.S. intentions with a jaundiced eye, to recognize designation as a benign, non-political act. Accordingly, the last time I inquired into the matter the Department of State was dead set against giving Tranquility Base NHL status.

So what are California and its co-conspirators trying to do? Pressure the Secretary of the Interior into thumbing his nose at the Secretary of State? Create an international incident? Or are they just having fun? I don’t know, but I suspect they haven’t really thought the matter through very thoroughly.

Suppose, though, that they somehow succeed in their enterprise (sic), and get Tranquility Base registered as an NHL – perhaps even placed on the World Heritage List. What then do we do about the landing sites of Apollo 12, Apollo 14, and the others? What about the landers and rovers on Mars? What about the Voyager spacecraft when they circumnavigate the cosmos and come home? There is in fact an active and growing group of academic enthusiasts promoting the preservation of such sites and objects, and well there should be; they are undeniably historic. But are they all going to become NHLs, or be listed in the equivalent schedules of other nations, and/or be entered in the World Heritage List? Are we going to go through bureaucratic processes over each one, and replay the tired old arguments about how many of this and that kind of thing “belong” on the list? Will we invest money in preparing interplanetary historic context studies?

If the supporters of protection for off-planet historic places are serious, I suggest that the time and treasure they’re spending pushing for NHL designation would be better invested in an effort – perhaps through UNESCO, ICOMOS, and/or other international cultural bodies – to get the spacefaring nations to agree to a simple principle: that the physical evidence of the history of space exploration should be respected in the ongoing exploration, settlement, and use of outer space. Have a UNESCO convention on the subject, establish processes by which impacts on such evidence will be considered in planning future space ventures, including tourism – whether this evidence is found in a specific place like Tranquility Base or scattered around like the vehicles lost on entry into the Martian atmosphere, and whether they’re things we know about now or unexpected discoveries like big black slabs that hum. Cut to the chase, address the real issue, and do it in the proper international venue. Don’t waste time and tax dollars trying to warp (sic) state and federal historic property designation processes (silly enough when applied to earthly places) to serve purposes for which they were never intended.

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