King County’s latest historic landmarks are on the moon

Jul 10, 2019, 6:30 AM | Updated: 7:54 am

Two years ago, I wondered aloud on Seattle’s Morning News if three lunar rovers built in Kent by Boeing, and used by astronauts on three separate moon landings, might be eligible to be designated as official King County Landmarks.

As it turns out, somebody was listening and did something about it. Now, that landmark designation is exactly what’s likely to happen later this month in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing.

“The community is excited to celebrate this legacy, and the fact that Blue Origin is carrying the torch [of space exploration] forward,” said Michelle Wilmot, who works for the City of Kent and who has been coordinating efforts to both commemorate Kent’s space-infused past and encourage a similarly forward-looking future.

Blue Origin, which Wilmot references, is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ space exploration company which has offices in Kent.

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The origins of my question and of the story I wrote two years ago were two-fold.

As a volunteer member of the King County Landmarks Commissioner in the 1990s, we had designated a Northern Pacific rotary snowplow railroad car as a landmark. This was considered pretty forward-thinking – to designate a moveable piece of railroad rolling stock as a landmark, when most people thought of landmarks as buildings. Credit for this, and for many other innovations in historic preservation in King County, go to Julie Koler, who was the county’s historic preservation officer at the time.

So, when I read a USA Today article in July 2017 about Professor Beth O’Leary and her concerns about how space tourism might eventually damage Apollo landing sites, the notion of designating the locally-made lunar rovers was the next logical thought.

Of course, that rotary snowplow lives right here in King County, at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie. The Boeing-built lunar rovers are a bit farther away.

But since they were built right here in Kent, King County Landmarks Coordinator Sarah Steen says a landmark designation makes a lot of sense.

“It’s really to cement that tie between the building of the rovers in Kent at the Boeing facility, and a national movement of space exploration, especially the Apollo trips to the moon,” Sarah Steen said. “It’s really just a community pride and recognition in the part that they played in that big effort to recognize these rovers, and the engineering feats that enabled them.”

King County isn’t the first jurisdiction to designate lunar landmarks. New Mexico and California designated landing sites as well as artifacts still remaining on the moon.

Those sites and artifacts will likely need all the help they can get. So, with space tourism probably closer to becoming a reality than anyone can imagine, perhaps these, shall we say, small steps, are a good place to start in formally devising protections for the landing sites and the priceless objects there.

Not everyone shares California, New Mexico, and now King County and Kent’s enthusiasm about designating lunar landmarks. Sarah Steen has been on the job here in King County for less than a year, and she’s gotten some pushback and eye-rolls from historic preservation colleagues in other parts of the country.

“I’ve had a few reactions that weren’t favorable [but] most of them have been pretty excited,” Steen said. “But there’s been a few in the field that say, ‘Well, there’s so many other things here [on Earth] to recognize and to work on, why are we doing something on the moon?’ To some point I get that, but there’s a lot to be said for the community pride in the things that they were involved in making.”

Whether visible or not, Steen says, the lunar rovers still exist, and are still palpable connections to American history and local history.

“They’re still there … still part of a landscape whether or not that landscape is here,” Steen said. “And there still is a real connection between Kent and the moon for this reason.”

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Charles Martin lives in Kent and still feels that connection personally.

In the 1960s, Charles Martin was an engineer for Boeing. He worked at the Boeing Space Center in Kent, and it was his job to put each of those three rovers through rigorous testing to simulate conditions on the surface of the moon.

“You know, you look at the moon every so often, you look up there, and you say, ‘Well, you know, there’s part of me up there,” Martin said. “And even more so now they’re getting ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon walk. You can go outside [and] you can’t look at the moon without thinking about it.”

The lunar rovers are public property, of course, like a school or a stadium, because they were paid for with tax dollars, so it’s up to the public to decide about whether or not they’re worth protecting. Sarah Steen says NASA is considered the owner, and they happily gave their permission for the landmarking process to take place, and even provided letters of support.

“We typically don’t move forward with [designating] things without the owner permission – we’re not interested in those kind of fights,” Steen said. “And we don’t typically need to be.”

Compared to Seattle, preservation is different in King County’s unincorporated areas and within the suburban cities where the King County Landmarks program administers “interlocal agreements” to assist with historic preservation, Steen says.

“Our political atmosphere is not the same as Seattle,” Steen said. “So we really work to have the owners back up the process and be a part of it, otherwise we find that the community doesn’t back it up.”

“If the owners — if NASA – was against doing it,” Steen said, “We probably wouldn’t move forward with it.”

And they belong to NASA because the lunar rovers are obviously an element in the US government’s efforts to explore the moon 50 years ago. As such, they’re of national significance in terms of the history of NASA and of American culture and technology in the 1960s.

But what about their regional “pedigree?” Is there anything “uniquely Northwest” about the lunar rovers?

Sarah Steen doesn’t think so.  But she does see a connection between the company that made them, and the local employees with the expertise to get the job done right.

“Well, it worked,” Steen said. “If you want to say that Boeing had a hand in that, it worked, and it worked from far away. So Boeing’s experience and their engineering expertise must have done something, because it actually all of them worked, they didn’t really have a lot of problems with them.”

With the City of Kent blazing a pretty important trail as far as long-term preservation of lunar landing sites is concerned, could you almost say it’s one small step for King County Landmarks, one giant leap for historic preservation?

“I’m glad you said that,” Steen said, simultaneously chuckling and groaning. “Because I wouldn’t say that.”

The hearing on landmarking the lunar rovers is open to the public, and will take place Thursday, July 25 at 5 p.m. in the Kent City Council Chambers, 220 Fourth Avenue South in Kent.

More from Feliks Banel.

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King County’s latest historic landmarks are on the moon