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Astronaut John Young and lunar rover
Apollo 16 astronaut John Young collects samples near the mission’s lunar rover in 1972. (NASA Photo)

King County now has three landmarks that are out of this world. Literally.

Tonight, the King County Landmarks Commission unanimously approved historic landmark designation for the Boeing-built rovers that were left behind on the moon by the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions nearly a half-century ago.

The landmark decision, delivered during a meeting in Kent, Wash., came in response to a request from Kent city officials and the Kent Downtown Partnership. Why Kent? That’s where the Boeing assembled and tested the lunar rovers.

“Above all, the designation for the City of Kent acts as a reminder of the dedicated engineers who changed history through the creation of the Lunar Roving Vehicles 50 years ago,” Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said in a statement. “The momentous recognition for Kent Valley allows for continued education and remembrance of the tangible impact these vehicles have had on space exploration indefinitely.”

The next step will be to win landmark recognition from Washington state and get the rovers added to the Washington Heritage Register.

That would put the Evergreen State alongside California and New Mexico in giving landmark status to objects left on the moon. And although the recognition doesn’t carry much legal weight, it’s likely to raise awareness about NASA’s lunar legacy — and the Seattle area’s role in creating that legacy.

When you think of Washington’s landmarks, you tend to think of sites within state lines, ranging from Seattle’s Space Needle to Spokane’s Davenport Hotel.

But in 2010, California state officials accepted the argument that objects with a connection to the state could be added to their registry of historical resources, even if they weren’t physically located in the state.

Citing that rationale, they extended historical designation to 106 objects that were left behind at Tranquility Base by the Apollo 11 mission, on the grounds that California institutions led the way in developing and building the machines that sent astronauts to the moon.

New Mexico followed suit later that year.

Tonight’s decision adds new spots to the lunar landmark map: the Apennine Mountains and Hadley Rille for Apollo 15 in 1971, the Descartes Highlands for Apollo 16 in April 1972, and the Taurus-Littrow Valley for NASA’s Apollo 17 finale in December 1972.

Boeing historian Michael Lombardi said it’s fitting to recognize the four-wheeled rovers as part of Washington state’s cultural heritage.

“Landmark designations play an essential role in preserving the history of lunar exploration,” Lombardi said tonight in a statement. “These legendary artifacts bear witness to this exploration of the moon and will now be solidified in history through today’s designation, honoring the extraordinary work done by so many.”

Although the landmark designations are purely symbolic, the added recognition could smooth the way for getting the Apollo landing locations recognized internationally as U.N. World Heritage Sites. That’s the ultimate goal of a group called For All Moonkind, which seeks to preserve the Apollo sites and other lunar locales for posterity.

For All Moonkind is also supporting the One Small Step Act, which would extend federal protection to the Apollo landing sites and impose fines on those who disturb them. The Senate unanimously approved its version of the measure last week, and companion legislation has just been introduced in the House.

Today, the issue of disturbing lunar landing sites may seem hypothetical, but it could become a real concern when commercial ventures start sending spacecraft to the lunar surface. For example, a German venture called PTScientists is partnering with Audi, Vodafone and Nokia to send a rover to the moon and inspect the Apollo 17 landing site by as early as 2021.

The PTScientists team, which has been going through some financial difficulties lately, promises to work with NASA engineers to make sure the rover doesn’t damage the site. But measures like the One Small Step Act — and, arguably, the state historical designations — should provide added incentives for future moon buggies to follow the rules of the road.

This is an updated version of a report originally published on July 22.

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