Read: What should we do about the International Space Station?
The ISS is a particularly interesting artifact; it will be remembered not only as a masterpiece of engineering, but as a rare symbol of cooperation among rival spacefaring nations.
“I think historians might look back at the post–Cold War era and look at the ISS and say, you know what, actually that was a pretty amazing thing they managed to make happen,” says Stuart Eves, an engineer and an advocate for the creation of space museums. Eves previously worked at Surrey Satellite Technology, the company that manufactured the satellite that lassoed space debris earlier this fall.
The list should also include the earliest versions of the satellite technology that the world relies on today. There’s Vanguard 1, the first solar-powered satellite, launched in 1958. Telstar 1, the first active telecommunications satellite, in 1962. Syncom 3, the first of hundreds of communications satellites, which thrilled Americans when it brought the Tokyo Summer Olympics to their televisions, in 1964.
Eves likened the narrative of these advancements to museum exhibits of early transportation. “You can visit terrestrial, conventional museums and you can see old cars, planes, trains, boats,” he says. “It would be a real shame if some of the really iconic spacecraft that have contributed enormously didn’t have some sort of permanent record.”
It’s too late for some objects, such as Sputnik, the first-ever satellite in space, which plummeted back to Earth several months after the Soviets launched it in 1957. But many historic firsts are still ahead; Bangladesh launched its first satellite just this year.
Read: How Sputnik launched an era of technological fragility
The moon offers a cornucopia of artifacts for space archaeologists to consider. Tranquility Base, the site of the Apollo landing, is akin to the slab of 3.7-million-year-old volcanic ash in Laetoli, Tanzania, that preserved the footprints of early humans who stood upright and walked on both legs, says Michelle Hanlon, the co-founder of For All Moonkind, a volunteer organization of lawyers who specialize in space law. Tranquility Base is the “cradle of our spacefaring civilization,” Hanlon says.
According to a NASA catalog, dozens of human-made objects from the Apollo era remain, from scientific equipment and batteries to nail clippers and “defecation collection devices.” In the last decade, China, India, Japan, and a consortium of European nations have sent spacecraft to the moon and deliberately crashed them into the surface when their missions ended, scattering pieces of hardware across the regolith.
Under current regulations, a space museum brimming with relics from different cultures would be nearly impossible.
According to the United Nations Outer Space Treaty, the international principles that have governed the use of space since the late 1960s, space is for everyone. “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,” the accord states. On top of that, all objects sent into space remain the property of the nations that launched them. On top of that, as the number of objects in low-Earth orbit swelled in the last decade, UN officials began advising satellite operators to dispose of their satellites after 25 years.