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.

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?