More than Footprints: Space Archaeology and Heritage

[Image Apollo 11 Site]
[Imagen Chang’e 4]

Beth Laura O’Leary, New Mexico State University

Beth Laura O’Leary is a retired professor of Anthropology from New Mexico State University

As the U.S. commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, space archaeologists understand the advent of the first human lunar landing crossing into an historical era.  As with other milestones, fiftieth birthdays, wedding anniversaries or being eligible to the National Register of Historic Places, the event allows for retrospection.  Archaeological and historical value is manifest in material culture that is deemed significant, collected and analyzed.  Roughly the span of two generations should indicate temporal importance. But time really doesn’t matter. Archaeology is the study of the patterns of relationships between material culture (e.g. artifacts, features and sites) and patterns of human behavior.  There are no real temporal limits. Archaeological study can happen on material culture used or created even ten minutes ago.  Contemporary material culture is not off limits.  Archaeology has been done on all continents and in underwater environments. There are no spatial limits.  It can be done off the Earth, in orbit, in outer space and on other celestial bodies where humanity has been. It can be done anywhere human behavior takes place.  Technically, archaeological investigation need not be only of the result of human behavior, although so far, with the exception of our earlier hominid ancestors, there is no material culture we can study that does not originate with humans. 

The material culture of space is part of a larger assemblage, some of which until a certain point in time and technological development was confined to Earth, but entered the archaeological record somewhere else.  It posits a cultural landscape, or what has been called a “spacescape,” as vast interconnecting network of artifacts and sites in the aerospace and aeronautical realms that relate to the support of exo-atmospheric behavior.  Earth is the anchor to which all space materials are tied.   

Some cultural materials are moving farther away as I write this.  Voyager 1 is now in interstellar space, over 20,000,000,000 kilometers from Earth and is currently the human object farthest away from our planet.   The satellite Vanguard, launched in 1958, remains the oldest human object currently in space and is predicted by NASA to stay aloft another 600 years. Material culture in space includes all the facilities, extant or abandoned and in ruins, that were important to getting humanity’s culture into space. 

Space was seen in the 1950s through the 1970s and perhaps even today as a vacuum, a wild place to be conquered without meeting, so far, any indigenous inhabitants.  The evolution of space archaeology is rooted in its Cold War context.  The rockets invented in World War II became the basis for missile technology and a decade later their descendants launched the first satellites and then propelled the first humans to the Moon.  This early technology provided the basis for all satellites now in use and for all the robotic and finally manned missions. Much of the current communication systems on Earth began with the launch of the earliest satellites and continues our engagement with space. In 1961 the primary goal became focused on the nearest celestial body – the Moon.

The earliest sites on the Moon are robotic crash landings, beginning with the USSR Luna 2 in 1959. It is the first human object to make contact with another celestial body.  It left two sphere shaped pennants which were detonated, sending little pentagon shields from the sphere engraved with the Cyrillic letters for the USSR. This period can be said to have ended with the last manned Apollo (17) mission in 1972.  With the exception of the Apollo missions which carried humans, all the archaeological sites were robotic spacecraft.  Some landed on the moon and/or returned to Earth or were intentionally crashed.

Since 1972 there have been more than the Cold War competitors involved in leaving material culture on the lunar surface.  Besides the US and Russia, other nations and commercial companies have space programs including the European Space Agency, Japan, India, China and Israel.  There are currently over 100 sites of human culture today on the moon.  This includes China’s 2019 successful robotic landing of Chang ‘ge 4 and the first private lander on the Moon, Israel’s Beresheet mission.  As well as scientific experiments, all missions have carried cultural and symbolic artifacts.  The Beresheet lander, which crashed in 2019, instead of making a soft landing, was carrying a digital record of copies of the Bible, drawings made by Israeli school children, 30 million pages of records representing humanity’s knowledge and a vial of tardigrades.  Tardigrades are microorganisms that are known to survive severe environmental conditions in a dehydrated state, but can come to life in the presence of water.  It is unclear if the Beresheet tardigrades as biological cargo should have been allowed to potentially contaminate another celestial body. It is also unknown if they survived the crash.  The majority of cultural material is around the lunar equator but the south pole of the Moon, especially recently, has seen more impact craters and discarded material there.

What are the advantages of treating the artifacts and sites on the Moon archaeologically? They can inform us about human behavior, politics and the development of science and technology within the last sixty years.  Archaeological investigations can challenge the documentary record and also look at the life history, creation, abandonment and decay of artifacts and features in a lunar environment. The distribution of space material culture can be mapped, both physically and through time, to create an understanding of the human engagement with the Moon and space.  By investigating changes in the technologies over time and making comparisons of the technologies of different players (i.e. various nations and commercial interests), archaeologists can provide a unique way of looking at the evolution of space exploration in the late industrial period. 

The distinctiveness of all the Apollo sites on the Moon has led several archaeologists to consider them as a culture or sub-culture that reflects the relationship of Earth to space.  The materials left on the Moon can be viewed as socially constituted and be said to create culture rather than just reflect it.  The lunar laser ranging retroreflectors from Apollo 11, 14, and 15 and the USSR’s Luna 17 missions are still in use today by observatories around the world. On the Moon the requirements for both machines and people are different than they are on Earth.  Environmental factors in space such as extremes of temperature, exposure to plasmas and radiation etc. have driven the creation of new science and engineering. Space exploration is still a living system and NASA, other nations and commercial interests want to continue space activities, but the archaeological sites on the Moon especially mark humanity’s earliest presence on another celestial body.    

While not many people would debate the significance of lunar sites and artifacts, how to best evaluate and protect them is under debate.  The legal challenges center around who owns the Moon and is responsible for its preservation. These are not the kinds of places and artifacts which were envisioned when national and international preservation laws and treaties were written.  The artifacts on the Moon are on another world, at a different scale than archaeologists are used to dealing with, and they are not within the national boundaries of anyone’s territory.  It also must be remembered that Moon is all of humanity’s heritage not just that of those nations which put sites there.  The Moon is a presence in the night sky known to all cultures since prehistoric times. It and other celestial bodies have been named, used to navigate, track the seasons and provide stories about human existence.  Each human population has a relationship to the Moon through its culture, language, stories, art, architecture, calendars and subsistence practices. Each culture can rightfully claim the Moon as part of its cultural heritage. Lunar preservation must be culturally inclusive and international in scope, recognizing its symbolic importance to all of humanity as well as its material culture. The regulation of remote, uncharted, contested territory has always been challenging.  We have done extraordinary excursions a long way from Earth.  As we struggle to protect the past on Earth, we must find ways to protect the places we have been for the first time in our history.  We have unconscionably lost and continue to lose many extraordinary sites on our planet.  We have an obligation not to lose Earth’s heritage on the Moon.