Read: Just leave Michael Collins alone
The tracks outside of the blast zone were likely undisturbed, though, and most anything made with metals—the lower half of the Eagle, a seismometer, commemorative plaques, assorted tools—has probably fared well on the moon. The module’s gold foil, which provided warmth for its passengers, has probably faded and splintered. And one of the experiments is still going.
Armstrong and Aldrin placed on the surface a boxy array of mirrors designed to reflect incoming light back to its source without significantly scattering. Several times a month, Tom Murphy, a physics professor at the University of California at San Diego, instructs a telescope in southern New Mexico to beam a laser at the instrument. The light sprints home in two and a half seconds. “The photons that we make in our laser go out, touch these reflectors, and come back to us and report,” says Murphy, who uses the measurements to study the fundamentals of gravity.
The mirrors still provide good data, but they don’t work like they used to. Murphy suspects that they’re covered in dust, which degrades their reflectivity, especially during a full moon, when particles absorb the direct sunlight, creating thermal distortions. During an eclipse, when the near side of the moon is in darkness, the reflectors return to their usual performance.
No one has ever returned to the site of Apollo 11. No one has been on the moon’s surface at all since 1972, but national governments, commercial companies, and nonprofits alike are hoping to make it. In preparation for a potential moon rush, NASA has created guidelines for future commercial spacecraft that include no-fly zones and warnings to keep a distance.
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The Apollo 11 site is a historical landmark, and it should be treated as such, says Michelle Hanlon, a co-founder of For All Moonkind, an organization of lawyers who specialize in space law. Hanlon believes that the Apollo spots deserve the same protections as heritage sites on Earth. “If you go to the pyramids, you assume they’re protected,” she says. “If you think about the moon, humanity’s greatest technological achievement, you assume that’s protected, too.” Hanlon recently worked with members of Congress to write legislation that would enforce preservation rules for historic lunar sites; the Senate approved the bill this week.
If human beings someday inhabit the moon, they might consider doing more than designating the Apollo 11 landing site a landmark. They could cover the area with geodesic domes, as a protective measure against contamination, and let people come a little closer. Visitors would pop over to an Apollo 11 gift shop to browse rocket-ship keychains and chalky astronaut ice cream.
When they peer through the gossamer bubble, inspecting the provincial exploration efforts of earlier generations, those visitors might look closely at the ground near the lunar module. Armstrong and Aldrin took only the top part of the capsule back into space with them, and the lower half—the one that famously nearly ran out of fuel seconds before Armstrong touched down—might have acted as a shield for the boot prints closest by.
This presents a tantalizing possibility: The first human step on another world might be in pristine condition. It might be caked in a thin coating of dust, but it could still be there, recognizable to future space travelers, should any ever arrive.