Saturday, April 27, 2024

Cultural landscapes in outer space: geostationary orbit and the Moon

Cultural landscapes are a powerful way of conceptualising the interaction of human activities with the space environment. From the surface of Earth to the far reaches of the solar system, there are many levels of designed, organic, and associative landscapes, from rocket launch sites to the Voyager spacecraft in interstellar space. You could say that the entire solar system is now a cultural landscape. I want to focus briefly on two particular landscapes, geostationary orbit and the surface of the Moon.

Voyager 1. Image courtesy of NASA.

Geostationary orbit is located about 35, 000 km above the surface of Earth and until recently, when Elon Musk started launching the Starlink megaconstellation into Low Earth Orbit, this is where most of our telecommunications satellites were located. There are currently about 580 spacecraft situated here. 

When you look at photos of space junk around Earth, the GEO orbit looks like a faint ring, recalling the ring systems of the outer planets. The ring is maintained by station-keeping manoeuvres; hence it is a product of engineering decisions and could be called a designed landscape. A cultural landscape approach sees cultural value in the structure of the ring, rather than dismissing the satellites as an aggregate of unconnected spacecraft. 

Representation of space debris, showing the GEO ring. Image courtesy of NASA

Since the USSR probe Luna 2 crashed on the Moon in 1959, there are now over 100 locations with human material culture, ranging from robotic probes, crashed orbiters, and rovers, to crewed landing sites. A key feature of the selenoscape is the interplay between light, dust and shadows. The shadows of the human-made artefacts, with their sharp angles and textural range, are very different to those cast by craters and rocks. The banded bootprints left by the 12 Apollo moonwalkers are another novel texture on the lunar surface. Space archaeologists have compared the Apollo 11 bootprints to the Laetoli footprints, made by bipedal hominin ancestors 3.6 million years ago in volcanic ash. As cultural landscapes, the Apollo sites show how low-gravity and barely any atmosphere shaped the human activities which took place there, and the lasting impression in the shadowscape created by the artefacts they left behind. 

Neil Armstrong's bootprints, 1969. Image courtesy of NASA

Critically, a cultural landscape lens encourages a view of space as dynamic rather than an empty desolation that you can just remove junk from to return it to a former state. To finish, I want to argue that space is not a special case. Rather, we should look at terrestrial cultural landscapes in a solar system context, to see them as part of a multitude of possible planetary and interplanetary environments, most of which have not yet come into being.

Note: this is from my webinar presentation at the International Council on Monuments and Sites International Scientific Committee on Cultural Landscapes, on 17 April. 

See also The Routledge Handbook of Cultural Landscape Practice, 2023

Monday, April 08, 2024

A significance assessment of the Apollo 11 bootprints

This case study shows how the Burra Charter (2013) significance criteria can be applied to a heritage feature on the Moon, the astronaut bootprints which are part of the Apollo 11 site. The bootprints are one of the most well-known human traces and have been the focus of recent campaigns for greater recognition of lunar heritage. 

Historic significance: high.

The bootprints are associated with a unique event, the first human expedition to another world; with the astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who are rightly celebrated for this achievement; and with the historical processes of the Cold War ‘space race’ and early years of space exploration. The prints are the first human trace fossils outside Earth. 

Scientific significance: high 

The astronaut boot soles were an experiment in themselves: the bands were designed to convey information about regolith depth and reflectance. This is partially why so many photographs of the bootprints were taken. Further research could use them to assess and better understand surface processes and regolith behaviour. Their placement shows where the astronauts walked over their two and half hours on the surface, and hence define the limits of the site. Images show that the prints are layered or superimposed, which enables a time sequence of activities to be derived. Their depth and angle indicate something about the gait adopted by the crew to maintain an upright posture in hypogravity, as well as the depth of lunar dust over the local area. 

A major research potential of the prints is a comparison of the six landing sites, over which the duration of surface became progressively longer, and the succeeding crews had the benefit of learning from the preceding ones (Gorman 2016). As a recent geological disturbance to the regolith, the sharp ridges of the prints create a baseline to assess natural erosion processes on the Moon such as micrometeorite impacts and dust levitation. The mechanics of the bootprints could also be usefully be compared to robotic and rover traces (Gorman 2016). 

Image courtesy of NASA
Aesthetic significance: high 

The geometric, banded appearance of the trace fossils is demonstrably unlike any other geological features on the lunar surface. The prints are 35.5 cm x 16 cm in size. The rectilinearity and regularity of the imprints are a stark contrast to the predominant circular patterns created by bombardment craters and the irregular shadows and textures of rocks. The contrast between light and dark in the ridges is a distinct and unique pattern in the lunar environment.   

Social significance: high 

The first footprint of Neil Armstrong has become a 20th century icon, reproduced in countless formats and instantly recognisable. Although the Apollo missions were political in nature and opposed by various sectors of society, the overriding social meaning of the bootprint is human ingenuity and courage. Its creation was watched by millions of people across the world and hence has a resonance far outside the space community. The bootprints are associated with Armstrong’s famous first lines about ‘one small step’, a phrase which has become incorporated in popular culture, advertising and literature. 

Spiritual significance: low 

While an argument for spiritual value is not as obvious as social value, the reverence in which the bootprints are held is equivalent to a secular belief relating to humanity’s place in the universe. The bootprints have contributed to the conviction, strongly held by some groups, that the Apollo landings were a hoax (Link 2021). They have also been used by scholars of religion to explore concepts of faith and divinity (eg Gordon 2019, Stavrakopoulou 2022).

This is an excerpt from a document prepared for the Global Expert Group on Sustainable Lunar Activity (GEGSLA). The full document can be downloaded here


Gordon, Chris 2019 Footprints on the moon: a story of faith and Faith. 19 July, Catholic Voice

Gorman, A.C. 2016 Culture on the Moon: bodies in time and space. Archaeologies 12(1): 110-128.

Link, Devon 2021 Fact check: Moon landing conspiracy theory misrepresents lunar footprint. September 17, USA Today.

Stavrakopoulu, Francesca 2022  On the Spiritual and Historical Significance of “Divine Footprints”, LitHub

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

How we manage the values of off-Earth environments

Before I was an academic, I was a professional heritage consultant working with Aboriginal communities in Australia. I worked on all stages of mining projects from exploratory drilling, through pre-feasibility to operation and rehabilitation, for a range of minerals including coal, copper, gold, uranium, iron, and heavy mineral sands. This was usually as part of an environmental impact process, where I would be in the field at the same time as the flora, fauna, dust, noise etc teams, and looking at ways to mitigate the harm from these kinds of impacts on Aboriginal heritage. 

As imperfect as this process is, it doesn’t yet exist in space. One reasons for this is because there’s a problem with how environments are conceptualised. It’s really common for people to assume that because there are no living ecologies in orbit, on the Moon, and on asteroids, that there are no environments either. The COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy privileges potential life; it's not actually about abiotic planetary environments. 

So we assume there are no environmental values worth managing on lifeless rocks, and yet these are the places that are going to tell us things like where Earth’s water came from, and how the solar system evolved. Each celestial body also has its own unique history and qualities. How we assess and manage these is an area that is in its infancy. 

Thinking of space as the province of all humanity, as the Outer Space Treaty says, is an imperative to share the benefits of space. But it also frames space as something we can use and own. And why should something be assessed only for its benefits for us? This is such a narrow way to look at the richness of off-Earth environments, and one I’m deeply uncomfortable with.

This post is taken from my notes for a Doha Debate podcast recorded in March 2024. 

Friday, February 23, 2024

The Odysseus lunar lander carried an artwork to the Moon. What does this mean?

Josephine Baker being fabulous, 1927.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Nova-C lander, which touched down on the Moon on the 23rd of February 2024, is  carrying a very interesting object – 125 silver mini-moons a couple of centimetres in diameter, stacked in a transparent box and bolted to the side of the spacecraft. Each mini-moon represents a famous person who made a difference in the world. They include the people you’d expect, like Mother Theresa, but some unconventional choices too, like Josephine Baker, the French-American dancer of the Jazz Age who was also a civil rights activist, and the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova who gave her name to the famous Aussie dessert. 

Artist Andy Warhol is also in there, and it’s the second time he’s been to the Moon. In 1969, the Apollo 12 mission carried a tiny ceramic plaque called Moon Museum with the works of six artists inscribed on it. Warhol contributed a crude drawing. 

This artwork was conceived by the US artist Jeff Koons. It has three components: the miniature moons going to the real Moon, much larger versions which remain on Earth, and digital moons in the form of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). Like the mission itself, the artwork is a partnership between the artist and various other organisations. 

Jeff Koons' Moon Phases installed on the Odysseus lander.
Source: Jeff Koons/Instagram

I find it intriguing, but it also raises some concerns. Recently the Peregrine Mission One lander was launched towards the Moon. It had numerous private payloads, including a lot of digital art and 13 time capsules. Sadly the spacecraft didn’t make it, and burned up on re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. 

As more private missions go to the Moon, we’re likely to see more inclusions of symbolic and digital objects. But there’s no oversight of what they are, or obligation for private companies to inform the public. 

For now it’s all been positive objects aimed at commemoration or inspiration. But what if, for example, conspiracy theorists or extremists bought payload space on a private mission and send things most people would find offensive or disturbing to the Moon? There’s nothing to stop that. 

According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the Moon and all outer space is meant to be the common province of humanity: it belongs to all of us, including those we don’t like. But I’d hate to see the Moon become a dumping ground of symbols, or continue its Cold War role in a battle of ideologies. The Outer Space Treaty proclaims that space is to be used for peaceful purposes only. Peace isn’t just about the absence of weapons, and not all weapons are material.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Japanese lunar heritage and the Global Expert Group on Sustainable Lunar Activity.

Whenever I talk to people about future plans for the Moon, it’s clear that the impacts of mining and other activities on the lunar environment are a major concern. 

An aim of the Global Expert Group on Sustainable Lunar Activity (GEGSLA) is to investigate good environmental management practices on the Moon, drawing on lessons learnt on Earth, but also taking into account the distinct conditions of the Moon in terms of its natural environment, and the legal and policy framework. Part of this is cultural and natural heritage. 

Cultural heritage can be defined as places and objects from the past that communities in the present feel should be passed onto future generations. The study of lunar heritage was pioneered by Professor Beth Laura O’Leary from New Mexico State University more than 20 years ago. The GEGSLA is drawing on the research carried out by a small group of space archaeologists, myself included, over that time. This research includes the nature of heritage values on the Moon, how we would assess them, and what we can do to ensure that they survive. 

There are currently 110 locations with human material from lunar missions since 1959. The majority of them are from the US and Russia, but other nations include India, China, Japan and Israel. These places represent over 60 years of human engagement with the Moon. None of the sites have any protection currently, although there are some objects registered under US state heritage legislation. Managing their heritage values is an important part of sustainable use of the Moon. 

Apollo 11 is the most famous lunar heritage site, but as a lesser-known example I want to talk about Japanese cultural heritage on the Moon. There are three known locations and two unknown ones. 

The HITEN satellite was launched in 1990. It released the Hagoromo orbiter once it arrived at the Moon. HITEN then looped around the Moon and into the Kordylewski dust clouds at the Lagrange points L4 and L5, before being intentionally crashed in the lunar surface in 1993. Hagoromo fell out of lunar orbit eventually, but its final resting place is unknown. 

The HITEN spacecraft with the Hagoromo orbiter attached at the top. Image: NASA

A more substantial mission was Selene, launched from Tanegashima in 2007. This was composed of three orbiters: the main one nicknamed Kayuga after a lunar princess from folklore, and two smaller satellites called Okina and Ouna. Okina was a relay satellite, and both Okina and Ouna were used as a Very Long Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) to measure lunar gravity. Kayuga was intentionally crashed into the Moon’s surface in 2009. Okina fell out of orbit and crashed also in 2009; but there is no accessible information on the fate of Ouna, so this is another unknown location. 

Kaguya the Moon Princes. Watercolour by Charu.

The archaeological sites are composed of the spacecraft – presumably crushed and damaged from impact, and the impact craters. A scientific question we can ask of locations like this is how the impact craters formed by human artefact crashes differ from those caused by natural meteorites. These places have cultural significance for Japan, but also, given that lunar material is dominated by the US and Russia, they are uncommon examples of another nation’s lunar endeavours and represent the development of Japanese space technology. 

GEGSLA is establishing principles and procedures to manage the heritage values of these places. This involves defining the values and working out management options that can be integrated in a practical way with the needs of surface operators. These build on the existing NASA heritage guidelines from 2011, which set up buffer zones to protect sites from damaging dust abrasion. There’ll also be procedures for sampling the sites for scientific study, so that we can better understand the impacts of the lunar environment on human materials. You can read the Recommended Framework and Key Elements for Peaceful and Sustainable Lunar Activities here, and the Sustainable Management of Lunar Natural and Cultural Heritage here

These principles can be extended to heritage sites wherever humans have left behind material culture across the solar system. This is important because it ensures the sites are retained for future scientific study, and maintains the attachments that different communities feel towards these places, so that the Moon really is for all humanity, not just those that can afford to go there.

This post is adapted from a talk given at an Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum side event organised by the GEGSLA in 2021.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Why do we need an archaeology of space?

Why do we need an archaeology of space? Haven’t we got an abundant documentary record to tell us all about spacecraft and their stories? Not, as it turns out. The documentary record is far from perfect, and even if it were, it doesn’t necessarily contain the answers to the questions we want to ask. Within a system of production, there are ideas and assumptions that are unquestioned and invisible: no-one writes about them, or records them, because they are the fabric of their worldview. It’s only later that we may look back and wonder why something was like that. So there may be no words or images that document a decision; there may only be the thing itself. And this is what makes it archaeology. 

For most people, archaeology is the study of what is old – from the emergence of humans a few million years ago, to perhaps a couple of thousand or a few hundred years ago. When I tell people I’m an archaeologist, the most common reactions are to express admiration for the great cultures of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, followed by confusion when I say that’s not what I do. (Whatever you do, don’t mention dinosaurs to an archaeologist! For the record, that’s palaeontology). 

It can be even more perplexing to say that you work in Australia. Surely, many people (mainly Australians it has to be said) respond, there’s no archaeology in Australia? This is generally the cue to say ‘but there is at least 65, 000 years of Aboriginal occupation…not to mention over 240 years of European occupation’. Usually that’s enough for a long conversation about archaeology, so often I don’t go on to mention that my field of research is space. It just seems too confusing when you’ve already bombarded an unsuspecting stranger with information.

(Once my esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis was asked what she did by a man in a nightclub. ‘I’m a nuclear physicist’ she replied. ‘Why on Earth did you say that?’ I asked her. ‘Isn’t it enough to be an archaeologist?’. ‘It just seemed more interesting’, she said). 

If we get to the point where I reveal I’m a space archaeologist, it’s often assumed that means stuff that has returned to Earth, such as old satellites or even meteorites. I’ll point to the sky and say ‘No, I mean the stuff that’s still up there’. ‘But how can you do that, when you can’t even go there?’. The quintessential archaeological activity is excavation, and that’s not even remotely possible. So how can it be archaeology? 

It seems a contradiction in terms to say that there can be an archaeology of space exploration. After all, this is recent human history, which living people have experienced and can remember. It’s more than that, too. Even though we’ve been living in the space age for over 60 years, space still has the ring of the future. The Jetsons lifestyle is always just about to happen, always waiting for that one technological breakthrough that will bring us personal jetpacks and holidays on Mars. 

But archaeology can be of the living, not just of the dead, and this means it's inextricably linked with the future. What future society can be is based on what we think it has the potential to be, and this is based on what we understand human nature to be, as demonstrated by the past. If the past is monolithic and one-dimensional, we don’t look to other futures, other possibilities. Space archaeology, I like to think, offers windows into the possibilities of the future by telling diverse stories of objects that fall outside the authorised narratives. 

It’s not just the age that makes something archaeology. Archaeology is a set of methods and theories about human interactions with the material world, whether that is the environment around us, or the multitude of objects we use to conduct our daily lives. Of course no archaeologist is going to complain about excavating a burial rich with grave goods, or a frescoed palace. But our real passion is the everyday stuff, the stone tools used to cut up a kangaroo, the earthenware pottery used to store apple cider. Counting, cataloguing, describing, and statistical analysis of artefacts allows archaeologists to discern patterns that reveal something about human actions, decisions, and sometimes even emotions. 

As historical archaeologist Dr Heather Burke says, archaeologists are really just nosy. The treasures we seek are not the golden masks of Agamemnon, but insights into what it means to be human. Beneath the surface, beneath even our consciousness, are the structures that shape what we do and the mark we leave upon the world. For every culture these are different. Usually archaeologists study cultures that are distant in time, and often distant geographically too, in ‘exotic’ field locations compared to the safe, comfortable industrial ‘west’. We are fascinated by the ‘other’. The novelist LP Hartley famously said ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. 

What makes the archaeology of the contemporary past different is that it’s an archaeology of us, right here, right now. It’s not the forgotten rubbish heap of an Ice Age forager with mammoth bones and stone tools, it’s the landfill created by a culture of mass consumption and mass disposal, in which we participate. And we don’t have to rely on just the material evidence. We can ask people what they did, what they thought they were doing. These voices and memories are a parallel strand of evidence to the documentary and archaeological records. People aren’t always right about this, of course, and memory is very fallible. This is one of the areas which archaeology is different to history.  

Monday, April 17, 2023

Space quotes by women

Recently I wanted to find a good quote about space ethics. There I hit my first problem, as there wasn't much available, short of going back to primary sources and reading through huge swathes of stuff. In this process I decided that I would also like to use a quote .... by a woman. You won't be surprised to learn that most of the space quotes out there have fallen from the cherry lips of the blokes.  I thought, wouldn't it be handy to have what the women said all compiled together in one place?

So I did what any academic worth their salt does: I turned to my online friends and asked them for recommendations. This is the list that ensued. It's just a starting point, but it demonstrates a point. Thanks to everyone who contributed!

1. Dr Peggy Whitson, astronaut and former Commander of the International Space Station, Chief of the Astronaut Office, and Chairperson of the Astronaut Selection Board

I’ve been asked many times what’s the hardest thing about space flight and I say it’s learning the language. When I became Deputy Chief at the Astronaut Office it became very obvious to me that as we were moving into long duration missions, we needed to develop our communication skills and our what we call ‘soft skills’...we were finding we were having more problems in that area than we were in technical competence.
Cambridge University Press, "World of better learning" blog, interview with Lauren Pitts, published 20 April 2020. Contributed by Margaret Ruwoldt @emelaarghh

2. Sally Ride, the first US woman in space, in 2003 
Studying whether there's life on Mars or studying how the universe began, there's something magical about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge.
Contributed by @MBBrownSF3

The thing that I'll remember most about the flight is that it was fun. In fact, I'm sure it was the most fun I'll ever have in my life.
Contributed by Susan McMichael @SukiWinter

The stars don't look bigger, but they look brighter
Contributed by Megann Wilson @MoveBravely

3.  Mae Jemison, first Black woman in space
Never be limited by other people’s imagination. Never limit other’s because of your own limited imagination!
Contributed by Cameron Mackness @OzTravler

Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing. Sometimes they have more imagination than men.
Contributed by Megann Wilson @MoveBravely

4. Dr Anne Condon, medical education adademic

Should be more of it.

Contributed by Dr Anne Condon @skepticalmutant. I'm not sure if she means space, or space quotes by women, but I'm taking it!

5. Dr Meganne Christian, Australia's first female astronaut
And I just realised that what I love to do is to challenge myself. I didn’t actually find limits. I think they don’t necessarily exist as a solid thing.
Contributed by Anne Kreger @AnneKreger

6. Becky Chambers, science fiction author
What we want you to ask yourselves is this: what is space, to you? Is it a playground? A quarry? A flagpole? A classroom? A temple? Who do you believe should go, and for what purpose? Or should we go at all?
Abridged quote, contributed by Dr Emma Rehn @bluerehn

7. Dr Vera Rubin, the astronomer who discovered dark matter

Contributed by Doug Ingram @dougyyi

8. Ellen Ripley, alien fighter
Contributed by @TheoKyrillidis

9. Roberta Bondar, Canada's first female astronaut
To fly in space is to see the reality of earth, alone. The experience changed my life and my attitude toward life itself. I am one of the lucky ones.
Contributed by Megann Wilson @MoveBravely

10. Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space

Valentina Tereshkova told me that when she orbited over Australia she thought it “looked a nice place for a holiday”.

Contributed by Margaret Twomey @AusAmbRome

11. Christa McAuliffe, teacher and civilian astronaut
Space is for everybody. It’s not just for a few people in science or math, or for a select group of astronauts. That’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space.
Contributed by Kat Troche @kuiperkat

12. Samantha Cristoforetti, International Space Station astronaut

It’s probably not quite what you are after but @AstroSamantha's 'There’s coffee in that nebula' quote is an inspirational woman quoting an inspirational woman about a) space and b) coffee (an inspiration drink)* *well, a fundamental and inspirational drink.

Contributed by @StefantheNurse