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Sorry, lunar vandals! It's now literally illegal to mess with Apollo landing sites on the moon

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Jan 6, 2021, 5:19 PM EST

As NASA gears up to return people to the moon, the U.S. is laying the groundwork here on Earth for the planned 2024 Artemis lunar mission — and not just with astronaut teams and aerospace engineers. Thanks to a new law that kicked in as the new year began, it’s also laid down what may be the moon’s very first criminal no-no.

Passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump, the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act makes it illegal to mess with any of the American hardware and landing sites left behind from previous U.S. Apollo missions. The legislation limits “harmful interference with historic Apollo lunar landing site artifacts” by future U.S.-based lunar visitors, in effect making it the first law that describes criminal activity that only could take place on the moon.

Via Space News, the One Small Step Act gives the weight of law to NASA’s previously-written voluntary guidelines for best practices on how to tread carefully around the Apollo landing sites, as well as other lunar sites where the U.S. has left artifacts from earlier uncrewed missions. Those guidelines were drafted in 2011 to advise “the next generation of lunar explorers on how to preserve the original artifacts and protect ongoing science from the potentially damaging effects of nearby landers,” according to NASA.

Rather than establish a new enforcement authority to police the moon (in other words, don’t expect Space Force to be going on moon patrol), the law essentially builds enforcement into the front end of all future lunar activity undertaken by NASA and its private commercial partners. The One Small Step Act prohibits NASA from entering into contract agreements with private companies and organizations unless all parties agree to the no-touch guidelines.

“The bill does not create any additional regulatory authority,” said ranking member of Congressional space subcommittee Brian Babin (R-Texas), in his remarks on the House version of the bill, via Space News. “Instead, the bill offers a carrot, rather than a stick. If the private sector wants to leverage the vast experience and resources that NASA offers, they simply must abide by NASA’s own internal policies.”

The goal, of course, is to establish new rules for preserving humanity’s collective lunar accomplishments as the moon’s surface becomes an increasingly busy place in the years ahead. And, in a rare instance of cats and dogs cooperating in Washington, D.C.’s polarized political atmosphere, the bill received bipartisan support. It was originally introduced in the Senate in 2019, as a cosponsored project by Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

“Apollo remains a beacon of inspiration and a symbol of what we, as a nation, can accomplish,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, as the House approved the bill last year. “I have long advocated for the preservation of the Apollo artifacts, which hold deep cultural, historical, and scientific value for not only the United States, but for all of humanity.”

With the pack-in, pack-out ethos of NASA’s new lunar legislation in place, the real challenge still awaits. NASA is still eyeing 2024 as the year when the Artemis mission will send the first humans — including the first woman in history — to the moon’s surface since December of 1972, when Apollo 17 paid humanity’s last visit.