Archaeology and Heritage of the Human Movement into Space. Edited by Beth Laura O’Leary and P.J. Capelotti. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2015. Hardback, 188 pp. ISBN 978-3-319-07865-6
This is a broad collection of essays on space archaeology, which ambitiously seeks to create an integrated approach to sites and materials relating to the exploration of space on the Earth, in orbit, on the Moon, and further afield both in and beyond the confines of our solar system. Its subjects range from the iconic and frequently idolized, such as the space shuttle, to the secretive, hi-tech, and disposable, such as decommissioned research centres. Its contributors—who are among the foremost scholars in the field of space archaeology—have backgrounds in anthropology, journalism, applied physics, architecture, archaeology, conservation science, museum studies, and cultural resource management. The book not only provides a most useful introduction to the breadth and variety of the subject, but also goes much further in exploring potential future directions.
Beth O’Leary’s purposeful introduction swiftly sets out the stall, not only for the book and for the archaeology of space, but also for archaeologies of the recent past more generally. Following a swift round-up of previous major works (with nods to Rathje and Staski), we are introduced to space as a cultural landscape and provided with a timeframe that begins after the end of the Second World War.
The chapters that follow begin with an essay by M. Ann Garrison Darrin that explores the impact of the space environment on material remains and details the extraordinary phenomena to which objects in space are subjected. This opensup a whole new world of post-depositional variables, including plasma, micro-debris, neutral gasses, solar electromagnetic flux, and extreme temperature environments.
This is followed by an introduction by Alice Gorman to the scope, variety, and sheer innumerableness of the space junk surrounding the earth, under the excellent chapter title “Robot Avatars”. Gorman continues with a discussion of Dyson spheres and Matrioshka brains, followed by a theoretical consideration of the archaeological implications of increasing robotic autonomy in space.
P.J. Capelotti introduces the wonderful term “space midden” (which I shall be making use of wherever possible) and goes on to explore space probes in the context of human discard and in reference to thresholds between what is and is not considered archaeology. I am not entirely sure I go along with the argument here: it seems to me that an object is subjected to archaeology because archaeologists are engaging with it—we don’t have to wait until someone else has finished with it.
Hanna Szczepanowska’s chapter examines the afterlife of the iconic space shuttle Discovery in a museums context. Writing as a conservation scientist, her chapter examines the development of technical innovations. The thermal protective systems used on Discovery become examples through which we are able to see the legacy of earlier engineering programs, representing decades of research.
The essay by Justin St. P. Walsh looks to the future and the impending moment when all satellites will have a built in junk-orbit-life of 25 years, after which they will self-destruct and re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. He asks: what will remain for archaeologists to examine? Walsh explores this problem through ideas of copies and replicas, prototypes, documentation, recording, and other forms of capture.
Next, Milford Wayne Donaldson reviews California’s Cold War and space exploration-era cultural resources, highlighting a disturbing number of important resources under immediate threat. He discusses the multiple challenges faced by resources which are architecturally uninspiring, challenging (if not downright dangerous) to reuse and/or sitting on valuable land. The list of cultural assets already lost is as long as it is illustrious. Thankfully there are also success stories to inspire and cheer in a chapter which otherwise would make for rather depressing reading.
Joseph Reynolds’s chapter does a thorough job of bringing together the major legal acts and treaties in place to regulate and/or protect human heritage in space. Reynolds highlights contradictions and grey areas as well as cases that may or may not provide legal precedents for the protection of space heritage. Unusually, though (and to my personal applause), Reynolds comes right off the political fence in arguing for the US to lead international protection efforts by listing Tranquillity Base as a National Historic Landmark.
Lisa D. Westwood initially covers similar ground to that of Reynolds, presenting the legislation in attractive and easy-to-read tables. She follows by arguing for the plethora of space-related sites to be treated as a landscape through the creation of a World Heritage List district spanning multiple countries and planetary bodies. She goes on to usefully outline the content of a Transnational Serial Nomination and calls, ultimately, for a change in UNESCO’s Convention and Operational Guidelines to make this listing possible.
If there is any fault to be found in the book, it would be that in some places the material overlaps and is therefore repetitive. Within the work there is an understandable emphasis on how current legal frameworks impact, ignore, or indeed harm the documentation and/or preservation of space-related heritage assets; several chapters therefore cover some very similar ground. Second, authors used to regularly fielding the “is it really archaeology/heritage?” question feel the need to place their well-honed justifications way up front as a deflector shield. But it isn’t necessary to do so here (and indeed, this issue is covered with most admirable swiftness in the introduction), as anyone reading this book will be far too captivated by all the thoughtful engagements, magnificent sites, landscapes, and materials (not to mention juicy “space junk” facts) to be rehashing old questions of academic validity. Perhaps we can finally jettison that into the space midden?
King’s College London