A bell in space

Together with my co-PI, Dr. Alice Gorman, I’ve been developing a new project: the International Space Station Archaeological Project (or ISSAP). Alice and I have actually been thinking about space archaeology for a long time — she has been working on it since 2002, and I’ve been doing it since 2009. But (with one exception), nobody has ever carried out a meaningful investigation of a human habitation site in space until now. Our friend and mentor, Prof. Beth O’Leary started the Lunar Legacy Project, which catalogued the 106 objects left behind at Tranquility Base by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. (Beth and some other colleagues just published a book about the heritage of the Apollo program — check it out!) But our project is much different in scale and time, since over 250 people have visited ISS over almost 17 years of continuous habitation. And it means we have to develop a new method, since we don’t have $75 million to pay for a ride to the space station!

Our idea is to use the millions of images that astronauts and space agencies have taken in the last 17 years showing life on board. By cataloguing and classifying the people, spaces, and objects — and the relationships between them — we can map patterns of behavior over time. Since digital photos have metadata recording the time and date when they were made, we can observe specific moments in ISS’s life. This is not so different from a stratigraphic excavation of a site on Earth. We can also identify how aspects of Earth culture have made the transition to space. How does this work? Let’s look at an example.

A photo of ISS crew in Node 2/Harmony (note the bell at upper left).

A photo of ISS crew in Node 2/Harmony in 2009 (note the bell at upper left). Photo credit: NASA, remixed and used under CC 2.0 BY-NC.

In this photo, we see the American Node 2 module (also known as Harmony), with six astronauts. As archaeologists, we focus on material culture as a means of understanding the development and maintenance of a society — even a microsociety of six people. So we might notice the uniforms worn by the crewmembers, which indicate their affiliations and identities. One of the figures, in the back on the right, is notably different in his gray jumpsuit. This is Charles Simonyi, who was a “space tourist,” a temporary visitor, rather than an astronaut selected and trained by a space agency for a specific mission (he created the programs Word and Excel for Microsoft). You can also see the array of flags and patches above the astronauts’ heads. These are the flags of the US, Japan, Russia, Canada, and the 11 European nations which participate in the ISS project. The patches are related to the specific expedition, or habitation cycle, of the ISS at this time. Note that the flags of the nations of the astronauts who were on board ISS at the time are the ones given precedence.

And then there is one other piece of material culture evident in this photo: a bell. You can see it at the upper left of the image. When we first saw this, we thought maybe it was related to the wide array of musical instruments that have been carried to ISS. But it turns out that it represents the translation of an interesting aspect of naval culture to the paradigm of space…and its location in Node 2 is no accident.

On ships at sea, a bell is often rung to announce the boarding or departure of crew from a different boat. While the Space Shuttle was still in service, Node 2 was its docking point. So when a Shuttle would arrive or leave, the bell in Node 2 would be rung in salute. As NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus, who served on STS-112 in October 2002, described it,

…we have a very nice tradition on the station where they’ll ring us off with the bell and announce that Atlantis is departing, and we knew that was officially the end of our docked stay, and home we go.

But Node 2 wasn’t launched until 2007. So the bell wasn’t located here when Magnus visited. In 2002, it was probably in the US Laboratory module (aka Destiny), adjacent to the Pressurized Mating Adapter where the Shuttle docked. Later, as the station grew, the bell was moved so that it would still be close to the entrance to the station, and so the Earth-bound naval tradition could continue. The bell shows how astronaut crews conceptualize their presence on ISS as being “on a ship,” and they recognize this by acting as though they are on a ship at sea!

You can follow ISSAP on Twitter at @ISSarchaeology or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ISSarchaeology/.

Alice has written a post for Day of Archaeology here