The Trash We've Left on the Moon

The lunar surface is strewn with hundreds of manmade items, from spacecraft to bags of urine to monumental plaques.

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The remains of the Apollo 17 site in the moon's Taurus-Littrow Valley -- an image, released in 2011, sharp enough to show the tracks of the astronauts and their lunar rover in unprecedented detail. At top left you can see the mission's ALSEP, or its package of scientific instruments. In the center is the lunar module's descent stage ("Challenger"), as well as the module's experimental pallet, the ladder leading down to the lunar surface, and the life-support backpacks (PLSS) that crew members Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt tossed out of their ascent module just before leaving the moon. You can also see paths left by walking astronauts and tracks left by lunar buggies. The image was captured by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, some 13 to 15 miles above the moon's surface. (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Earlier this week, two probes that had spent the past year orbiting the moon for NASA's GRAIL mission slammed into the lunar surface, destroying themselves and their communications connection to Earth. 

None of this was an accident: Crash-landings like this are a typical method of bringing unmanned lunar missions -- and unmanned planetary missions in general -- to a close. This means, however, that NASA's typical method of mission conclusion involves, inevitably, leaving debris strewn on planets across our solar system. And it means that the moon, in particular, currently hosts nearly 400,000 pounds of man-made material. In epic terms, the lunar surface bears human footprints that are as figurative as they are literal, objects of earthly origin that have found their final resting place in the most otherworldly mausoleum imaginable. In less epic terms: We regularly leave trash on the moon.

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A map of the Apollo 11 landing site -- now deemed a "lunar heritage site" -- including a specification of its "toss zone" (U.S. Geological Survey Apollo II Traverse Map via the Lunar Legacy Project)

Most of that debris is accounted for by the wreckage of spacecraft -- more than 70 vehicles in all, their remains scattered at intervals over the lunar surface. The rest of it, however, is accounted for by smaller pieces of detritus, objects jettisoned because they had served their purpose, and then outlived their utility, to their respective missions: geological tools, bodily waste, solemn monuments to accomplishment and sacrifice. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong alone left more than 100 items on the Sea of Tranquility, some of those being shovels and rakes, one being the plaque announcing to the world -- and the worlds beyond it -- that "we came in peace for all mankind."

So. With that in mind, here is a rough (and only partial) inventory of the stuff mankind has left on the moon:

• more than 70 spacecraft, including rovers, modules, and crashed orbiters
• 5 American flags
• 2 golf balls
• 12 pairs of boots
• TV cameras
• film magazines
• 96 bags of urine, feces, and vomit
• numerous Hasselbad cameras and accessories
• several improvised javelins
• various hammers, tongs, rakes, and shovels
• backpacks
• insulating blankets
• utility towels
• used wet wipes
• personal hygiene kits
• empty packages of space food
• a photograph of Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke's family
• a feather from Baggin, the Air Force Academy's mascot falcon, used to conduct Apollo 15's famous "hammer-feather drop" experiment
a small aluminum sculpture, a tribute to the American and Soviet "fallen astronauts" who died in the space race -- left by the crew of Apollo 15
a patch from the never-launched Apollo 1 mission, which ended prematurely when flames engulfed the command module during a 1967 training exercise, killing three U.S. astronauts
• a small silicon disk bearing goodwill messages from 73 world leaders, and left on the moon by the crew of Apollo 11
• a silver pin, left by Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean
• a medal honoring Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin
• a cast golden olive branch left by the crew of Apollo 11

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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