And Our Flag Was Still There—a National Park on the Moon

Just when you think the national government could not be more idiotic, wasteful, or paralytic, they do something absolutely inspired. The proposal to create a National Historic Park on the Moon is one of the best ideas I have ever heard.

The congressional sponsors of the Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act (H.R. 2617), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), and Donna Edwards (D-Maryland), are mostly concerned about protecting NASA Apollo artifacts left behind on the moon. They rightly worry that the space ambitions of China and the European Space Agency, and the dawning era of commercial space flights, endanger artifacts that enshrine the single greatest event of our time, and one of the pivotal moments in the history of humankind. It is only a matter of time before somebody else--or an ethically challenged robot--visits Tranquility Base and loots the site for commercial advantage. That's certainly how I would spend my time if I could slip the surly bonds of earth and visit the nearest celestial body!

The National Park Service would be instructed to protect these precious industrial artifacts, to preserve whatever is left of the first human footprints on the lunar surface, and any other detritus (including gum wrappers) that astronauts left behind. Just how is not fully specified in the legislation.

There is actually a great deal of human stuff scattered about the Moon. Some, but not all of it, was left behind by the Apollo astronauts. The descent module of the Eagle (Apollo 11) is in permanent repose on the Sea of Tranquility. The ascent and descent vehicles from all six lunar landing missions are strewn across the pockmarked surface of the Moon. Three Lunar Rovers are still parked up there, keys thoughtfully tucked into the visors. I assume that by now at least two of them are up on blocks, and the carburetor has been removed from the third.

The three golf balls that Alan Shepard wacked away it on Apollo 14 are still out there somewhere, waiting to be chipped into the Frau Mauro Crater. Once he had time to study his lunar lie on February 6, 1971, Shepard chose a Wilson six iron to mark the trivialization of the human exploration tradition. He actually brought the modified six iron back to Earth and donated it to the United States Golf Association museum in New Jersey. Presumably it will be returned to the Tranquility Base Visitors Center once the National Park is up and running.

The famous plaque on the Apollo 11 Lunar Module would certainly raise a fortune on eBay. It reads, Here Men From The Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon The Moon July 1969, A.D. We Came In Peace For All Mankind. Of course you'd have to carry a lunar crowbar up there to get it.

Six American flags once festooned our six landing sits. Buzz Aldrin (alas, forever condemned to be remembered as the second man on the moon) reported that the flag from Apollo 11 blew down when the Lunar Module took off on July 21, 1969. Most heroic gestures end thus. But at least three of the flags from the other five missions have been spotted by high-resolution surveillance cameras (Apollo 12, 16, and 17). The flags themselves cannot be seen, but the shadows they cast are still clearly visible in the photographs.

It was forty-four years ago yesterday (Saturday) that Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon. I remember that moment as if it actually were yesterday. I don't think I have ever been prouder to belong to Civilization. Think of what it means to shoot a capsule from one spinning and speeding celestial body to another speeding sphere a quarter of a million miles away—and then land it within a few meters of your pre-arranged target If you want to remind yourself of what kind of challenge gravity represents, carry a gallon of paint up the stairs of the North Dakota State Capitol. Or try to launch an aluminum garbage can over the Missouri River into Mandan (or Bismarck). This requires a permit.

Here is the entire list of moonwalkers. All Americans. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin; Pete Conrad and Alan Bean; Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell; David Scott and James Irwin; John W. Young and Charles Duke; Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt.

Of the 12 men who walked the moon, eight are still alive and four are dead James Irwin (Apollo 15) was the first to die—on August 8, 1991, at the age of 61. Then went Allen Shepard (among other things, America's first man in space) on July 21, 1998, age 74. Then Pete Conrad of Apollo 12, July 8, 1999, at the age of 69. Neil Armstrong died last year (August 25, 2012) at the age of 82. The clock is ticking. At some point the last of them will expire, just as, soon enough, Ringo Star and Sir Paul McCartney will drop the curtain on one of history's most amazing epochs.

One of the eight living moonwalkers, Harrison (Jack) Schmitt, is coming to Bismarck State College on November 6, 2013, to speak at the John F. Kennedy symposium co-sponsored by BSC and the Dakota Institute. Schmitt was the second to last man to stand on the surface of the moon. Gene Cernan was the last. Schmitt was the first bonafide scientist (a geologist) to visit the Moon's surface. He also has the distinction of having taken the magnificent Blue Marble photograph of the earth, showing most of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the gorgeous island of Madagascar, and even the South Polar icecap. It is one of the most beautiful photographs ever taken, almost enough to make you want to protect our watery, wispy, stunningly beautiful planet.

If the Apollo Lunar Landing Sites National Historical Park is created, it will present some challenges to folks (and there are many) whose goal it is to visit every National Park and have their passports stamped. One article inspired by the Congressional proposal a couple of weeks ago quipped, Fire Up the Minivan!

Getting there will not only be difficult but expensive. Assuming that gas prices remain at $3.69 per gallon, and your car (because you are a National Park type) gets 24 mpg, it would take 9,954 gallons of unleaded to get to the moon, which is 238,900 miles away. That's $36,730.26. Not bad really, but that doesn't leave any money to drive around once you get there. And several thousands of dollars for red licorice and beef jerky.

Thanks to exceedingly poor leadership and a lack of national foresight, the United States now has no capacity to send anyone to the moon, or even into space! Not for the foreseeable future. A nation that responded to John F. Kennedy's heroic challenge at Rice University of May 21, 1961, (to send a man to the moon and bring him safely back within the 1960s), would now be helpless to protect those lunar artifacts if Darth Vader or Yang Liwei (the first Chinese man in space) attempted to abscond with them. How pathetic is that

I do hope Congress creates the Lunar National Park. If we no longer have the heart to be heroic, we should at least show proper honor to those who did.

Someone I know well has some influence in the National Park System. If this great thing happens, I desperately want to be a voluntary ranger, complete with that fetching hat I have long coveted. I've been drinking Tang. If I cannot be an astronaut, surely I can be a lunatic.

The illustration of the moon is from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.