Tuesday, August 21, 2012

It is Time for UNESCO to consider aerospace heritage!

The space age is more than a half century old. The age of aviation is much older still. In both cases, the heritage is one of all mankind. In both cases, intangible and tangible heritage are found in many countries, In the case of heritage sites, they are located not only in many countries but also on the moon, on Mars, and in outer space. It is time that there be a global effort for the protection of this heritage.

There are sites that have become synonymous in our minds with space flight such as the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the Kennedy Space Center in the United States. Equally famous, and equally worthy of protection is the site of the Apollo moon landing. These would seem as worthy of recognition and protection for future generations as any of the world heritage sites recognized by UNESCO's World Heritage Center.

The Air and Space Museum in the United States has some nine million visitors a year, indicating the interest in the movable heritage items from U.S. history. Such items continue to be created and the most relevant should also be protected. Many of the early aircraft are fragile and require special treatment. The conservation expertise for such items is concentrated in a few places, yet needs increasingly to be shared. Perhaps more of an issue is how the movable tangible items from the aerospace age might be shared so that people from countries that have not produced many such items can still see and appreciate them.  Note however that there are many such items in orbit and some on the moon and mars. The protection and sharing of movable items of cultural heritage has been one of the most important of UNESCO's cultural concerns, and indeed UNESCO is the key United Nations agency to which museums can look for support.

Libraries too have a place. I recall a friend who worked for NASA in its early days telling me that they knew when to stop planning and start building a new rocket -- when the stack of design papers towered as high as the rocket itself. This paper heritage must include materials that should be archived, preserved and selectively displayed. Indeed, some of the images that have been obtained from space, from the moon and from planetary missions have achieved iconic status. UNESCO is the U.N. agency that leads in dealing with libraries and indeed would be very suited for encouraging exhibitions of imagery from space.

Most of us are not aware of the huge amount of digital data that has been amassed from a century of aviation and a half century of space science. Aerial photographs, satellite images and data returns from space craft flood in. It is difficult to store and index this material. Yet some of it will be of interest for generations to come, much of it of interest all over the world. The preservation of digital data is a special problem, and one which UNESCO has begun to confront. Some of this data also has military uses, raising issues of how much of it can be shared, when it can be shared, and how best it can be shared.

There is also a largely unrecognized intangible cultural heritage that has emerged from the aerospace program. The Apollo program, for example, pioneered in the development of new tools for the management of hugely complex engineering and construction efforts, notably introducing computer tools to assist in their management. While UNESCO has pioneered in the recognition and protection of intangible cultural heritage in the arts and crafts, it has not looked to do the same for intangible heritage in engineering and science. Yet there is a need for the preservation and sharing of the intangible aerospace cultural heritage.

I would suggest that UNESCO begin to consider aerospace cultural heritage using its convening power to hold meetings of experts from around the world to exchange ideas and concepts. It could serve as a clearinghouse for such ideas. Eventually, if its member states felt the need, it might provide some legal instruments relating to aerospace heritage, such as recommendations for their preservation and protection, or even conventions for the protection of extraterrestrial heritage.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

A colleague reminded me that UNESCO has a program on Astronomy and World Heritage. I had indeed known that, but the fact had slipped my mind.

My colleague also mentioned that at a recent meeting UNESCO was encouraged to cooperation with the "Global Thematic Study on Heritage of Science and Technology, including studies and research on technological heritage connected with space exploration."

She further informed me that "The U.S. is participating in this effort - the National Park Service's Office of International Affairs is coordinating with NASA and National Park Service experts on technological heritage to ensure our resources are appropriately considered in the discussions. However, it is important to remember that there are limitations on what can be nominated to the World Heritage List: properties must be on the sovereign territory of member states of the World Heritage Convention (i.e,.not on the Moon), and cannot be movable. But there are, of course, other ways to recognize and protect heritage related to space exploration besides putting it on the World Heritage List, and the UNESCO initiative will, I am sure, look at the full range of possibilities."

UNESCO was also involved in the celebration of the 2009 "International Year of Astronomy".

I appreciate the reminder and information.

I also appreciate the effort to include recognition of the world heritage in science and technology in the UNESCO program.

I suggest that a focus on aerospace overlaps but is different than one on astronomy. It would include the heritage of aviation and of space exploration and technology. I see no reason why the guidelines for the World Heritage Center should not be revised to allow extraterrestrial sites. For example, the member states could agree that sites in space (and for that matter in deep ocean) might be included in the list by acclimation even if they did not fall in the territory of a member state.

The problem is of course that UNESCO is contracting due to the failure of the United States to pay its dues to the Organization. It will find it difficult to take on any new initiative no matter how meritorious.