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.

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).

Next: Observing the material culture of ISS first-hand

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!

Next: Religious life on ISS, part 2

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. We’ll be 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