By Justin Walsh, guest contributor, associate professor of art history and archaeology at Chapman University, and Alice Gorman, guest contributor, associate professor of archaeology and space studies at Flinders University
People think that archaeology is focused on the past, but we’re excited that our work could have an impact on the future of space travel. We recently completed the first archaeological experiment in space, an investigation that began in 2015, to understand how people adapt to life in space and to create “a micro-society in a mini-world.” During the project, we developed new techniques to study the International Space Station (ISS) crew and the site without visiting it ourselves. Our methods include analyzing historical photos and observing the processes for handling cargo returned from the ISS. By doing these studies, we extend the discipline of archaeology into a new context and provide data-driven insights to help design better living and working facilities in space.
Thanks to sponsorship from the ISS National Laboratory, and help from the space station’s astronaut crew, the Sampling Quadrangle Assemblages Research Experiment (SQuARE) was designed following the principles behind one of the most traditional and basic activities of archaeologists on Earth—what we call the “test pit.”
When archaeologists encounter a new site and want to develop a strategy for a large-scale excavation, they first sample the site by dividing it into a grid of small squares—usually one meter by one meter—and targeting a few of them to dig. These test pits allow archaeologists to quickly understand what kinds of things they will find by excavating in different areas.
We applied the test pit technique to the ISS by selecting five one-meter-square sample areas (and asking the crew to select the sixth one) in different modules. These areas included places most often associated with science experiments, maintenance of equipment, making work plans and checking them with the ground, eating food, and hygiene. At least that’s how they are designed to be used! But it’s clear that every space in the ISS serves multiple functions.
A SQuARE experiment sample location at the starboard workstation in Node 2, with the boundary of the sample location marked by the broken yellow line. Media credit: NASA
Our work shows the real uses of each space by documenting the types of items visible and how they are arranged with respect to the architecture and each other. By focusing on the items and spaces, we can draw nuanced conclusions that might not be possible if we were simply to interview the crew and ask them about the sample areas. After all, astronauts are humans, too, and none of us have perfect memories, which is why the archaeological approach can be so valuable.
After the sample areas were set up in mid-January 2022, the crew photographed each one once a day for 60 days. The idea is to create a systematic record of how people live for long periods in space. Even though SQuARE took place over a relatively short period of time compared to the more than 21 years that people have lived on the ISS, it’s an essential set of data to compare with randomly taken photos in the historical archive. It will also exist for future scholars to consult when they study the next generation of space habitats, such as the commercial low Earth orbit destination projects or Lunar Gateway. And, of course, the ISS will not exist for future study after de-orbiting.
It was so exciting to see NASA astronaut Kayla Barron placing the first pieces of tape on the wall to mark out an archaeological square on the ISS. Our work has been the subject of stories by CNN, Scientific American, Popular Science, NPR, and others. We interact with so many members of the public through social media (especially our Twitter account @issarchaeology).
Now that the data collection is over, we have a lot of work to analyze the 358 photos we received. We’re incredibly grateful to the crew for their hard work and to the ISS National Lab for believing in us and giving us the support of crew time for this research. Onward and upward!