What Could Space Archaeologists Tell Us about Astronaut Culture?

“Space archaeologist” would be a fine job description for a fictional character on an interplanetary mission to unearth the ruins of an alien civilization. But a handful of real-life archaeologists are already making a bid to study culture in space — of the human, not alien, variety.

A new effort, called ISS Archaeology, seeks to understand the “microsociety” aboard the International Space Station. 

The plan is to treat the space lab like archaeologists would treat an ancient site. By looking at the artifacts of astronauts — from their dining utensils and sleeping bags to their religious icons and family photos — these researchers hope to gain new insights into how astronauts of different backgrounds interact with each other, and how they adapt to life in microgravity. [The Human Body in Space: 6 Weird Facts]

The idea for the project was conceived in the fall of 2015, when NASA put out a call for applications for its astronaut program. The space agency no longer recruits only seasoned fighter pilots, but also doctors, geologists, physicists, computer scientists and electrical engineers. Archaeologist Justin Walsh noticed, however, that social scientists were excluded from this mix — with anthropology, archaeology and geography in particular singled out as disqualifying degrees. 

“I thought that was too bad,” Walsh, a professor at Chapman University in California, told Space.com. “If they’re thinking about sending people to Mars, sending people to deep space, or sending people to [the] moon for long periods of time, it would really behoove them to understand how astronaut societies are maintained, how astronauts create a kind of culture.”

In the most traditional sense, archaeologists’ work might go like this: They’ll go to an ancient site, dig a few trenches and systematically record all the artifacts and architectural features they found buried underground. They’ll then use those subtle…

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