Archaeologists have probed the cultures of people all over the Earth—so why not study a unique community that’s out of this world? One team is creating a first-of-its-kind archaeological record of life aboard the International Space Station.
The new project, called the Sampling Quadrangle Assemblages Research Experiment, or SQuARE, involves hundreds of photos taken by astronauts throughout the living and work spaces of the ISS. People have continuously occupied the space station for decades, and the launch of its initial modules in the late 1990s coincided with the rise of digital photography. That meant that astronauts were no longer limited by film canisters when documenting life in space, and that space archaeologists—yes, that’s a thing—no longer had to merely speculate about it from afar.
But this is the first time archeologists have coordinated that photography so they could analyze it. The SQuARE photos, shot over 60 days last year, show everything from anti-gravity hacks to food treats enjoyed by astronauts. Justin Walsh, an archaeologist at Chapman University and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, thinks that images like these are tremendously useful for social science researchers who want to know how people use the limited tools and material comforts available to them in space. “If we could just capture the information into a database—get the people, places and objects that are in the photos—then we could actually start to trace out the patterns of behavior there and the associations between people and things,” says Walsh, who presented the team’s preliminary findings yesterday afternoon at the Society for American Archaeology conference in Portland, Oregon.
Walsh coleads SQuARE with Alice Gorman, an archaeologist at Flinders University in Australia. The main thing she wants to learn, she says, is, “What are the social consequences of a small isolated society so separated from Earth? What kinds of human behavior do you have, if you strip away something as fundamental as gravity?”
Contemporary archaeology involves inferring people’s social world from the physical objects and built spaces they use, which offer insights into people’s daily lives that they might not even be aware of. Scientists consider archaeology to be closely related to, or even part of, anthropology—but anthropological methods rely more on observing and interviewing. Interviews only reveal part of the story, however. Psychologists have known for decades that people are poor judges of their own behavior. Memory can be biased, and eyewitness accounts can be inaccurate.
“We’re interested in stuff people don’t remember, or even register, when they’re describing what they do in their life,” Gorman says. “Our approach is that you can see what people actually did, not just what they said they did. That’s what the archaeological record tells us.”
The ISS record includes tools, research equipment, food pouches, cleaning supplies, and other everyday objects. The team captured images of them—a “vicarious excavation,” as Gorman puts it—by having NASA and European Space Agency astronauts take daily photos from January 21 to March 21, 2022. Astronauts Kayla Barron, Matthias Maurer, and others snapped photos in six locations, including at the galley table, on a starboard workstation, on the port side of the US laboratory module, and on the wall across from a latrine. Each photo captured an area of approximately 1 square meter marked by adhesive tape at the corners—hence the SQuARE moniker—and crew members took photos with a color calibration chart for correcting digital imagery and a ruler for scale. After amassing 358 photos, the archeology team has been combing through them, marking objects that show signs of their use, as well as ones that are in the same place in every photo, a sign they’re hardly used at all.
In his talk, Walsh gave an overview of some of their initial observations. In particular, they’ve documented how astronauts set up “gravity surrogates” by attaching objects to solid surfaces—including to the ceiling, if necessary—so that they don’t float away. These surrogates include Velcro, pouches, ziplock bags, clips, and clamps. For example, in one photo, they noticed how someone had Velcroed a tablet to an equipment arm, which was clamped to the wall, so they could read an ebook while eating a meal. The archaeologists also noted spots in images where Velcro had been moved, leaving behind a sticky residue.
In the galley module, astronauts left clues about what they eat—and don’t. Some food pouches were filthy, indicating frequent use. But the bottle of Sriracha sauce remained pristine, and a Lindt chocolate bar languished, unfinished, for a while. The archeologists documented a surprising amount of other candy on board, Walsh says, puncturing the myth of astronauts as superhuman. Also popular: squeezable honey, cargo deliveries of fresh fruit, and tubes of frosting. (The researchers learned it was used for a birthday cake for Russian cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov.)
One of the most used items? Altoids. The red and white tin was always in a different position, so it was clearly used on a daily basis. Apparently astronauts, like everybody else, want to guard against bad breath.
Before the ISS drew his gaze, Walsh studied ancient Greek archaeology. He was concerned about preserving cultural heritage—after all, artifacts and artwork can get looted and sites may be threatened by climate change. The space station—a rare and remote community that brings together astronauts from the US, Russia, Europe, and elsewhere—is also vulnerable, but in a different way. It shares an orbit with space junk hurtling by at 17,000 miles per hour, and its lifespan is limited. It will probably come to an end in 2030, when NASA will likely deploy a space tug to guide its modules into an ocean splashdown. So scientists need to learn what they can quickly, before all the evidence burns up or vanishes in the sea. China’s new Tiangong space station and the ISS’s privatized successors might lack the transparency for such research in the future.
Since the 1970s, NASA and other space agencies have employed astronauts with a range of scientific backgrounds, but mostly in the physical sciences. Aspiring astronauts with social science degrees are excluded, Walsh points out, but he thinks that NASA needs them. “Since astronauts are being recruited not just for the ISS but for the moon and three-year-long roundtrip missions to to Mars, you might want to understand what the social and cultural components of that mission are going to entail, if you’re going to put people in a tin can and send them that far away for that long,” he says.
Contemporary archaeology arguably began with the work of Arizona archaeologist William Rathje. For his “Tucson garbage project,” his group interviewed people and sifted through their trash at the city dump, noting the discrepancies between people’s comments about how they eat and what kinds of foods they actually consume, along with what they waste, and their recycling behavior. “Thirty, forty years later, that project is still the touchstone of people’s notion of what an archaeology of the contemporary is,” says Anthony Graesch, an archaeologist at Connecticut College. “We bring this lens of materiality to the fore: We can think about environmental challenges, consumption, how we relate to our objects and how we express our identities through them—the same kinds of things we’re exploring in the past but can’t see quite as well.”
This work inspired other projects, like one that studied the spread of portable radios in the US, and another focused on the objects carried—and discarded by—undocumented migrants at the US-Mexico border. Graesch’s work, which he’s presenting at the archaeology conference this week, is on the objects people leave behind in their homes when they pass away.
Victor Buchli, an archaeologist at the University College London, studies space debris and other aspects of humanity’s interactions with low Earth orbit. He’s not involved in SQuARE, but he has high praise for the project. “Walsh and Gorman basically used this time-tested technique within anthropology—the square survey—and adapted it to the conditions of the space station, with a little bit of tape and a camera,” he says. “It’s an incredibly elegant intervention within the ISS—typical of the ingenuity of astronauts themselves. They’re great bricoleurs; they know how to cobble things together in innovative ways.”
The SQuARE project has drawn so much attention that Walsh and Gorman put together a consulting firm last fall, called Brick Moon Inc. Through that, they’ll advise private space companies like Blue Origin and Axiom, which are angling for investment from NASA and private funders to build the next generation of space stations. Much has changed since the ISS came together, so the designers of new habitats want to learn how to make them more productive and more comfortable.
Fred Scharmen, a space architecture designer and researcher, is collaborating with the pair on Brick Moon. It must have been challenging trying to design the ISS for decades of habitation, he says, and now one can see how it has aged and been used. The next challenge, he says, is to imagine a cutting-edge, versatile successor to the ISS, and how it could be made to suit the social and cultural life of its inhabitants. “It’s envisioning the future,” he says. “It’s almost a science fiction ask: ‘What are people going to do with this 30 years from now?’”