Past present: archaeology's giant leap onto the International Space Station

Past present: archaeology’s giant leap onto the International Space Station

It’s been a beacon of hope in the night sky – a testament to humanity’s ingenuity. Even a symbol of the end of the Cold War. But the International Space Station (ISS) is approaching the end of its life – it’s due to be retired in 2028 after some 30 years in orbit.

Will its loss be mourned through the generations like other historic wayfarers such as HMS Endeavour, the Mayflower and the Argo? Hopefully not. An international team of archaeologists is organising the first archaeological survey ever outside Earth, and the ISS is the subject of their unique “excavation”, with the first tools and tests sent to the ISS this week.

Their questions will be familiar. What is life like on these ships? How do their crews interact with their passengers, tools and cargo? What challenges do they face? How do they eke out a little joy among the travails of their travels?

What is life like on these ships?

In the past, we have often had little more than legends to give us such insights. At best, there may have been ships’ logs and a few letters from those who were literate enough to write them.

Dr Alice Gorman, from Flinders University in South Australia, and Dr Justin Walsh, from Chapman University in California, have launched the International Space Station Archaeological Project (ISSAP), to make sure that doesn’t happen again. They aim to capture as much information as they can about life onboard before the ISS is committed to a fiery demise.

The missing link

The history of spaceflight has generally been well preserved so far. The famous Apollo 11 moon mission’s Columbia module is on museum display, as is Russia’s Voskhod 1 – the first craft to carry more than one person into orbit. And the three surviving Space Shuttles are safely tucked away in museums.

“What we’re missing are any preserved space stations – none have survived intact, and the same will be true of the ISS,” says Walsh.

“What we’re missing are any preserved space stations – none have survived intact.”

Justin Walsh, Chapman University

The odds of saving the ISS are, however, vanishingly remote. And simply leaving it “up there” isn’t feasible.

“Unless it was powered and kept in a safe orbit, it would start drifting,” explains Gorman. “This would create a collision hazard. I doubt the international partners who fund the ISS would be interested in spending any money on doing this, sadly. So we have to accept it is going to a watery grave by the end of the decade.”

A middle-aged man with glasses using equipment on board the international space station
NASA astronaut and Expedition 66 Flight Engineer Mark Vande Hei conducts operations for the Plant Habitat-5 space agriculture experiment that is studying cotton genetics. Credit: NASA.

While we know almost every aspect of its construction, we know relatively little about how its crew interacted with it and adapted to it. This is why ISSAP have been conducting a study on the human side of the ISS. Of particular focus are the pictures, badges and any form of art or expression that past crew members have left behind onboard. But it also examines how astronauts actually use the environment, instead of how it was intended to be used.

It’s about defining the “micro-society” the ISS has produced. Commercial groups that plan to build their own future space stations hope to integrate these lessons into their own designs.

Life on the float

To archaeologists, the ISS is essentially a cave in space. It has layers of occupation, it contains evidence of change, and it holds clues as to how humans cope with alien environments.

ISSAP’s “excavation” processes must adapt to the challenges of this particular site. The space station started as just two modules, but has since grown to more than 12. And what began as a pure science installation has evolved to include the role of tourist destination for a lucky few.

To archaeologists, the ISS is essentially a cave in space.

Gorman and Walsh can’t go there themselves. So, instead, they are organising a photographic survey of what’s up there now. The first “test sites” will be an upgrade of the traditional one metre square test dig sites that are created at the start of a project. On the ISS these have transformed into the Sampling Quadrangle Assemblages Research Experiment, or SQuARE. One metre squares will we delineated by adhesive tape, and will be photographed daily for 60 days. Next stages of this will survey at an intimate level other areas of the craft. This material will be combined with hundreds of thousands of older images taken by some 250 astronauts, along with interviews and questionnaires. The idea is to identify what makes the small communities aboard the ISS tick.

A man sitting in a small cupboard-like pod and using an old-fashioned computer on the international space station
Cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin using a computer inside a sleeping pod in the Zvezda ISS module. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the key memories of all who visit is its distinctive smell.

“Astronaut Scott Kelly compared the mix of antiseptic, garbage and body odour to the smell of a gaol cell,” explains Gorman.

Can this unique sensory experience be preserved for posterity? Apparently yes.

Walsh says artists Regina Mamou and Lara Salmon have developed a process to preserve historic smells. He says he’d love to use the process on the ISS.

ISSAP hopes to scrape the ISS’s internal surfaces to samples the patinas deposited there.

“Smell is the only sense that is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, so it is the most closely linked to memory,” he explains.

ISSAP hopes to scrape the ISS’s internal surfaces to sample the patinas deposited there. This will likely include dust, hair, skin cells, oils, food scraps and other fragmentary wastes. All will help to tell a story.

The air will also be sampled, not only for the smell but for other aspects of its composition. As will the audio environment, including the sounds of electronic equipment, atmospheric regulators and the modules’ movements.

Photograph of four astronauts aboard the iss, each positioned at a different angle of 360 degrees
Clockwise from bottom: NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Kayla Barron and Thomas Marshburn with European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Matthias Maurer aboard the International Space Station in December 2021. Credit: NASA.

Underappreciated icon

History is fragile – it’s not often recognised until it’s too late. The world of our parents tends to be passé, but that of our grandparents fascinating. The regret only rises a few decades later.

It’s a human habit that archaeologists are well aware of.

“As space archaeologists, we’re doing our best to overcome the tendency for people to see no value in what is recent,” says Gorman.

“We’re doing our best to overcome the tendency for people to see no value in what is recent.”

Alice Gorman, Flinders University

That means assessing what future generations may appreciate.

“From our vantage point in the present, it’s impossible to know how they are going to judge us,” says Gorman. “But the decisions we make now will determine the things that we send into the future.”

Walsh says historical significance is often recognised – but rarely acted upon.

Photograph of the blue earth taken from a window of the international space station with some structural components of the station also visible
View of the Pacific Ocean from the International Space Station in 2021. Credit: NASA.

“In the original 1991 environmental impact study for Space Station Freedom (which ultimately became ISS), the plan was to disassemble the modules and bring them back to Earth on the Space Shuttle,” he says.

That, of course, is now impossible – even if the exorbitant expense was acceptable.

“I hope that projects such as ours, and our predecessor Beth O’Leary’s Lunar Legacy Project (which documented items left behind at Tranquility Base on the Moon), can raise awareness not only of the importance of space heritage but also of what we can learn about humanity’s adaptation to the space environment,” says Walsh.

Please login to favourite this article.