Archive for May 29th, 2012


etiquette for the robotic tourist

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

Harry Hutchinson

The phrase “historic sites on the moon” caught me off guard the other day when I first read it. Historic sites are eternally fascinating. I’ve been to quite a few—Independence Hall, Westminster Abbey, Cowpens—and I grew up a block away from Pennington Road, where General Washington led the Continental Army to the Battle of Trenton.

Then a press release showed up in my e-mail with this headline: “NASA Offers Guidelines to Protect Historic Sites on the Moon.” It conjures visions of battlefields where Moon Men repelled Space Invaders.

But there are indeed sites on the moon of world historical significance. There is no wind to disturb the dust. Rain doesn’t fall. Not only are there arrays of historic hardware on the moon, but Neil Armstrong’s first footprint is still up there. So is Alan Shepard’s divot.

Now with the Google X Prize offering $30 million as an incentive, the moon may soon be getting more traffic. Some of the prizes are offered for the first photographs of old landing sites, so rovers will be trying to get to them. This sounds almost like robotic tourism.

NASA has come up with recommendations for protecting and preserving “U.S. heritage lunar sites.” The press release—issued jointly by NASA and the X Prize Foundation—says that Google has agreed to take those guidelines into consideration when it judges plans from would-be moon prize contestants.

As the press release explained it: “NASA recognizes that many spacefaring nations and commercial entities are on the verge of landing spacecraft on the moon. The agency engaged in a cooperative dialogue with the X Prize Foundation and the Google Lunar X Prize teams to develop the recommendations. NASA and the next generation of lunar explorers share a common interest in preserving humanity’s first steps on another celestial body and protecting ongoing science from the potentially damaging effects of nearby landers.”

The guidelines, of course, aren’t mandatory. They are an effort to create standards for a new human endeavor. I read that “Experts from the historic, scientific, and flight-planning communities contributed to the technical recommendations.”

This is sounding familiar. Like all useful standards, they have the force of consensus.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

May 2012

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