Religious life on ISS (part 2)

A short while ago, we published a blog post about the appearance of religious items on ISS, especially in the Russian command module Zvezda. We thought it would be worthwhile going beyond that anecdotal discussion, to see if we could quantify and analyze the appearance of cultural items in that location.

We created a database in Microsoft Access and catalogued 414 instances of items being displayed across 48 historic images from the NASA Flickr site dating between 2000-2014. The locations of the items in the aft space of Zvezda were also recorded, so that their appearance, disappearance, movement, and relationships to other items and the space could be assessed. Our preliminary results, which can fairly be called the first systematic study of the material culture of a human space habitat, reveal interesting and important patterns. First, the items appeared in waves, rather than simultaneously or at a steady pace. Particular periods of large numbers of items on display occurred in November 2002 and early 2008 through the end of 2009, while correspondingly few items appeared between 2004 and 2005, and again in 2011-2012.

The number of items on display in the aft end of Zvezda between 2000 and 2014.

As noted, we were particularly struck by the display of religious items in this space. Quantification shows that one-third of items that appeared were religious, compared to two-thirds that were secular (138 vs. 276). Religious items made up a notably larger proportion of items on display between late 2006 and late 2008, peaking in early 2008 with nine religious items compared to six secular ones.

Number of religious (red) and secular (blue) items on display in Zvezda between 2000 and 2014.

The most common object type was photographs (27% of all items on display), followed by icon paintings (20%), other kinds of pictures (17%), mission and agency patches (11%), flags (8%), and other religious items such as crosses, relics, and books (6%). The photographs primarily consisted of images of Soviet space heroes.

Distribution of item types on display in the aft end of Zvezda, 2000-2014.

Interesting patterns also appeared with regard to the locations of these types. We identified two particularly significant zones of display: in addition to the “niche,” the previously-mentioned set-back area of the aft wall directly over a portal leading to a Soyuz crew vehicle; and the “top area,” located over the niche, which was probably the most prominent zone for items to be placed.

Image of Zvezda aft end, showing the “top area” and the “niche area.” Photo credit: NASA.

Item types appeared as follows:

  • 74% of photographs appear in the niche
  • 48% of icons (a plurality) appear in the top area
  • 58% of other religious items (especially crosses) appear in the niche
  • 64% of flags appear in the top area
  • 73% of patches appear in the top area

These patterns seem to indicate different meanings associated with the two zones — a mostly secular shrine to space heroes below, and a more religious and nationalistic area up above.

Yuri Gagarin holds a dove presented to him by the Bulgarian Young Pioneers, 1961.
An example of the icon type known as the Mother of God of Kazan.

When we look at specific items, other facts emerge. The most common item was a famous photograph of Yuri Gagarin holding a dove. This image was first displayed in 2002, during Expedition 5, and it appeared in every single subsequent photograph taken of Zvezda’s interior from that point forward. All but one of those times, it appeared in the niche (the other time, it appeared in the top area in the center). By contrast, the second most common item was an icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, which appeared 25 times following its first appearance during Expedition 2 in 2001. Half of these times, it was placed in the top center position. A small Russian flag appeared in 19 images (i.e., 40% of the time). This was three times as frequent as the next most common flag. Seventy-four percent of the time, this flag was in the top area, especially top center. These examples seem to underline the our previous conclusions about the unstated significance of the different display zones on Zvezda.

A Ukrainian Twitter feed posted a message mocking the appearance of religious items on ISS. The modified photo shows ISS crew in the fore end of Zvezda. Credit: @ShkvarkiUA.
An original image taken at the same time as the modified one tweeted by @ShkvarkiUA, showing cosmonauts holding small icons of St. Nicholas. At top right, a triptych of the Old Testament Trinity with Sergii of Radonezh (who founded the Trinity Lavra church, also frequently shown in paintings in Zvezda) on the left wing, and St. Serafim of Sarov (who was canonized in 1903 at behest of Nicholas II and his wife, and who is highly revered in the post-Soviet church) on the right wing. Photo credit: Roscosmos.

This preliminary study has already revealed previously unknown information. We intend to research more deeply into the context of these displays — the particular astronauts living in Zvezda, internal Russian cultural and political developments, relations between Russian and other crew members on ISS at the time, etc. — in order to explain why these patterns occurred. For example, a cursory investigation of Russian news reports and blog posts relating to the appearance of religious items on Zvezda at various times shows that public sentiment is divided with regard to the appropriateness of such displays in the ISS context. Some people approve of increasing the prominence of the Orthodox Church in Russian public life, while others feel that it is inappropriate or even mock it. It is easily imaginable that such contentiousness might also be present within the cosmonaut corps itself, and that disagreements might be visible in the patterns we have observed. Clearly, different crews have made very different decisions about what kinds of things to put on display. We will also make comparisons to other spaces (such as the US Destiny laboratory module, where we have noted that the items on display seem primarily to consist of pennants cheering on the Army and Navy football teams, respectively).

Once again, we thank Prof. Wendy Salmond for her help with background information relating to Russian religious items.

Religious life on ISS

If you’ve read our previous post, you know that one of ISSAP‘s strategies for studying the material culture of the International Space Station is to look at changes between the photographs taken on board. In this post, we’re going to discuss one example of cultural life on ISS: religious expression.

As we’ve studied photos of the Zvezda module, we’ve noticed that it has been used by crews to display all kinds of cultural items, such as paintings, photographs, flags, patches, and more. Zvezda is the Russian service module, and it was one of the original pieces of the space station to be installed, four months before habitation of ISS began in November 2000. Until 2008, Zvezda contained the only two permanent crew quarters on the space station. It also contains one of the two galleys on board (the other being in the US Node 1 module) and one of the two bathroom facilities (the other being in the US Node 3 module). A treadmill for exercise is located in Zvezda, and it is a primary location for the docking of Soyuz capsules that carry crew members to and from the station. So it makes sense that from the very beginning of the station’s history, Zvezda has been a hub for all kinds of activity.

Expedition 14, 21 April 2007. Above: two icons (Christ Pantocrator and the Mother of God of Kazan) and a painting (the Trinity Cathedral at the Troitse-Sergieva Lavra) with mission insignia and a Russian flag; in the niche: an Orthodox New Testament, miniature icon, portrait of Yuri Gagarin with a dove, gold Orthodox cross, and toy space shuttle.

As you can see in the image above, the aft end of Zvezda received all kinds of decoration, including images, symbols, objects, and even a book. In fact, the images collected by NASA (and helpfully posted on their public Flickr page) show that this phenomenon began as soon as habitation of the station began. In the slide show below, you will see that already in Expedition 1, an icon was placed at the highest point of the aft wall in the center, making it highly visible from the primary direction of approach. This location made its significance clear. Soon after, many more photographs and paintings can be seen in this area. These items appeared and disappeared over time; they were moved around and reorganized.

  • In November 2000, during Expedition 1, a small icon was placed over the portal leading to the Soyuz module.


The pictures posted at the aft end of Zvezda are extremely interesting, since so many of them are explicitly religious and all of those that are religious pertain specifically to Russian Orthodox beliefs. We haven’t spotted any explicitly religious items in the US, European, or Japanese modules yet (apart from some Christmas decorations), so the Zvezda objects are notable. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church has re-asserted itself in Russian life and been supported by the Russian government. The icons and other religious paraphernalia may therefore represent an institutional effort to display a new Russian identity marked by Christianity. The presence in one of the photos in the slide show of a ribbon from Russia’s highest military award seems to indicate such a symbolic link. At the same time, it is also worth noting that at certain moments, the religious items are drastically reduced in number or vanish completely from our photographs (as appears to be the case currently), perhaps indicating that some crew members are less religious or even non-religious.

Images of Russian space heroes, on the other hand, appeared early on, and seem to have always been present since their first appearance. These include multiple images of the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin; the Russian theorist who described life in space, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky; and the original director of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev. The placement of these iconic and heroic but secular images in the same area with the religious items imbues them with a kind of religious significance, too. They most frequently appear in a niche directly over a portal leading to a Soyuz capsule — in  a sense, they are located over the ISS front door. The Russian crew visually lay claim to a significant space heritage by their display of these portraits in such a prominent position. Since Zvezda has been one of the most frequent venues for video-conferences with Earth audiences, these images are placed in a location that will make them visible beyond ISS. As a result, it becomes clear that even if ISS is “international”  in many ways, distinctly national displays can and do happen.

We need to do more research not only into the specific items displayed here in Zvezda and elsewhere on ISS, but also into the relevant context: who are the crew members associated with changes in the display? What happens when non-Russians occupy one of the crew quarters in this area? Are there specific devotional acts that occur here? What historical events on the ground may be related to the appearance, disappearance, or placement of any of these items?  We’re busy building a database to track this information, and will write more on these topics in the future. Stay tuned!

Special thanks to Prof. Wendy Salmond for her help identifying the subjects represented in the icons on Zvezda.

“How are you going to do that?”

In our first blog post, we defined the purpose of the ISS Archaeological Project (ISSAP): to study the material culture of the International Space Station so we can understand the microsociety created by the astronauts who live there. This is actually not so different from what archaeologists do when they study any other site inhabited by humans – it’s really just the context of outer space, and the fact that the period of habitation is contemporary with us, that might seem odd. But these differences do require us to work differently, and to develop a new methodology.

How do we get from life on the International Space Station (left) to an archaeological analysis of it (right)? (Left image: NASA, under CC BY-NC 2.0; right image: Javier Sánchez Campos, by permission.)

The most common kinds of archaeological study focus on individual sites or landscapes. Archaeologists usually travel to the areas they want to investigate, and then either excavate them (removing soil to find evidence for past human behaviors), or survey them by walking across a territory and recording the structures and artifacts they find on the surface. Additionally, archaeologists might use techniques that allow them to investigate a site or landscape from a distance – we call these techniques remote sensing. Remote sensing includes the use of radar, magnetometry, or measurements of electric resistance in the soil to create an image of what lies underneath; it also includes the use of aerial photography, laser survey of points in a landscape, or satellite images made using various light wavelengths to show what cannot be seen by the naked eye from the ground.

Unfortunately, we’re never going to be able to go to the International Space Station and study it in person as archaeologists. Among other things, it currently costs roughly US$75 million to send one astronaut, and there’s no grant that will give us that kind of money! Also, the space agencies involved in the ISS have only committed to using it until 2024, and once they stop using it, they plan to de-orbit it, allowing it partially burn up and fall into the Pacific Ocean (as happened with the Russian space station Mir in 2001). Unlike many other sites of human habitation that archaeologists want to study, ISS will be completely destroyed. So we have to figure out another way to examine this site.

It’s lucky for us, then, that NASA, ESA, and Roscosmos have been documenting life on the space station ever since people started living there in November 2000. It’s especially lucky that the habitation of ISS coincided with the development and widespread adoption of digital photography, which allowed astronauts to take many more pictures than ever before. For example, NASA’s Johnson Space Center has a Flickr account that currently hosts more than 24,000 images over the 51 expeditions to-date (not all of these show life onboard the station; some show training, launch, and landing of the various astronaut teams). These are just the tip of the iceberg, though: when we visited Johnson in March, we were shown NASA’s image database, which contained 25,000 images relating just to the onboard use of the Combustion Integrated Rack, a piece of research equipment in the US Destiny laboratory module. We estimate that there are well over a million total images (perhaps several million!). These images will form our primary dataset. We will use them by cataloguing the crewmembers, spaces, objects, and activities in each one. From a certain perspective, we’ll be using a new kind of remote sensing for this project, using the photographs as proxies for being present at the site we want to investigate.

A typical image of life on board ISS’s Node 1 during Expedition 42. (Image credit: NASA, under CC BY-NC 2.0.)

A key component of digital photographs is their metadata – the information encoded in image files showing which camera produced the image, at what exposure, and (most important for us) the date and time that the image was made. The metadata therefore allows us to know what moment is represented by each photo. We can identify the order in which the images were made, which will allow us to track people, tools, and behaviors around the ISS over time. We can even map patterns of activities, presences, and absences. Who uses which modules? Who is rarely or never present in certain spaces? Are there tools or other items that are associated with specific people or groups of people? How does microgravity affect the use of spaces or objects?

There are some other datasets that we plan to take advantage of – for example, NASA’s Inventory Management System, which contains records of every item sent to the space station (130,000 so far, with 60,000 active entries); and the virtual reality model of the ISS that NASA has developed to train new crewmembers. We hope to place the digital photos over the spaces in the VR model that they depict, indexing them for time. In this way, we’ll create a 4D digital model of the ISS, in which we can choose a moment in time and observe life in the space station.

The virtual reality model used by NASA to train ISS crew. (Image credit: ISS Archaeology.)

Clearly, we are talking about a lot of information here – the length of ISS’s occupation, the number of people involved, the vast array of objects depicted in the photos, and, of course, the staggering number of images. We have some ideas about how to tackle the problems presented by all this data, too. For one thing, we’ll be asking you to help classify the spaces and objects seen in the images. Crowdsourcing has been a popular approach for other scientific projects, and we’re eager to apply your skills, energy, and interest to this material. We also will be exploring the utility of machine learning, an emerging field of artificial intelligence, to see whether computers can be trained to recognize crew, spaces, and objects in digital images.

In the end, ISSAP will use our collected data to identify the meanings associated with the spaces astronauts inhabit and the objects they use – meanings which may not even be apparent to themselves – and we will be able see what kinds of adaptations they make in order to live in space for long periods of time.

Next: Religious life on ISS

What is ISS Archaeology all about?

Hello, everybody. Welcome to the International Space Station Archaeological Project (ISSAP), the first-ever large-scale1 archaeological investigation of a human habitation site in space! We are leading archaeological work – and social science more generally – into an entirely new context. We hope you’ll follow along with us, and maybe even help us to do our research.

We are space archaeologists. Space archaeology is the study of material culture associated with human activity in space (or human activity on Earth that is directed at space).

The idea behind our project is that as humanity is extending its footprint off the Earth, new behaviors are being developed. Astronauts experience a radically different environment from the one in which humans evolved – different (or no) gravity, different (or no) atmosphere, much higher levels of radiation, you name it. They do not have access to the same range of supplies, tools, personal items – or people – that they do on Earth. At the same time, public space agencies and private commercial entities are looking to plan much longer missions than ever before, to Mars and to deep space.

ISS Archaeology | Space Archaeology
Members of Expedition 34 in their crew compartments. Photo by NASA, used under CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

We believe that the social sciences, such as archaeology, can be extremely useful for understanding how humans adapt to this new environment. For decades, space agencies have studied the physiological effects of spending time in space. They have also studied the psychological effects of being confined in dangerous, remote, and isolated contexts, such as a spacecraft (but also looking at analogous contexts such as Antarctic research stations or nuclear submarines). So far, however, there has not been a single study of a spacecraft as “a microsociety in a miniworld.”2

Astronauts have to form their own societies, maintained through a unique culture, in order to operate effectively, accommodate each other, form bonds, collaborate, lay claim to spaces or share them, communicate, construct identity, even to have disputes and resolve them.

It is our contention that the structures of the microsociety on board the International Space Station will become visible to us by looking at its material culture – the built spaces and the objects placed there by the crew – and the associations of crewmembers with that material culture. We plan to test this theory over the coming months, and, yes, years, by cataloging, mapping, and analyzing our observations of the ISS over its sixteen years of continuous occupation to date. The result will be the first conclusions about how humans adapt to space and build communities there. We believe this work will not only be interesting for scholars – it will also help planners of future missions do their jobs better.

Next: How are you going to do that?