McCune on Westwood and O'Leary and Donaldson, 'The Final Mission: Preserving NASA's Apollo Sites'

Lisa Westwood, Beth Laura O'Leary, Milford Wayne Donaldson
Christopher McCune

Lisa Westwood, Beth Laura O'Leary, Milford Wayne Donaldson. The Final Mission: Preserving NASA's Apollo Sites. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017. 208 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-6246-4.

Reviewed by Christopher McCune (460th Space Wing)
Published on H-FedHist (August, 2017)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

Although President Barack Obama ended NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011 in favor of the development of deep space exploration technologies, initiatives run by billionaires such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic have emerged in recent years as possible heirs to the Apollo space program that first placed human beings on the moon. Regardless of whether their respective visions of private sector space flight will lead us back to the lunar surface, The Final Mission: Preserving NASA’s Apollo Sites by Lisa Westwood, Beth Laura O’Leary, and Milford Wayne Donaldson raises an important question with potentially significant international implications—how do we preserve the material culture of America’s space program, particularly those artifacts and sites related to the lunar landings, within the parameters of current historic and cultural heritage preservation laws?

The authors attempt to provide answers for this dilemma by placing them within the context of the development of the Apollo space program, which first placed human beings on the moon during the famous landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. Through the employment of archaeological and anthropological frameworks, they demonstrate how the act of landing a human being on the moon was not just a singular event that began with John F. Kennedy’s mandate early in his presidency to accomplish this feat by the end of the 1960s, but the culmination of a decades-long research and development effort centered around Jet Assisted Takeoff technology and its applications to space flight. By incorporating these efforts within the paradigm of “place-based” historic preservation—the concept that “our history is anchored to specific locations on Earth (or the Moon) and that the location of the historic event still conveys the significance of the event that occurred there” (p. 6)—the authors treat the preservation of space artifacts, training sites, and development facilities holistically, asserting that each has its own unique importance in telling the story of how the United States finally achieved the moon landing. Although sites such as the Redstone Test Stand in Huntsville, Alabama; Mission Control in Houston, Texas; and the Apollo launch sites at Merritt Island, Florida, are clearly significant, they explain, so too are lesser-known places that may not have had the same visibility or have the same preservation protections, but were nonetheless still critical in the development of space technology and the lunar program. These include, among many that are highlighted throughout the text, the High Speed Test Track at Holloman Air Force Base (AFB), New Mexico; Launch Complex 36 at White Sands Missile Range, adjacent to Holloman AFB; and the many lunar training sites scattered across thirteen states and five countries, such as Meteor Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona, and Sierra Blanca, Texas, near El Paso.

The authors’ most compelling argument on how to effectively preserve these artifacts and sites is one that is pointed, yet worth strong consideration—that current historic preservation laws, particularly the fifty-year requirement to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, are outdated and ill-suited to an area of our society where technology develops at an increasingly breakneck pace. The realm of space operations constitutes what the authors identify as an “ongoing living system” where the institutional focus is almost entirely devoted to the evolution of future technologies and capabilities (p. 131). Coupled with the inherently secretive nature of these programs, as a result sufficient attention is rarely given to historic preservation—anything not deemed “useful” is quickly determined to be obsolete and discarded, or updated in a manner that strips it of its historic context. Despite these hurdles, the authors note that the cupboard is not entirely bare regarding legal protections that can and have been employed to identify and preserve important space heritage sites, including the lunar landing areas. In addition to outlining the various state, national, and international laws related to the preservation of space heritage sites that currently exist, the authors suggest adopting the methodology of legal models applied to protection and preservation of cultural resources located in the oceans and Antarctica, devoting an entire chapter to the subject. They also note that interpretations of eligibility criteria within the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 exist to broaden the scope of areas deserving of preservation, as well as laws that transcend national boundaries for the purpose of preserving the significance of human achievement, such as the United Nation’s World Heritage List.

One must read this work with the understanding that the authors’ focus is limited in scope to the Apollo program and developments in the US space program up through that period, despite the relatively larger questions surrounding historic preservation of these sites and artifacts that it endeavors to answer. This narrow focus may leave the reader wondering how the issues the authors raise might apply to other areas of space programs and/or government installations such as military bases, questions that are touched on at the margins but not as deeply explored. As the authors acknowledge, while the archaeological and historical record for the space program on earth is relatively easy to preserve, “an overwhelming portion of the record of space exploration cannot be accommodated in such a manner” since many of those items are unrecoverable by virtue of their location in space (pp. 131-132). This dilemma is complicated further by a dearth of laws and international agreements that specifically address space heritage and preservation, while the existing ones that do cover such topics tend to be vague or overly broad. Thus, the reader may question how space-bound artifacts such as the first strategic missile warning or Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, while unquestionably historically significant in their role of transforming space into a military and geopolitical theater (and in the case of GPS, becoming a ubiquitous feature of everyday navigation in modern society), could be realistically preserved when their recovery and protection is well nigh impossible. In a similar manner, the authors identify “the lack of proper identification and management” of historic space sites as “the greatest threat” to their preservation, due to the rapidity in which space technology continues to advance, rendering facilities obsolete before the fifty-year milestone for eligibility on the National Register of Historic Places is reached (pp. 156-157). Such hurdles to preservation no doubt continue to affect the historical landscape of many federal administrative and military installations, particularly as Cold War-era facilities continue to age and must be either renovated or replaced, potentially erasing their historic significance in the process.

What Westwood, O’Leary, and Donaldson have provided with this collaborative work is a template for other historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists to apply to such questions, particularly in an operative environment where potentially significant historical artifacts and sites might be discarded, demolished, or stripped of their historic value and context when they no longer prove useful to the current mission due to obsolescence. By highlighting the Apollo program and the breadth of sites involved in developing America’s space capabilities up through the moon landings, the authors have demonstrated that the material culture of federal programs in particular should be evaluated within a far broader scope than is normally practiced. In so doing, the opportunities for preserving the heritage of our nation during some of the most dynamic decades in its history would dramatically increase. In that regard, this book should prove useful for those who are driven to advocate for that preservation.

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Citation: Christopher McCune. Review of Westwood, Lisa; O'Leary, Beth Laura; Donaldson, Milford Wayne, The Final Mission: Preserving NASA's Apollo Sites. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. August, 2017.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.