Albert McKeon

Mar 29th 2019

Space Archaeology Aims to Analyze Experiences of Astronauts on the ISS


The actor Harrison Ford famously played both space smuggler Han Solo and earthbound archaeologist Indiana Jones. Aside from Ford’s irascible charm, the characters had little in common. Surely, not even fiction would delve into space archaeology.

But truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, as is the case with the International Space Station Archaeological Project (ISSAP). ISSAP has embarked on a novel endeavor: the archaeological study of human culture in a space habitat.

The people behind ISSAP figure there’s no better test tube than the 356-foot-wide, nearly one-million-pound International Space Station (ISS). For nearly 20 years, ISS has hosted more than 200 people from 18 countries, facilitated all sorts of scientific work and prepared humans and their technology for voyages beyond Earth. With such a central and exceptional role in space exploration and human relations, it made sense to treat the space station itself as a one-of-a-kind archaeological site.

Embarking on a New Kind of Archaeology

Archaeology usually digs into the secrets of Earth. Space research usually focuses on the mostly unexplored vastness of our universe.

Archaeologists Alice Gorman and Justin Walsh, who lead ISSAP, believe the space station offers untold stories about culture, society and material properties that deserve study following the principles of archaeology. For them, ISS is like a civilization within itself because its missions and crew members often change but still have to conform to a confined space that’s … in space. Just as the ruins of Egyptian, Mayan, Roman and other civilizations are worthy of close examination, so too is ISS.

ISS “serves as evidence for human adaptation to a completely new environment,” Drs. Gorman and Walsh wrote on their website, ISS Archaeology. And, just as the striking beauty of Egypt’s massive pyramids called for a closer look, Gorman and Walsh make the case that ISS “is arguably the most complex and expensive building project ever undertaken by humans.”

In an interview with R&D, Walsh said she hopes NASA and other space agencies recognize the significance of including social science with space research. “‘The whole reason to have the ISS is to help plan for long duration missions,” she said. “NASA has done decades of physiological and psychological research on the impact and consequences of long duration space missions. But they have never done a study on the society or the culture that does form in a space craft.”

A Picture Could be Worth a Thousand Meanings

Archaeologists usually handle, albeit delicately and precisely, the artifacts they uncover and discover on Earth. Walsh and Gorman, however, aren’t suiting up for a trip to ISS, at least not yet. For now, their form of space archaeology means they have to take a novel approach to studying their subjects.

First, they’ll be looking at a lot of pictures. As R&D reported, more than a million digital photographs have been taken inside and outside ISS since it launched in 1998. The metadata of the files show when and where the photos were taken, helping Walsh and Gorman see the subtext behind the captured moments. This could help peel back the layers of cultural experiences of space travelers, like the moment when Russian crew members posed with religious images on board. The spots where the Russians placed the images might reveal whether they were making certain cultural and religious statements.

The details of those and many other photographs offer a “‘unique opportunity to study human adaptation to a unique, ‘micro-society in a mini world’ that is multi-ethnic, multi-gender and multi-lingual,'” Walsh told R&D.

Sorting Through Space Cargo for Clues

Walsh and Gorman will be able to observe materials from ISS, but not until those items are back on Earth. At least twice last year, they studied cargo that came back on capsules that were attached to ISS. They didn’t specify what they studied, but the capsules can carry scientific samples like the products of tests on mice and astronauts, as well as crew members’ personal items (including their dirty laundry). A closer look at these and other objects could speak to how people and these items react to microgravity.

Between the photos, cargo and other materials, Walsh and Gorman will be busy. But they hope their research will answer not just how people in space interact with one another and their surrounding environment but also whether they changed ISS to better suit their needs. In other words, does space shape people, or do they try to shape space?