Author: Meghan Bartels
Image Attribution: NASA / Neil A. Armstrong
Description: Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S flag on the Moon
To throw things away is human.
Three golf balls. A family photo. Large pieces of scientific equipment. A tiny statue. Bags and bags of human waste of one flavor or another. And of course, American flags. It's all among the stuff that the dozen astronauts who walked on the moon between 1969 and 1972 left behind.
Nearly half a century later, the motley collections are still there, although it's unlikely time has been kind to the objects scattered across the six landing sites. Some of the objects were deeply meaningful, sent to the moon expressly to be left there. But pragmatism in part guided the decision to leave terrestrial material behind: The more stuff the astronauts discarded, the logic went, the more weight they freed up for bringing moon rocks back to Earth.
"There is debris, there's symbolic artifacts that didn't have to be left there, there's some just amazing scientific stuff," Beth O'Leary, an archaeologist and anthropologist focused on space at New Mexico State University, told Space.com. And there are some mysteries, too. "You would think that NASA has a complete inventory — they send up things, they come back and they count them all and everybody knows what's there and what's not there — and that's not necessarily true."
O'Leary should know: she is one of a team who worked to compile all the objects left behind by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 landing. All told, the group identified an eclectic list of 106 objects, plus the footprints marking Armstrong and Aldrin's steps.
The largest items, at the Apollo 11 site and its successors, were at the scientific and engineering heart of the program. Each site boasts the descent stage of its lunar module, for example, which served as a launch pad for the astronauts heading home. Scientific experiments are also scattered across each landing site: seismometers to hunt moonquakes and retroreflector mirrors to pinpoint the distance from Earth to moon, plus smaller apparatuses as well.
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