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Space Archaeology

The Oxford Companion To Archaeology
Alice GormanAlice Gorman

Space Archaeology 

Space archaeology is the study of the material culture associated with the development of space exploration from the twentieth century onward. This includes partial and complete spacecraft located throughout the solar system, planetary landing sites of robotic and crewed missions, and terrestrial infrastructure related to the development, manufacturing, operation, and use of space industry.

The technology of rocketry was first developed by the Chinese for use in warfare in the tenth century, but it was not until the late nineteenth century that speculation about the use of rockets for space travel began to bear fruit. In the early twentieth century, amateur rocket societies and visionary individuals, including Hermann Oberth, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Esnault-Pelterie, and Robert Goddard, were influential in fostering research and development. The amateur movement later produced Wernher von Braun, who was the principal scientist responsible for Germany’s V2 rocket program in World War II (1939–1945): this became the progenitor of most modern space programs.

While initially pursued in the context of Cold War (1945–1991) armament, the possibility of using rockets to reach space was always in the background. In 1945 Arthur C. Clarke proposed that three satellites in geostationary orbit, approximately 21,750 miles (35,000 km) above the earth, could provide global television and radio coverage. With the launch of the first satellite, the USSR’s Sputnik 1 in 1957, global telecommunications were within reach. Since that period, the capabilities of space have been extended to include the use of satellites for earth observation, meteorology, surveillance, navigation, and scientific research. With more than seven thousand spacecraft now launched, there is a growing population of space hardware in the solar system, with most of it located in earth orbit. In the twenty-first century, private and commercial space enterprises are in the ascendancy, and space tourism is poised to become a major industry.

The significance of space material culture has long been recognized in numerous space museums, and the public’s fascination with space exploration is demonstrated by the popularity of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., at one point the most visited museum in the world. Despite this, it is only in recent decades that space exploration has become the subject of archaeological research.

History of Space Archaeology.

In 1972, the year that the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Apollo human spaceflight program was canceled, historical archaeologist James Deetz postulated that one day researchers would look at spaceships as part of the archaeological record. In the late 1990s, space archaeology began to emerge as a serious field when William Rathje (1999) extended his investigation of the role of garbage in contemporary human society to include orbital debris. Around the same time, NASA funded the Lunar Legacy Project, in which Beth Laura O’Leary (2009) and her team created an archaeological inventory of the Tranquility Base lunar landing site where humans first set foot on another celestial body in 1969.

Over the next decade, the basis of space archaeology was established. The problem of protecting planetary landing sites from future impacts was discussed by Greg Fewer (2002) in a volume devoted to the intersection of science fiction and archaeology. Alice Gorman (2005a, b, 2009) proposed adopting a cultural landscape approach to space, applied the Burra Charter heritage management guidelines to spacecraft in order to understand their cultural significance, and explored the impacts of the space industry on indigenous peoples in Australia, Algeria, and the United States. With India and China sending missions to the moon in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the issue of protecting Tranquility Base became more urgent, and O’Leary and others spearheaded a successful campaign in 2010 to have artifacts at the site registered at state level in the United States preparatory to a nomination for the World Heritage List. Both the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) have recognized that space heritage is a distinct area requiring consideration through specialist committees and task forces.

The Archaeological Record of Space Exploration.

The archaeological record of space exploration extends from the surface of the earth to the edge of the solar system. Space missions are supported by ground segments, which include launch, tracking, and command facilities. The technology of spacecraft is inseparable from the infrastructure required to send and receive signals, so neither can be studied in isolation. Many early terrestrial sites are now abandoned, such as the Colomb-Béchar launch site in Algeria and the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station in Australia, overtaken by changing technology and politics. Early Cold War launch sites are also frequently associated with nuclear testing, as this type of site requires similar infrastructure and environmental conditions. The Cold War (1945–1991) can be regarded as the first stage of the Space Age, encompassing the “Space Race” and the “conquest” of space as matters of national prestige.

While launch sites tend to be distributed among the current space-faring nations (United States, Russia, Europe, India, China, Brazil) and their colonies, most countries have some level of space infrastructure, and all are now users of space-based services. For example, seven countries host antennae in the European Space Agency’s tracking network. Most nations maintain satellite downlink facilities, even if only at the level of domestic satellite dishes and telephones (Gorman, 2009). The cultural footprint of satellite data can also be considered as the domain of space archaeology. This is particularly so in the period from 1991 until the present, the second stage of the Space Age, in which space activities are driven by the telecommunications requirements of globalized economies.

In earth orbit, there are over thirteen thousand spacecraft and pieces of debris, from low earth orbit extending to the “graveyard” orbit above 21,750 miles (35,000 km). This debris includes the Vanguard 1 satellite, launched in 1958 and now the oldest human object in space. Gorman (2005a, b) has argued that orbital debris forms an organically evolved cultural landscape with value in its own right. In doing this, she has proposed a new frame of reference for archaeology, one structured by gravity rather than a division into terrestrial and celestial spheres. In the rest of the solar system, human material is present on the moon, Mars, Venus, Titan (a moon of Saturn), two asteroids, and a comet and in orbit around most celestial bodies (Capelotti, 2010). Of particular significance are the lunar and Martian sites where crewed or robotic missions have landed. Tranquility Base, with its iconic astronaut bootprints, can be compared to the 3.6-million-year-old footprints of Australopithecus afarensis in volcanic ash at Laetoli in Tanzania: both can be argued to represent evidence of major human evolutionary turning points. At the outer limits of the solar system, the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft are our avatars to the cosmos.

Theory, Methods, and Applications.

Space archaeology employs the same methods as historical and industrial archaeology in using survey, excavation, artifact analysis, oral history, documentary research, aerial imagery, and geographic information systems (GIS) to characterize and analyze material remains and landscapes. However, specialist knowledge in areas such as electronics, propulsion systems, telecommunications, aerospace engineering, materials science, and planetary science is also required in order to recognize and record features of significance. A limitation is that sites and objects in orbit and on celestial bodies can usually only be accessed by remote sensing, and there is much that is unknown about what actually survives in these locations. While several space agencies and organizations track debris in earth orbit within the limits of their observation and modeling capacities, and reconnaissance missions have located and filmed previous landing sites on the moon and Mars, less frequented parts of the solar system can only be speculated about.

A significant application of space archaeology is in heritage and environmental management. While remoteness has in the past protected many space sites from human impacts, this is rapidly changing. For example, the quantities of orbital debris have now reached a critical point where collisions threaten functioning satellites, and plans are being devised to remove or destroy large portions of it; renewed interest in lunar and Martian exploration raises the question of how sites such as Tranquility Base can be best managed. Creating an inventory of space sites, landscapes, and objects and assessing their cultural significance prior to effects arising from orbital debris clean-up, future missions, and space tourism is a priority for space archaeologists.

Since its inception, space exploration has tended to be the province of industrial elites and has been dominated by the United States and the former Soviet Union. However, given the agenda of historical archaeology to uncover the lives of those often overlooked in official histories, such as women, working classes, ethnic minorities, and indigenous peoples, an archaeological approach to space exploration has the potential to tell very different stories than those captured in the popular account of the “Space Race.” For example, indigenous peoples were frequently contributors to the success of space exploration through the forced surrender of their lands for launch sites—a form of late industrial colonialism. Rocket launch sites can be conceived as places where ongoing cross-cultural engagements and tight security requirements structured new types of cultural landscapes.

In turning a lens on the contemporary or recent past, space archaeology can illuminate aspects of twentieth- and twenty-first-century human existence. Despite a general lack of public awareness of their dependency on satellite-based services such as positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) and Global Navigation Satellite Services (GNSS), the capacity for global telecommunications and earth observation have transformed personal experiences of space and time, cultural transmission and hybridization, and national and transnational economies. While it is common for historians, economists, and other scholars of the contemporary world to analyze the movement of information and capital and their cultural consequences, few acknowledge the role that the material culture of space plays in enabling these late industrial transformations. In this regard space archaeology intersects with science and technology studies (STS) and social construction of technology (SCOT) studies, bringing to the investigation of space exploration the traditional archaeological focus on material culture, deep time perspectives, and an understanding of the resilience and flexibility of cultural responses to change.

With the world divided into space-faring and non–space-faring states, the United Nations has called for the inclusion of those usually excluded from space: women, indigenous peoples, and “developing” nations. Space archaeology can contribute to redressing the imbalance between the haves and have-nots of space by bringing to light alternative narratives accessible only through an analysis of what is left behind and discarded and the material effects of new technologies both in space and on earth.


Capelotti, P. J. The Human Archaeology of Space: Lunar, Planetary and Interstellar Relics of Exploration, 2010. Darrin, Ann Garrison, and Beth Laura O’Leary, eds. Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology and Heritage, 2009. Fewer, Greg. “Toward an LSMR and MSMR (Lunar and Martian Sites & Monuments Records): Recording Planetary Spacecraft Landing Sites as Archaeological Monuments of the Future.” In Digging Holes in Popular Culture. Archaeology and Science Fiction, edited by Miles Russell, pp. 112–120, 2002. Gorman, A. C. “Beyond the Space Race: The Significance of Space Sites in a New Global Context.” In Contemporary Archaeologies: Excavating Now, edited by Angela Piccini and Cornelius Holtdorf, pp. 161–180, 2009. Gorman, A. C. “The Archaeology of Orbital Space.” In Australian Space Science Conference 2005, pp. 338–357, 2005a. Gorman, A. C. “The Cultural Landscape of Interplanetary Space.” Journal of Social Archaeology 5, no. 1 (2005b): 85–107. O’Leary, Beth L. “Historic Preservation at the Edge: Archaeology on the Moon, in Space and on Other Celestial Bodies.” Historic Environment 22, no. 1 (2009): 13–18. Rathje, William. “An Archaeology of Space Garbage.” Discovering Archaeology (Oct. 1999): 108–112.

Alice Gorman