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.