What relevance does archaeology have for space?

At first glance, space and archaeology seem diametrically opposed. Space exploration belongs to the future, and archaeology focuses on the past. In fact, archaeology is relevant to humanity’s engagement with space. The discipline studies human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture. As humans spend more time in locations like the International Space Station, there is a growing abundance of material evidence about life in space. Archaeological approaches can use this evidence to provide useful insights. To learn more about space archaeology, we spoke to Justin Walsh. He is a professor at Chapman University and the co-principal investigator of the International Space Station Archaeological Project.

How did you become interested in applying your archaeology expertise to space?

I started my career as an archaeologist by studying the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, especially the Greeks and the groups they interacted with in Sicily and Spain. As a child of immigrants, I was always interested in what happened when people from different cultures met each other. I spent about a decade at a site in Sicily called Morgantina, which is notorious for having many major artworks looted from it and ending up in major museum collections. So, in addition to my fieldwork, I also became concerned with how to protect heritage for the future. 

I was teaching a postgraduate seminar on heritage and the art world in 2008, when one of the students asked, “What about stuff in space? Is that heritage, too?” The question hit me like a bolt of lightning – the answer was clearly yes, but I had never thought about it before. The student wrote her seminar paper on the subject and found some important stuff – like a bonus prize in the Google Lunar X Prize competition that encouraged participants to visit previous landing sites on the Moon. We thought this was a terrible idea, so we co-authored an op-ed about it in June 2009. Fortunately, the competition ended a few years ago without anyone launching. Several teams did plan to go to various sites, though, including Apollo 17.

So, heritage was my first focus in space archaeology. This wasn’t only because of my background – it also seemed really hard to actually carry out a research project on a site in space when we can’t go there. Archaeologists almost always are present at the sites and in the landscapes where they do their research. But it just didn’t seem feasible with current technology and with current costs – tens of millions of dollars at a minimum!

What really got me going was being told I couldn’t do it, though. In 2015, NASA advertised for new astronaut candidate positions. In so doing, NASA said that social scientists (explicitly including archaeologists!) were prohibited from even applying. I thought this was strange, since I knew they wanted to do multi-year missions to Mars. They should want to know how their crews form societies with their own cultures, and archaeologists can help do that! 

So, I started thinking about how I could demonstrate what we archaeologists could do. I was especially inspired by Jason De León’s amazing work with his Undocumented Migration Project. It used photos to understand the experience of migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert from Mexico to the United States. I realized that NASA and the other space agencies had been collecting lots of photos of life on board the International Space Station. If we could get the data out of the tens of thousands of photos about who was where on the ISS, with what objects, and how that changed over time, we could answer questions space agencies had never even thought about, like: are there gendered spaces on the ISS? When I convinced my fellow space archaeologist Alice Gorman to partner with me on this work, the International Space Station Archaeological Project was born.

Why is space archaeology important?

There are a couple of reasons why space archaeology is important. First of all, it helps us to understand how our species is making a transition into an environment that we are very poorly adapted for. What does it mean to translate our lives into a context where there isn’t even gravity, and where you can hardly ever go outside? Archaeology as a discipline is actually really well-suited for a study of the social component of life in a spacecraft. Of course, we can (and do) ask astronauts questions about what their lives are like. But sometimes people don’t want to answer questions completely or are unable to articulate certain aspects of their experiences. That’s normal! But archaeology, by looking at material evidence, can give us insights where first-hand accounts are lacking.

I also like to work on space archaeology because it allows me to think creatively about how to take what we usually do as archaeologists and reimagine it for this new environment. We have to come up with new ways to look at photographs, for instance, and design procedures for ISS crew to perform on our behalf. What could we learn if Alice and I did zero-G flights as archaeologists? I don’t know yet, but I’m sure our perspectives would reveal information that others haven’t seen before. In some ways, these transformations of archaeological techniques are actually my favorite part of the work.

What space archaeology projects are you working on right now and what are your future plans?

I am co-principal investigator of the International Space Station Archaeological Project, along with Alice Gorman. At the moment, we’re working on some articles, three of which should appear in the next couple of months. These are about our methodology and a study of some visual displays created by crew on the ISS. We are really interested in the religious images and photos of Soviet space heroes that cosmonauts have put on display in one of their modules. 

We also have some articles in the works about how the cargo that comes back to Earth on the SpaceX Dragon capsule is handled – we make an analogy with the way archaeologists have studied how people discard items in other contexts. We can see in other contexts, archaeologically, a difference between household trash like broken pottery and valuable items given as grave goods in the tomb of an esteemed ancestor. On the ISS, some materials are put on supply craft to burn up during atmospheric re-entry, while others are carefully placed on the Dragon, returned to Earth, and then cataloged and cared for by NASA contractors until they can be returned to their owners. The elaborate processes used by the contractors are clear signs of the symbolic importance of the returned items.

I talked a bit earlier about some of our other future plans; we’re also continuing to develop our study of the ISS photographs as they are given to us by NASA. We’re collaborating with my colleague at Chapman University, Erik Linstead. His Machine Learning and Assistive Technology Lab is learning to automate the tagging of people, places, and items in the images. We should have some excellent results soon!