The International Space Station Archaeological Project Wins Discovery Program Grant

On November 27th, the Australian research council revealed the winners of their annual Discovery Program grants. One of the projects selected for funding was the International Space Station Archaeological Project (ISSAP) headed by Dr. Alice Gorman, of Flinders University in Australia, and Dr. Justin Walsh, of Chapman University in the United States. This grant could be groundbreaking for the emerging field of space archaeology.

Typically, archaeology is thought of as the study of ancient worlds. However, the discipline is a set of methods that focus on the study of material culture. With this toolkit, archaeologists can study human-built and occupied spaces from any time or place. Contemporary archaeology is when archaeological methods are applied to study the present day. Contemporary archaeology began in the 1970s when Dr. William Rathje established an archaeological project to examine the landfill of Tucson, Arizona.

Rathje’s project was affectionately dubbed the Garbage Project, it combined standard archaeological methods including excavation and analyzing artifacts with a sociological toolkit such as interviews and surveys of Tucson residents to build a never before seen portrait of human culture and behaviour.

One exciting result of this project was about the consumption of junk food. When Rathje asked people how much junk food they eat, participants almost always stated that they did not eat such things or they only ate small quantities of junk foods. However, when he combed through their garbage, he found an abundance of chip bags and cookie wrappers. Although this result might not be surprising, Rathje was able to use it to prove the power of archaeological methods in shedding light on what humans do, instead of what they say they do.

Now, the ISSAP is a fantastic new example of contemporary archaeology in practice. It is the first archaeological project aimed at studying a human habitat in outer space. The goal of ISSAP is to explore how the physical environment and material objects discovered aboard the space station have formed the development of a unique multicultural micro-society.

The genesis of ISSAP is in the endless fascination that archaeologists have with garbage. One night, Gorman was looking at the stars in the night sky over Queensland, when he thought that even though he was looking at the stars, the sky is also full of satellites and space junk.

While Walsh explained to the author that his interest in space archaeology emerged while teaching a class on cultural heritage. A student in his class asked if the stuff in space could be considered heritage. Walsh stated that he had never thought about this possibility, but as soon as the student asked, the light bulb went one – of course, sites of humanity’s first forays into space must be considered heritage.

The existence of cultural heritage in space was not the only thing that prompted Walsh’s interest. He was also triggered by the readily apparent threats that heritage faced when Google announced a “Heritage Bonus” as part of its Lunar X Prize in 2007. The Lunar X competition was founded by Google to award a $20 million prize to the first private firm to successfully land a robotic rover on the moon. The heritage bonus, as outlined in an Op-Ed by Walsh and his student Jill Thomas, offered an extra $1 million to any team who sent back pictures of a previous human landing site on the moon. Walsh and Thomas immediately raised some concerns that by trying to land near these sites, private firms, prompted by Google’s prize money, might inadvertently obliterate these fantastic examples of human accomplishment.

These issues led Gorman and Walsh to begin asking how archaeological methods could be used in the context of humans living in space. The International Space Station was continuously occupied for nearly two decades, so it made the ideal setting for exploring this new approach. Preliminary studies performed by ISSAP have studied the distribution of cultural and religious symbols displayed in the station and, in January 2018, project members observed the unpacking of a return capsule ferrying actual space garbage back to Earth.

Now that ISSAP has won the grant from the Discovery Program by the Australian Government, they intend to expand their research, especially by building a database to manage the 18 years worth of digital data produced and distributed by the astronauts and space agencies involved with the International Space Station.

Moreover, Walsh explained that the project is in the process of seeking approval to allow a future crew member to help ISSAP by gathering specifically requested data, such as surface samples similar to the soil samples found on terrestrial sites.

This move is excellent news for the discipline of archaeology. ISSAP reminds us that the point of archaeology is to examine human culture in all of its various forms.

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