Landing on the Moon was one of the greatest American achievements in space. Unfortunately, just as everywhere else we go, we brought our waste with us — and left it there.
Between 1969 and 1972, NASA conducted six moon landings as part of its groundbreaking Apollo Program, sending 12 astronauts to walk — and drive — on the surface of the Moon. These astronauts brought Lunar Excursion Modules, Lunar Rovers, cameras, tools, and more, most of which they simply left behind.
The Apollo landings were not the first occasion we sent things to the Moon, nor were they the last. Between 1959 and 2019, The United States, Russia (the Soviet Union), India, China, and Israel have sent unmanned satellites to the Moon, some of which crash-landed on the surface, intentionally or otherwise. In 2019, Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft accidentally crash-landed while attempting to land. The Prospector mission from the United States in 1999 was deliberately slammed into the Moon’s surface to create a plume that could be studied for evidence of water ice, although none was observed.
We have sent objects to our celestial neighbor for six decades, and although some have returned (along with the people inside), we have left approximately 500,000 pounds of waste there. From robotic landers to human waste, the Moon’s surface is littered with the material we humans have left behind. Some of it is potentially hazardous, such as batteries.
While a lot of the large equipment, such as robotic landers and LEM modules, were designed to be left on the Moon’s surface, a lot of moon waste has been left there incidentally, such as bags of human waste that were jettisoned from the Lunar Landers before their return to orbit, and the materials from discarded scientific experiments. One such experiment strove to determine how different fast objects would fall in the Moon’s microgravity. As a result, there now lies on the Moon’s surface a hammer and a falcon feather.
These materials left behind were placed on the Moon’s surface to make room (and weight) for bringing home moon rocks, and in some cases, because they were simply forgotten. Other items, like an American flag and a gold olive branch, were left behind as statements. Unfortunately, all of the waste left behind on the Moon is an indirect statement about our priorities.
As NASA partners with commercial organizations like Amazon’s Blue Origin and Space X to someday return humans to Moon (and then on to Mars), the question will be: Have we learned from our past — and will we clean up what we left behind over the past sixty years — or will the Moon continue to be an orbital dumping ground?
NASA might provide the answer with one new piece of technology, the VORTEX, which was designed to incinerate waste in microgravity and turn it into ash for fertilizer. That would solve the problem of what to do with human waste, but the technology and other detritus of space flight we leave behind will still accumulate if something is not done to reduce or possibly reuse it.
What a tragedy it would be if, when we do return to the Moon, our lasting legacy there is waste.