National award for ISSAP

On November 7, 2022, the Archaeological Institute of America announced that our project had been chosen to receive its 2023 Award for Outstanding Work in Digital Archaeology. AIA is the oldest and largest professional organization for archaeologists in the United States.

The seal of the Archaeological Institute of America.

The award recognizes how we developed innovative approaches to documenting ISS as an archaeological site. We’ve used them to examine the ongoing phenomenon of crew-created visual displays on ISS; to document the processes created by NASA contractors to handle ISS material culture (i.e., cargo) returned from the station; to identify patterns in the occupation of different modules by gender, nationality, and space agency affiliation; and to study the associations between items, spaces and crew members in NASA photos and databases. From January to March 2022, we executed the first archaeological experiment in space, designating six sample locations on ISS for daily photography. This work was sponsored by the ISS National Lab and carried out by four US astronauts and one European. Chantal Brousseau, a graduate student at Carleton University, built a web-based tool for us to locate and identify each item in each photo; the data entered will subsequently be used to train a machine learning algorithm to automatically label objects in historic imagery.

We look forward to receiving this award at the AIA Annual Meetings in New Orleans in January!

What (and how) does archaeology add to our understanding of life in space?

One of the questions we’re asked most often is, “If you want to know about what it’s like to live in space, why don’t you just ask the astronauts?” This is sometimes accompanied by surprise that it’s even possible to do archaeological research on a society that exists in the present, rather than the past. So in this post, we thought we’d talk a little about how we are interpreting images from the SQuARE experiment, and how they enhance our understanding of life on ISS. We’ll do this by looking at one of the individual images that have been returned. Keep in mind, however, that interpretation of the images will be derived as much – if not more – from the aggregating of data from multiple images, as it is from looking at single photos.

Let’s start with an image similar to the one we used for the previous blog post.

Here we are looking at the starboard workstation of the US Node 2 module, also known as Harmony. This is an area that is usually associated with maintenance and technical work; it is also adjacent to four of the space station’s eight current crew berths, where all of the US crew are now residing (the fifth member of the team living in the US Orbital Segment, ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, has a brand-new berth just around the corner in the Columbus lab). We love this photo, because the light makes the glovebag look like some kind of a prehistoric deep-sea fish with bulging eyes…

Caulophryne pelagica (Credit: D. Shale, used by permission under Creative Commons license)

…okay, back to the archaeology! So what we do as archaeologists is rely on our observations of material culture – the objects and built spaces – and the relationships between them in a given context, to develop an interpretation of what happened, and what it means. So, here we have a new piece of equipment, one used to isolate the subject of work from the surrounding environment, and even from the person doing the manipulation of the subject. As we’ve noted before, there are permanent gloveboxes located elsewhere in ISS, so the use of the portable one indicates that those must not be available because they are already in use. It’s also possible that the work happening here is lower in priority or shorter in duration. The workstation is a good location for the portable glovebag because it is a reserved space for work (although that work is not primarily scientific) – there are not that many similar reserved spaces in ISS, since most of the walls in the various laboratory modules are taken up by racks for experimental facilities like freezers, centrifuges, furnaces, plant-growing facilities, etc.).

We can see the same portable glovebag on the workstation as before, with four translucent cylinders inside it, with silver lids and what appear to be plungers coming out of the tops. By zooming in, we can read the labels on the cylinders, which say “Concrete mixer.” There are also some other tubes with blue and orange parts to the left and right.

Close-up of the inside of the glovebag.

There is a laptop in the upper left corner, showing the day’s schedule for each crew member, with a video camera just above it to the right, and a bright white LED light shining into the glovebag. The presence of the laptop, and especially of the camera and light and their positioning relative to the glovebag, indicates that remote observation is an important component of the work happening here. In other words, ground control or the investigators who designed the procedure (or both) must need to be able to see what’s going on and communicate with the crew member, either to ask questions or give feedback. And, finally, there’s a foil pouch with a straw, probably holding water for the crew member to drink.

What are we to make of this assemblage of items? First, we have a strong indication of the flexibility of the starboard workstation for short-term scientific projects, including, apparently, materials science research. Second, we can see the integration of ground and space in the performance of work, which might be both helpful, but also feel like someone is constantly assessing your performance – in this case, literally looking over your shoulder. And we get a much stronger sense of the materiality of this activity for the crew – the manipulation of the experiment must be somewhat clumsy and unstable, not only because of the gloves (and we can’t forget the microgravity environment), but also because of the transient, unfixed nature of the glovebag, and the difficulty of positioning it and seeing into it. The mixing of spatial categories is also evident – this is a workspace next to four people’s bedrooms, even if nobody was probably resting at the time this photo was taken (12:41 PM local time). Most people don’t have to actually live inside their laboratories: this mixing of functions that are usually separated in terrestrial spaces is typical of space habitats.

The photo is still, capturing a moment in time, but in this configuration we can read a series of decisions and actions taken by the crew before the photo, from which we can predict possible future actions too. The drink pouch isn’t just an artifact: it shows the maintenance of the crewmember’s body – a constant task in space as on Earth – at the same time as they carry out their regular work. The portability of the glovebag represents the conflicts between the available space and facilities on the one hand, and the science that has to be conducted on the other. They have to make do with the space they have; and this means adapting different spaces to requirements. 

If we asked the crew about this photo, it’s possible that they would articulate some or all of the points in our brief analysis here. They might have additional insights, too. But the archaeological approach means that we are not reliant on them, or their abilities and willingness to describe what was happening in this moment, or across 60 days of moments, accurately. That’s where the value of our experiment comes in.

POSTSCRIPT: Almost two weeks later, Matthias Maurer posted his work on the concrete experiment on social media. Check it out, and see how his blurb, and ESA’s description and edited video compares to our discussion. We aren’t saying that it isn’t helpful to also have this information, or to be able to talk to Matthias – as we will – after his mission. But we are saying that archaeology can reveal new insights and new information that isn’t otherwise available.

Recording archaeological data from space

This is our second blog post about the SQuARE experiment. You can read the first one here.

This post is co-authored by Shawn Graham, Professor of History and Digital Humanities at Carleton University. You can learn more about his work at his Electric Archaeology website. Here, we discuss some of the problems with capturing archaeological data from a space context.

We start from our raw data, the photographs taken by ISS astronauts of our sample locations, like this one in the US Node 2 module.

A photograph of the starboard workstation in the US Node 2 module.
ISS, square 03, context 01 (21 January 2022).

Another collaborator, Aidan Walsh (the father of one of the PI’s!), takes each photograph and corrects it for lighting, using the color calibration card (at upper right in this image). He also corrects for the barrel distortion introduced by the camera lens. This allows us to make sure that we are treating the sample locations with their correct horizontal and vertical lines.

Same photo as before corrected for light and barrel distortion.
Fixed photo of ISS, square 03, context 01.

Then we crop the photo so that we are only looking at the sample square itself. This is the material that we are collecting data on.

The same image as the previous two, cropped so that only the interior of the square sample location is now visible.
Cropped and fixed photo of ISS, square 03, context 01.

But how do we actually capture that data? Here’s where Shawn, and his student Chantal Brousseau, come in.

In Shawn’s words:

Recently, Justin Walsh got in touch with me to say, ‘we’re doing some archaeology in space. We need some help to think about recording the information. I’ve got some ideas how to do this, but… what do you think?’

One of the pleasures of academic work is being asked to suddenly think sideways about a problem you’ve never really considered. I started doodling ideas, free-writing some thoughts, and then I got down to business.


On Earth, every human action leaves traces. Some things happened before or after other things. These traces – and their relative associations – are called ‘contexts’ by archaeologists; every new event in the history of a site leaves new contexts which build up over time. Archaeologists later peel the contexts backwards, removing them from most recent to latest. They look for patterns and interrelationships through and between those contexts, which enable a vision, a story, of the site to emerge.

So far, so good.

But there’s archaeology off-world now. How do you excavate a contemporary archaeological site like a space station, when NASA won’t let archaeologists be astronauts?

You get the astronauts to photograph a controlled “test pit” (area of the station) systematically over time. Here, the archaeological action is reversed: each photo is evidence of a context at time 1…time 2…time 3…time 4. So we’re “excavating” – recording, creating data, spotting relationships, making contexts – as the site actually forms.

The webapp we eventually built enables the archaeologist to identify objects in the test square, and record those interrelationships. That web of interrelationships is a kind of a network or ‘graph’; each point and each relationship in that graph has all of the archaeological information recorded. This lets us understand and use the structure of relationships to deduce or find larger patterns in the material.

But getting to this point of having a working method to realize this was a challenge.

To do this archaeology-in-space we needed some basic data-recording forms, and we needed to be able to capture the location of objects depicted in the images, at least relative to the other items in the image. The forms would then capture the data around how these objects interrelated with each other: the photo captured one moment in time, one event, one context. My goal was to make this as painless as possible. I created what amounted to a Rube Goldberg machine of various bits and pieces of software, cobbled together in a way that worked, but only in the sense that Wile-E-Coyote’s schemes often ‘worked’: on paper.

At this point, Chantal joined the project and explored what I had rigged together. From her own research on automatically extracting images from early modern print sources, she was familiar with other image annotators, and suggested that we modify the open source VIA tool from the Visual Geometry Group at Oxford. Chantal quickly modified the tool for the explicit archaeological information we were after, and began to improve the code to optimize it for ISSAP use, putting it all into an elegant framework. In this way, it could be installed on the same secure server being used to host the images from the ISS and which the ISSAP team could access.

While Chantal worked on that, I developed a way to turn the output from the webapp into the graph. A ‘graph’, remember, is just a way of describing a network of things connected to other things by those archaeological relationships we spotted. This graph should let us examine change over time in how the astronauts use certain segments of the space station. It should enable us to identify assemblages of material culture at particular times. What artifacts persist over time in a given space/image? What artifacts are associated with each other over time? Do we see different use zones emerge over time? Do artifacts travel from one zone to another?

A graph visualization of nodes and connections for different kinds of data from the SQuARE photos.
A schema for visualizing how the data relates to photos, items, and locations.

The webapp we built is open source and can be modified fairly quickly to have different metadata fields; maybe other kinds of archaeologists will find it useful and it’ll be the start of something new.  This experiment in doing archaeology in space will have its dead ends, its failures, and it might be that we’ll have to go back to the beginning; at least we’ll have the photographs if something goes terribly wrong. But I don’t think that’ll happen. I don’t know of any field archaeology project that uses a graph database from day one, though there are a few that are using graph databases to wrangle legacy data. Thinking about what it means to do archaeology in space has implications for how we might do archaeology better here on Earth.  What is an  archaeological assemblage, when you’re on a space station without gravity? After all, it’s gravity that holds assemblages together on earth. Without gravity, relationships fly apart. Everything is relative, I suppose; the webapp lets us pull out those relative relationships over time.

Chantal’s webapp is now hosted on a server run by our other collaborators, Erik Linstead and his Machine Learning and Affiliated Technology Lab at Chapman University (clearly, this project could never have happened without great people willing to share their skills and time!). We’ve started using the webapp to annotate the photos from SQuARE. Here you can see the interface that Chantal developed for us. It allows us to record information about individual items, their types, and their locations, as well as about the context represented by the photograph.

The interface of a webapp for recording archaeological data from the SQuARE photos.

When we are done making annotations, this is what the photo looks like, with bounding boxes drawn around all of the different objects – each of which now has an entry in our database. So this is how we get from an astronaut’s photo to archaeological data!

The fixed and cropped image, now showing bounding boxes around all the items in the photo.
The annotated photo of ISS, square 03, context 01.

The mission patch for the SQuARE experiment.

Space archaeology (for real)

We are extremely excited and proud to announce that the first archaeological study ever performed outside the Earth began today, January 14, 2022. At 1410 GMT, NASA astronaut Kayla Barron set up an experiment consisting of six sample areas in as many modules that will be documented by the crew for us every day for the next 60 days.

Before we explain the experiment in detail, first a little background. We’ve been working on this project since December 2015. From the very beginning, we’ve been trying to think creatively about how we could capture data to help us understand the International Space Station from an archaeological perspective.

An email from Justin Walsh to Alice Gorman with suggestions for research methods. The last one says, "In person site documentation of ISS (Sounds, smells, tastes, sense of space/dimensions, climate, relationship to Earth)???"
The second-ever email about what would become ISSAP! The last item reads, “In-person site documentation of ISS (sounds, smells, tastes, sense of space/dimensions, climate, relationship to Earth)???”

 

We had to be creative, because we aren’t allowed to visit the ISS ourselves, the way we would visit a terrestrial archaeological site to study it. And little by little, we’ve been honing our techniques, and putting them into practice, seeing what works and what doesn’t (and what’s feasible and what isn’t). We’ve made photography a key element of our work. There’s lots of it – tens of thousands of images (a fair amount of them publicly available) showing most aspects of the crew’s lives. We’ve already published a couple of articles on our blog and in peer-reviewed journals, like this one and this one, about some of them. But these photos weren’t taken systematically, and they weren’t taken with our needs in mind. So we also started to think about how we could get documentation the way that archaeologists would do it, focusing on in-person site documentation. For that, we’d need the crew to take on the role of archaeologists.

In 2018, we met with folks from the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a non-profit organization chartered by the US Congress to manage external research on the ISS, in what is called the ISS National Laboratory. CASIS has allocations of launch and return capabilities to the ISS, as well as crew time, which it gives to researchers for their work. We suggested a series of experiments that ISS crew could perform. To our surprise, their reaction to our initial proposal was immediately enthusiastic: “Looks great. I read it and it is so important and yet so simple I want to laugh.” Unfortunately, they could not fund us beyond the allocations of time and launch/return, so that left us looking elsewhere for money to buy equipment and study any returned samples. We also started identifying collaborators from a wide range of fields: sociology, design anthropology, industrial engineering, aerosol science, soil science, and architectural design.

By December 2020, we submitted a funding proposal to the National Science Foundation for support of seven different experiments that would ask crew to perform various activities, from swabbing surfaces, to recording sound, to making videos discussing their experiences. While we were waiting to hear the results, CASIS reached out to us in February 2021, wanting to know if there was a part of our proposal that could be done immediately, without having to fly any equipment or samples. It turned out that some other experiments scheduled for late 2021 had to be postponed, and with more crew members on board, there was the potential for some excess crew time that could be available to us. But we couldn’t send anything to the space station because the window of opportunity was not very large, and it takes a long time to get items approved for launch and placement on ISS. (We learned that there are 127 steps to get approval for a new item to be sent to ISS!)

As it turned out, we did have an experiment that met the requirements. It was based on the most basic archaeological technique for sampling a site: the test pit. Archaeologists divide a site into a grid of squares, then select individual squares to dig so that they can get a better sense of what the site as a whole is like. Most often, these squares are 1 m by 1 m in size so that several can be excavated in a short period of time. So our experiment proposed placing 1 m squares on walls throughout the space station. Instead of digging them to reveal new layers of soil representing different moments in the site’s history, we would photograph them each day to identify how they were being used, and how they changed over time.

The squares would be placed in five locations: the galley table in Node 1; the starboard workstation in Node 2; two EXPRESS science racks, one each on the forward walls of both Kibo and Columbus; and the wall across from the Waste and Hygiene Compartment (the latrine) in Node 3. One more square location would be chosen by the crew, based on their assessment of what would be interesting to document (this square is placed on the one of the racks on the port side of the US laboratory module, Destiny). We are looking at areas of work and leisure, at areas belonging to different agencies, and at areas where there are likely to be a lot of changes and where there are likely to be few changes. All we needed to perform the experiment were a camera, yellow kapton adhesive tape (for marking the corners of the squares), measuring tape, a color calibration chart, and a ruler (for scale). All of these items are already on ISS. For the first 30 days, photos will be made at approximately the same time each day, while for the second 30 days, they will be made at random times, allowing us to assess which strategy is more useful.

We sent this idea to CASIS, and amazingly received their approval in a matter of days. In March, we made photos showing how the squares should be made. (We did this in the Guggenheim Gallery on Chapman’s campus, next to the ISS photos by Paolo Nespoli and Roland Miller in this exhibition).

A man with gray hair places two pieces of ashesive tape in an L-shape on a white wall.
Placing the corner of a sample square (photo credit: Marcus Herse).

A man and a woman hold two measuring tapes against a wall, measuring the left side of a square and its diagonal simultaneously.
Measuring the dimensions of a sample square (photo credit: Marcus Herse; thanks for the assist from Robin Jones).

A man places a color calibration chart above the top right corner of a square on a wall.
Placing the color calibration chart next to the completed square (photo credit: Marcus Herse).

A color calibration chart and the top right corner of a square, with the number "01" written on it.
The color calibration chart and corner of the finished square, with a number designating the square (photo credit: Marcus Herse).

By April, Axiom Space agreed to be our implementation partner, managing the logistics of planning and carrying out the experiment, and – since we were still waiting to hear about our NSF proposal – Chapman University agreed to cover the costs of our work. We came up with a name and a nifty acronym, because everything in space has to have one: the Sampling Quadrangle Assemblages Research Experiment, or SQuARE. And we got our friend @cheatlines to design an amazing mission patch.

The mission patch for the SQuARE experiment.
The SQuARE mission patch, designed by @cheatlines. As she explains: “It’s a test trench made of tape with little color card squares representing the presence and absence of objects.”

By September, the payload integration (planning) meetings began with NASA, and now here we are, only eleven months later, with an actual experiment happening on the ISS! (We’ve been told we’re the fastest experiment, from proposal to execution, in the history of the ISS program.)

We’ll have semi-regular blog posts about the SQuARE experiment as it progresses, in which we’ll discuss some of the challenges of adapting our initial proposal to the requirements of life on the ISS, as well as preliminary observations and results. It was already thrilling for us to watch live video of Kayla Barron setting up the first square in the Japanese Experiment Module (Kibo) – and providing feedback to her. We’ll be able to share photos with you soon!

Since this is the first collection of archaeological data ever attempted in a space habitat, we’re not exactly sure what we’ll find. It is an experiment, after all. But we are sure that the results will illuminate aspects of life in space that no-one, not even NASA, has ever known before. We can’t wait to share what we learn with you. So stay tuned!

Two new articles: Visual displays on ISS and the future of private space stations

Three people pose for a picture in the Russian Zvezda module. A wide variety of different items are visible on the wall behind them
From left to right, NASA astronaut Michael Barratt, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, and Hungarian American space tourist Charles Simonyi (Expedition 19, March 28, 2009) are shown in front of the aft wall of Zvezda.

 

Our third scholarly article, “Visual Displays in Space Station Culture: An Archaeological Analysis,” was published today in the journal Current Anthropology. The article is open access, so there’s no paywall. The article studies how astronauts, and especially cosmonauts, have personalized their habitats through visual displays. These displays include religious items, portraits of space heroes, toys, flags, mission patches, and more. We were also able to trace the tradition of creating visual displays back through the Soviet-Russian Mir and Salyut space stations, all the way back to the 1970’s. We collaborated with a historian of Russian art, Chapman professor Wendy Salmond, on this work.

We also recently published an article about the coming series of private space stations announced by companies including Axiom Space, Blue Origin, and Nanoracks, on The Conversation website. In this piece, we ask what designers of the next-generation of space habitats have learned from previous examples, and suggest that approaches like ours will be needed to make them more livable.

There’s much more coming at the beginning of 2022, including the first archaeological experiment in space, so stay tuned!

We’ve published our second article!

At the end of September, one of the world’s leading archaeology journals, Antiquity, published our latest article. This piece described our methodology for studying an archaeological site in space – one we are unable to visit in person.

The published article is behind a paywall, but if you don’t have access, you can read a free pre-print version on SocArxiv here! And we thank SpaceAustralia for their story about the article…and an amazing TikTok video.

First article from ISSAP!

A cosmonaut on ISS with printed icons
Cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov displays printed icons in front of a porthole window on the International Space Station.

We’ve passed a major milestone today: the first of our articles to be published appeared in a special issue of the journal Religions – and it’s open access. Due to the vagaries of academic publishing, this is actually the fourth article we’ve finished! We have another one, on our methodology, accepted for publication (pre-print here), and two others under review (one pre-print here).

The article published today, “Eternity in Low Earth Orbit: Icons on the International Space Station,” was written by Wendy Salmond, Alice Gorman, and Justin Walsh. It’s based on work we started in 2017, observing visual display practices in the Russian module Zvezda. You can see our previous blog posts about it here and here. The special issue’s theme is “The Mutual Influence of Religion and Science in the Human Understanding and Exploration of Outer Space,” edited by Deana Weibel and Glen Swanson.

Lots of updates about ISSAP

It’s been a long time since we posted an update, but if you’ve been following us on social media, you know we’ve been busy. Here are some of the things we’ve been up to since we announced the award of a two-year grant by the Australian Research Council:

  • recruited new team members to collaborate on various parts of our project, including our photo study, cargo processing observation, and crew survey of the interior of the International Space Station
  • received approval from NASA’s Human Research Program Institutional Review Board for our study of NASA’s archive of historic photos documenting life on board ISS. We now have thousands of photos covering the period from the station’s occupation in November 2000 through Expedition 15 in October 2007, and more are coming in regularly.
  • experimented with data scraping to automate tagging of people and places in the historic photos, allowing us to identify patterns of presences in different locations by gender, nationality, and space agency affiliation
  • received major data sets including archived versions of the ISS Inventory Management System, a database that includes every item sent to the space station (more than 377,000 of them!)
  • completed our first two articles (one on our methodology, currently available as a pre-print; the other describing the field of space archaeology and our place within it, soon to be published as part of a volume called Archaeology Outside-the-Box, to be published by the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press)
  • participated in a conference on machine learning in archaeology organized by the British School in Rome and a workshop on space and culture organized by the Science Museum (UK)
  • updated the design of this website and added many more items to our News page

There’s much more coming soon. We have blog posts on sleeping situations on ISS and the use of resealable plastic bags by crew members, and several more articles in the works. Continue to stay tuned!

ISSAP receives its first major research grant

Hello everyone!

If you’ve been following us on Twitter or Facebook, you may have already seen the fantastic news: the Australian Research Council has awarded ISSAP a two-year Discovery Grant worth $244,400. This is the first time (but hopefully not the last!) that we have been given funding to carry out research on the material culture of the International Space Station. We are extremely grateful for the support, which validates our methodology and will allow us to start our study in a major way.

Our plan is to use the ARC funds to hire a database engineer and a graphic designer to develop a database to hold the data and metadata associated with up to one million photos of the station’s interior over the last 18 years (you can read more about the methodology in this blog post from last year). We will now also be able to start a formal relationship with space agencies such as NASA, and to gain access to the datasets that will form the basis for this phase of our study. Finally, with the ARC support, our co-PI’s will be able to travel for sustained periods to the US and Australia, respectively, to manage the project, and to attend conferences around the world disseminating our results.

One other news item of note: at the beginning of November, ISSAP was featured on the podcast of the world’s premier anthropology website, SAPIENS. You can hear both co-PI’s talk about how they became space archaeologists, and how this project got its start.

This is only the beginning for us! Watch this space, and follow us on social media to keep learning more about how humans adapt to life in space.

Observing the material culture of ISS first-hand

Since we last wrote, we’ve been pretty busy! We presented papers at the European Space Agency’s History Conference in Padova, Italy and the Society for American Archaeology’s Annual Meetings in Washington, DC. We’ve also given public lectures at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and to the Archaeology Club at USC. And we’ve been applying for grant support to work on photos of life on the space station, to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the Australian Research Council — keep your fingers crossed for us!

But perhaps the most important work we’ve done so far is to start observing the material culture of ISS first-hand. You might wonder how we’ve been able to do this, since we can’t go there ourselves. But last summer, we started to wonder if it could be possible to see at least the items that are returned to Earth:

Archaeologists are used to analyzing the values and meanings associated with artifacts that have been discarded by people in the past. We saw the return of ISS items to Earth as a kind of discard!

We followed up on this question with NASA, and were eventually able to get permission from them and from their contractors to observe the return of cargo from ISS on the SpaceX Dragon capsule CRS-13 in January. If you don’t know, since the Space Shuttle stopped flying in 2011, Dragon has been the only method for returning cargo from the US segment of ISS (Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada also supply ISS, but their craft are designed to be destroyed during de-orbit, so they are used to get rid of trash). Dragon can carry about two tons of material, generally consisting of three categories: scientific samples, such as the products from tests performed on mice or astronauts; broken equipment to be studied and replaced or refurbished; and crew personal effects. Other items, such as crew members’ dirty laundry, is also thrown in (or, more properly, wedged in) to keep the main cargo from shifting during the return.

A SpaceX Dragon capsule brings cargo to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

These returns happen three or four times a year. When Dragon de-orbits, it lands in the Pacific Ocean a few hundred miles off the coast of southern California. SpaceX brings it back to the Port of Long Beach and then turns over the cargo to teams supplied by two contractors: Jacobs, who handle the cold-stowage material refrigerated down to -80C; and Leidos, who handle the nominal material (everything else). The refrigerated material is immediately flown back to Houston on a charter plane, while the nominal material is sent by truck. Finally, the various items are carefully unpacked, catalogued, documented in photos, and then returned to their owners.

Time-lapse showing the unpacking of a cargo transfer bag (CTB).

We spent a week embedded with the contractors, who are called the integration (or, in this case, de-integration) teams. We watched how they handled the items, documented their processes, and interviewed them about their work and their thoughts about what they were doing. We are the first researchers to study what the things used on board the space station can tell us about how people live in microgravity. When the CRS-14 Dragon returns to Earth on May 3, we will do the same thing again, this time in Long Beach, CA. From the data we collect, we will be able to draw conclusions about the kinds of items used, the kinds of items selected for saving and return to Earth (as compared to those simply thrown away), and how life on the space station differs from Earth. For example:

So stay tuned for more news about our work, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook!

  • Preparation of the charter plane to retrieve cargo.