Interior Space - A Visual Exploration of the International Space Station: Photographs by Paolo Nespoli & Roland Miller: Interior Space - A Visual Exploration of the International Space Station: Photographs by Paolo Nespoli & Roland Miller

Photography and the International Space Station Archeological Project

Photography and the International Space Station Archeological Project

The International Space Station is a remarkable milestone in the development of human capabilities for living in space. Planned for more than fifteen years before its first modules were launched in 1998, ISS has been continuously inhabited since November 2, 2000 – over 7000 consecutive days (by contrast, the Soviet/Russian space station Mir was occupied for almost thirteen years, ten of them continuously). More than 240 people have visited ISS in that time, representing more than 40% of all humans who have ever traveled to space. These have included scientists, military officers, and wealthy tourists (euphemistically called “spaceflight participants” by the space agencies that manage the space station). The record occupancy for the space station at one time is 13, which happened during crew changeovers using the Space Shuttle. For readers who remember the early days of human spaceflight, these numbers are especially impressive. ISS is the largest spacecraft ever constructed. It can even be considered the most expensive building project ever undertaken, with some estimates as high as $150 billion to construct and maintain it.   Taking all of these superlatives together, it should be no surprise that ISS has attracted attention from scholars from disparate fields who seek to understand human adaptations to the space environment. Countless experiments have been carried out both autonomously and by crew in physics, chemistry, biology, botany, health sciences, and other disciplines.

Even so, there has been hardly any study so far of the social and cultural aspects of life on board ISS – how crewmembers maintain traditional behaviors or develop new ones, how they cope with living with new people from different backgrounds, in an environment where multiple languages are spoken and written, and where everyday objects don’t fall to the ground when they’re dropped…but they also don’t stay in the same place, either! From the dawn of the Space Age, agencies have carried out countless physiological and psychological experiments, but the number of social science experiments can probably be counted on one hand. Yet NASA hopes to send a multi-person crew on a three-year round-trip mission to Mars, with other, even longer missions to deep space perhaps to follow. And a report on human factors in long-duration spaceflight by the National Academy of Sciences in 1972 already had called a spacecraft “a microsociety in a miniworld.” Anthropologist Jack Stuster took the first steps in contributing a social-science perspective with his ISS Journals project. Over more than a decade, he recruited astronauts to write journal entries at least three times a week, which he then analyzed for positive and negative elements to make recommendations for future changes to the space station program. A team from the University of British Columbia, consisting of sociologist Phyllis Johnson and psychologist Peter Suedfeld, have recently concluded their experiment, called At Home in Space. Their work used questionnaires administered to crews during their time on board ISS to try to identify whether crews create “a unique ‘space culture’ that transcends their cultural differences.’” The results of the UBC experiment are still awaited.

Archaeologists are taking a different approach. It may seem unusual that archaeologists might examine human behavior of the recent past. After all, most archaeologists study people who lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago. But some archaeologists have been studying contemporary life since the 1970’s. The first such project was by William Rathje, who examined the trash discarded by residents of Tucson, Arizona. The Tucson Garbage Project showed how archaeology could reveal what questionnaires and interviews could not. Latina mothers told interviewers that they always made their own baby food, while their refuse showed a similar number of store-bought jars of baby food as other households. The point of this example is not to criticize anyone for how they choose to feed their children (or what they choose to say to researchers!) but simply to show how the desire of research subjects to construct a positive public identity for themselves can come into conflict with researchers’ need for accurate information. Sometimes, people are simply unwilling or unable to articulate the reasons motivating their actions. Archaeology provides a different perspective by looking at the items people use and the spaces they inhabit. By looking at these aspects of culture – what kinds of things and spaces are used, how, when, and by whom – we can trace out the features and boundaries of human societies. 

My colleague, Alice Gorman, and I have been interested in the material culture associated with human activity in space for well over a decade. We’re following in the footsteps of Beth O’Leary, who carried out the first archaeological study of a human habitat in space with her Lunar Legacy Project from 1999-2002. O’Leary documented the 106 items left behind at the Apollo 11 landing site, Tranquility Base, by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. These objects and the surrounding moonscape are clear evidence for the “Apollo culture” and the activities of two of its members over a 21.5-hour period. Of course, O’Leary was not able to go to the Moon to study her site, as she might have gone to the Yukon to do terrestrial archaeology. She relied on NASA historic documentation instead to compile her list of objects. Together with M. Wayne Donaldson and Lisa Westwood, she was able to use her list to convince the states of California and New Mexico to the objects left at Tranquility Base protected status as a historic monument.

The inability to visit cultural sites in space is a critical obstacle to archaeologists’ work there, an obstacle that persists to this day. In fact, no space agency allows social scientists to become an astronaut. Alice and I felt that this policy was short-sighted. Agencies that are planning long-duration missions on space stations, or to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, need the insights into human space societies and cultures that social scientists are uniquely positioned to give. So we started developing the International Space Station Archaeological Project in 2015, and we received a two-year grant from the Australian Research Council (ARC) in 2018 to carry out our work (not enough to afford the $55 million trip to ISS advertised by Axiom Space in 2020, unfortunately). 

As we started to think about how we could actually study life on ISS without actually going there, photography emerged as a clear answer. The photos by Roland Miller and Paolo Nespoli in this volume show how all aspects of the crew experience are visible: work, leisure, exercise, eating, looking out of the windows, rest. The walls of the various modules are covered with equipment, cables, handholds, white storage bags, cameras, laptops, experiment racks, bungee cords, and Velcro patches. There are also toy spacecraft and stuffed animals, signs (“Speed limit: 17,000 mph”), photographs of deceased colleagues and friends making a small memorial, mission patches and stickers, and other assorted items, like a geocaching tag. Some walls have graffiti, either crew/visitor signatures or other text, such as one commemorating the installation of the Japanese Kibo module. There’s even a work called “Space2,” by noted street artist Invader – a mosaic of tiles resembling an 8-bit red space invader from the 1970’s video game, with a blue quarter-circle at the upper left, probably representing Earth – placed on the hatch of the ESA Columbus module. In other words, life on ISS goes far beyond merely carrying out experiments and playing with floating food and drink. The cultural landscape of the International Space Station is every bit as rich as any terrestrial context an archaeologist might want to study. 

Luckily for us, NASA has been archiving thousands of photos taken by crew over the last 20 years. Even better, these images are all “born-digital,” meaning that they include metadata such as the date and time when each one was made. This means that we can easily track changes in the space station over time. Some of the photos are available publicly, on NASA websites and the agency’s Flickr accounts. We were able to download 7000 of these for use as a preliminary dataset (though the fact that these were pre-selected by NASA Public Affairs to release for the purposes of promoting the agency meant that they were not ideal for a full analysis).

For our pilot study, we focused on photos of the aft wall of the Russian Zvezda module, where crew live, eat, exercise, and work. This wall has became a major focus of attention, attracting flags, mission patches, toys, religious items (an Orthodox cross, several painted icons showing saints and the Mother of God, a New Testament, a painting of Russian Orthodoxy’s most important church), pictures of wooded landscapes, and photographs of Russian space heroes from the Soviet period: cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, spaceflight theorist Konstantin Tsiolokovskiy, and space agency director Sergei Korolev. We documented more than 75 different items placed on display between 2000 and 2014. Most interestingly, the items changed over time and were moved to different positions on the wall by different crews. Since 2017, no religious items have been visible on this wall, although publicly released images of other parts of Zvezda show that they have been on view elsewhere. Our research has shown that there may be a correlation between moments of nationalism in Russia, such as during that country’s invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, and especially high levels of display of religious items. In any event, the response of one of our research liaisons at NASA indicated the significance of our approach: “I’ve been looking at that wall for twenty years. I knew there were things up there. But I didn’t know what they were, or that they changed.” 

With our funding from the Australian Research Council running through 2021, we are preparing to study all of the photos NASA has archived, including ones not available to the public. We have hired Amir Kashefi, a database engineer, to help us build a container for the data that will be extracted from the photos: the people, items, and spaces present in each image. Testing has shown that manually entering such data could take hours per photo. We’re automating the process by collaborating with Erik Linstead, a computer scientist at Chapman University who is an expert in artificial intelligence for image recognition. He and his students are developing algorithms for recognizing crew members, the various items onboard ISS, and the identifiable features of each module. The algorithms will tag the images, and the tags will be placed in our database where we can analyze them. In a relatively short period of time, we will be able to answer important questions, such as how groupings of crew members change over time; how astronauts personalize public spaces; and how crew members use tools for new purposes, or change their behaviors to suit the available tools, in a micro-gravity environment for which humans are not evolutionarily adapted. We will be able to track whether certain spaces are gendered, and whether one national group or another occupies particular modules more than would be expected – as well as whether those phenomena persisted over time, or changed as the station and its crew expanded. 

Our use of photography to document the cultural landscape of the International Space Station also opens up new possibilities for other archaeological projects on Earth. Scholars can use this technique to examine any remote, dangerous, or otherwise challenging site of human occupation, such as an Antarctic research station. One especially promising site that would be impossible for archaeologists to study directly is the summit of Mt. Everest. But practically every person who has summitted Everest since Norgay and Hilary first did it in 1953 has taken a selfie there. Often the peak is visible (with the various items left behind by mountaineers, from equipment, to mementos, to flags, to trash) in the background. Archaeologists could collect these images and, since we also know when each person made them, we can put them in order to track changes to the summit over time. 

NASA and the other ISS partner space agencies wanted all the tens of thousands of photographs taken by ISS’s visitors and inhabitants for two reasons: to check on astronauts’ work on experiments, and to help them promote their activities in space to the tax-paying public. Our work shows they can have other, unexpected uses – and the collaboration of Roland Miller and Paolo Nespoli shows yet another way that photos of a space station can function: as art. To date, no professional artists have traveled to space, but the images in this volume show that the eye of the artist can reveal new insights into how humans adapt to life in microgravity. Miller and Nespoli’s work hopefully will lead space agencies to give greater priority to the perspectives offered by other disciplines such as the social sciences and the arts.


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