12-Extinctions: Space station splashdown

The International Space Station feels like a permanent fixture. It’s been up there since 2000! But earlier this year, NASA announced it is bringing the ISS back to earth in the 2030s as it plans for new space stations. We talked with Justin Walsh about what he’s learned about human life in space by doing archaeology research on the ISS and what he’s racing to study before the space station goes extinct in a watery grave back on Earth. 

This episode was produced by Sara Whitlock and mixed by Collin Warren, with production assistance and artwork from Jace Steiner.


Shane Hanlon:              00:00                Hi Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           00:01                Hey Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              00:02                When’s the last time you’ve done a cannonball?

Vicky Thompson:           00:06                I have never done a cannonball.

Shane Hanlon:              00:08                What?

Vicky Thompson:           00:09                No, never.

Shane Hanlon:              00:09                Literally never?

Vicky Thompson:           00:11                I’m very weak swimmer.

Shane Hanlon:              00:14                I was going to ask what’s your relationship with water?

Vicky Thompson:           00:16                Yes. It’s not good.

Shane Hanlon:              00:22                Like you’ve never been kind of like a pool person or to go to the beach?

Vicky Thompson:           00:25                No. So although, well, again, I’m from New Jersey. So Jersey shore is like a big part of my life, but no, I’ve never been a big pool person. I didn’t go a lot when I was a kid, took me a while to learn to swim and everything. So no cannonballs, not on the menu for me. But what about you?

Shane Hanlon:              00:49                Well, so I was thinking about this, and when I was younger, middle school into high school, we did have a community pool that we went to a decent amount. And so I don’t know if that’s the last time. But we would do all of the silly things off of diving boards.

Vicky Thompson:           01:06                Sure.

Shane Hanlon:              01:06                Where I don’t even know what they’re called, but things that definitely would hurt yourself. But I did have the thought thinking at this pool, and randomly you and I were talking about emo music right before we started recording this.

Vicky Thompson:           01:16                Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              01:17                So I was in a band in high school, an emo band, because of course I was.

Vicky Thompson:           01:21                Yeah. Makes sense.

Shane Hanlon:              01:21                And one of the very vivid memories I have is we performed at, they were called them splash parties. It was an evening thing at this pool, at this community pool. And for some reason I have a very distinct memory of recording or playing a cover version of I Want It That Way for some reason.

Vicky Thompson:           01:40                Oh my God.

Shane Hanlon:              01:41                While people were like diving into the pool.

Vicky Thompson:           01:46                So younger Shane at a Pennsylvania splash party.

Shane Hanlon:              01:50                Oh, God.

Vicky Thompson:           01:50                Doing an emo version of I Want It That Way.

Shane Hanlon:              01:54                Audio is such a great medium for whatever people are picturing as they’re listening to this.

Vicky Thompson:           01:59                Oh my God. If anybody out there has a recording of this, I need it.

Shane Hanlon:              02:05                Oh, no, no. I don’t know if it exists, but if it does, I hope it’ll never see the light of day.

Shane Hanlon:              02:16                Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists, for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Vicky Thompson:           02:25                And I’m Vicky Thompson.

Shane Hanlon:              02:27                And this is Third Pod From The Sun.

Shane Hanlon:              02:31                So we’re talking about cannonballs for a reason, just beyond reliving our youth or not reliving our youth in some cases, whatever it might be. To better explain where we’re actually going with this though, we’re going to bring in producer Sara Whitlock. Hi Sara.

Sara Whitlock:              02:47                Hey Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              02:48                Okay. So make this all make sense for me.

Sara Whitlock:              02:52                So when a spaceship or a satellite is at the end of its life, it has to come back to Earth. Small satellites will burn up in the atmosphere, but big items like space stations crash into the most remote part of the ocean. That’s a place called Point Nemo.

Vicky Thompson:           03:04                Isn’t that a waste after all the effort to get everything up there?

Sara Whitlock:              03:08                It does seem like a waste. We learn a lot from the items that we’ve sent into space. And today we’ll hear it from Justin Walsh who is doing archeology research on the International Space Station before it crashes into the ocean in the early 2030s.

Vicky Thompson:           03:20                Why do we care about studying the space station?

Sara Whitlock:              03:23                It’s actually the oldest habitat in space. People have been living there continuously since the early 2000s. And from it, we can learn how people adapt to thrive in space and how to make future space stations that much homier.

Shane Hanlon:              03:35                I love the idea of making the space station, of all places, homier. Like giving it better feng shui. All right. So let’s get into it.

Justin Walsh:                03:44                My name is Justin Walsh. I am Associate Professor of Art History and Archeology at Chapman University in Southern California. My primary research is archeological. I’ve worked in the US, Spain, Jordan, and Italy on various digs. I have a current excavation in Spain and I’m also the co-PI of the International Space Station Archeological Project.

Sara Whitlock:              04:09                So just to kick things off, can you give us a quick overview of what space archeology actually is?

Justin Walsh:                04:14                I guess I would start by just quickly describing what archeology is, because most people probably have a sense that it deals with a distant past and that contemporary cultures are not really within the purview of archeology. But what archeology really is is a particular perspective on a kind of evidence which we refer to as material culture. And all we mean by that are the objects that surround us and built spaces, architecture. So if that’s our primary evidence as archeologists we can look at any society, whether it’s in the distant past, the not so distant past, or even contemporary societies. And that’s what space archeology is doing. We’re looking at, really, the last 60 plus years, since 1957 really, that people have been interacting directly with space, since the launch of Sputnik in 1957. And we are trying to use material culture to understand human behaviors in that past, even up until just a few minutes ago, we can even say.

Sara Whitlock:              05:18                So what do you think is the most important part about space archeology? Why is it something we really need to be doing right now?

Justin Walsh:                05:27                Well, just in terms of basic interest, how are people adapting to life in a completely new context that we are not at all evolutionarily adapted for? Being in space requires us to grapple with environmental issues that are completely beyond what we’ve adapted to. And so what that means is different kinds of gravity, different kinds of atmospheres. It can also mean, because of the methods that we’ve developed to travel into space, it can mean confinement and isolation for long periods of time, and that has biological effects but it also has social and cultural effects. And that’s where the archeological side comes in. It’s trying to understand those social and cultural effects.

Sara Whitlock:              06:11                Gotcha. And how did you get started in this? What made you jump from archeology? I assume most of us would think of archeology being what you were talking about before of study of older items. How did you get to space?

Justin Walsh:                06:23                The idea of heritage was always on my mind, and when I got my first job out of graduate school, I was asked to teach a graduate seminar. And so I chose to teach one on cultural heritage because I thought that was something that all of our students, whether they were studying contemporary art or ancient art, could get something out of, kind of an ethics class for them.

Justin Walsh:                06:42                And one of the times I taught that course a student raised her hand and said, “What about stuff in space? Is that heritage?’ And I thought to myself a second and it was instantly clear, kind of the light bulb went on for me, that, yes, definitely stuff in space is heritage even though I’d never considered that possibility before. So that got me looking into, “Okay, what could we do in order to protect these sites before damage happens?” This is we’re in this moment where we have the opportunity to look ahead and to think carefully about what the consequences of our actions will be. And it behooves us to do so since we have that opportunity.

Justin Walsh:                07:20                And so I started looking into the various international treaties that we have here on Earth that protect heritage and saying, “We don’t have to write a treaty from scratch that would protect this stuff. We can take the bits that work really well from these various treaties, whether it’s the World Heritage Convention, or the Antarctic Treaty, or the Law of the Sea,” that all have bits and pieces that deal with heritage and say, “What if we just put that into space?” And we just say we know that we can protect heritage this way before anybody goes there and messes it up.

Sara Whitlock:              07:55                So it sounds like that’s one big challenge that you faced kind of in the process of studying this, is just making sure that there is something left to study. Do you think that’s your biggest challenge or is there something else that has been a really tough go of it along the way?

Justin Walsh:                08:14                Well, we can’t go there. That’s the other big challenge. So that’s actually really critical. So on the one hand, trying to get people’s attention to protect heritage in space, that’s one aspect. It’s happening slowly but surely. But the other of course is that archeologists do not, cannot, and have not gone to space. And that kind of kept those of us who are interested in the field from developing a practical method for doing archeology in space, for studying a site the way we would on Earth. It’s always seemed kind of a critical component of archeology is that you’re present at the site where you’re going to be doing your research or in the landscape if you’re going to be doing a survey.

Justin Walsh:                09:01                So what happened was in 2015, November of 2015, NASA put out an advertisement for new astronaut candidates. This is something they do every three or four years to replenish their astronaut core. And with that advertisement, they published a list of qualifying features, characteristics, of the crew that they wanted. And among those were what kind of education you had. So they specifically said you had to have a degree in a STEM field that is science, technology, engineering, or math. And then they had a list of degrees that were kind of adjacent to STEM, but that which they did not consider to be qualifying. And in that list were the social sciences. And then in parenthesis after social sciences, it said, geography, anthropology, archeology, closed parenthesis. And I saw that and I thought, “Wow, I’m kind of amazed. I did not even think that we would be on their radar enough that they would explicitly prohibit us from applying to be astronauts.” But on the other hand, what’s that about? Why are you so sure that you don’t want archeologists or anthropologists or even geographer astronauts?

Vicky Thompson:           10:25                I can’t believe NASA wouldn’t want archeologists. Can you imagine Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford, in space?

Shane Hanlon:              10:32                So the Harrison Ford part of it, he has a tendency to crash his plane.

Vicky Thompson:           10:37                Oh.

Shane Hanlon:              10:37                So I don’t know if I’d actually trust him on the space station, right?

Vicky Thompson:           10:41                No.

Shane Hanlon:              10:42                But, okay, I’m getting off topic. Sara, can you steer us back?

Sara Whitlock:              10:45                Well, to be fair, they’re probably thinking about all the natural science experiments that astronauts need to have the skills to perform on the ISS, but Justin’s research is showing how helpful archeology can be for planning long term life in space.

Justin Walsh:                10:58                So I started thinking, how could we demonstrate the potential utility of a social science approach to understanding the impact of living in space for a long time on a crew? Because I knew at that time that these recruits that they were looking for, they’re thinking about the moon, and they’re thinking especially about a three year round trip to Mars. That’s a really long time to put a group of people in a spacecraft together. And if there isn’t, and there hasn’t been, any significant research on those aspects, those social and cultural aspects of life in space, how are you going to optimize your mission to make sure that things happen in both an efficient way and in a way that promotes crew wellbeing?

Justin Walsh:                11:47                So that seemed to be really the opening. How can we demonstrate? Well, what is the platform that was explicitly developed to test what it’s like to live in space for long periods of time? It’s ISS. The International Space Station was developed starting in the 1980s and 1990s, and the first modules were launched in 1998. The first occupation of the space station happened in November of 2000. And it has been continuously occupied for now 21, almost, and a half years, by at least two people, that entire time. This is really, we can say, the first permanent space habitat.

Justin Walsh:                12:28                And not only that, but the number of people who have traveled there, I think we’re now to 251 people who have traveled to ISS. That number is actually going to go up by seven or eight in the next month or so, but that many people have been to ISS from 19 countries, from five major space agencies that are running the program, and then multiple other space agencies from various other countries. And that proportion of people that have been to ISS is something like 42% of everybody who’s ever been to space. So this is a really intensely inhabited location, much more so than any other site in space. That’s why it seemed like a good target.

Sara Whitlock:              13:09                That’s amazing. So this is a big question, but what do you think are the main things that you’ve learned so far about human culture in space?

Justin Walsh:                13:17                Well, on the one hand, of course, that there are aspects of life in space that are connected to what’s going on Earth , on on Earth, excuse me. And so we’re dealing with people, who are humans, who live almost all of their lives on Earth and live very small proportions of their life in space. And so they bring a lot of their beliefs and traditions and ideas and behaviors with them. But also that those get of course transformed, both because of the things that they’re with and the environment that they’re in. They have to adapt. For example, you can’t get lots of new tools, you can’t go to the hardware store if you need a new tool. So you might have to adapt the tools that you have for the needs that you suddenly have. So that’s part of it. But you also might adapt yourself to using those tools in new ways. So you might have a new posture or think of different ways to use combinations of things together.

Justin Walsh:                14:15                I would also argue that the society that the crew of ISS has created is, well, it’s unique because of where it’s located, but it’s also unique, and we’re talking about this in the context of, for example, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. This is the only real partnership between people who are coming from the diverse world powers. Apart from China. China has its own space station. But in this project, you have people who are forced to live together, and to work together, and not only that, but their safety depends on them doing that well, and their kind of their wellbeing in terms of just their emotional psychological lives. They have to be friendly with one another. You can’t get into a big fight on ISS. What do you do? You can’t slam the door.

Shane Hanlon:              15:22                All right. So just for a point of clarity for folks, we’re recording this in late March of 2022. So things have probably changed from when you’re listening to this. But as kind of an evergreen point, I was wondering if the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the past however many months aside, has been a problem for astronauts on the ISS in the past.

Sara Whitlock:              15:45                As of this recording, not really. Russia and the United States have continued to work on the International Space Station together. The astronauts on board are all friends and the American astronauts even made one of the Russian astronauts a birthday cake for a recent celebration. But evidence of the conflict did make its way onto the space station. Justin’s team found a political statement hidden among the religious icons that Russian astronauts hang up in their quarters. It was put up by the current ISS Commander, Anton Shkaplerov.

Justin Walsh:                16:10                Shkaplerov is an interesting case because, first of all, he’s the Commander, the current Commander of ISS. It’s a position that changes with each new crew that arrives. But right now he’s it. And he’s actually from Crimea.

Justin Walsh:                16:24                In his current stay we noticed, in the video posted by the Japanese space tourist Yusaku Maezawa in December, that there was an icon mounted over Shkaplerov’s crew berth door. And my colleague Wendy Salmond who is an art historian of Soviet and post-Soviet art, identified that the icon represents St. Fyodor Ushakov. Now this is an 18th century admiral in the Russian Navy who founded the Naval base at Sevastopol. So there’s a strong connection there between the location of Shkaplerov’s birth and education and Russian-ness, and this saint by the way, was only canonized in 2001. He is the patron saint both of the Russian Navy and of Russian Strategic Nuclear Bombing Fleets, aircraft fleets.

Justin Walsh:                17:19                So the meaning that’s encoded in this seems to be one of the Russian-ness of Crimea, Russian military strength, and Shkaplerov’s own personal identity. It’s really interesting. This is in a location, by the way, which we’ve studied in detail and seen all kinds of objects on display, from flags of all the countries that are represented on ISS, mission patches, toys, like spacecraft, toy spacecraft, and religious objects like icons but representing other saints, or for example, the Mother-of-God of Kazan, a famous icon type, that’s up there. A gold cross and also Soviet space heroes like Yuri Gagarin. So there’s lots of things on the wall there, but to see this particular one, over his crew berth door, seemed to be an interesting kind of declaration of his identity and his beliefs.

Justin Walsh:                18:15                So that’s going on. Is anybody aware of it? Probably not, who’s not Russian, probably not. On the US side, there’s nothing, there are no displays, at all, and none of the crew are going to do that.

Vicky Thompson:           18:35                Okay. So to Anton, the saint in the picture represents the Russian claim to Crimea?

Sara Whitlock:              18:40                That’s exactly right. And without Justin’s team of archeologists everyone might have missed that subtle political message. He’s trying to learn everything he can about the culture on board the ISS before it’s gone. Including lessons he hopes people will apply to future life in space.

Sara Whitlock:              18:55                What all do you hope to learn before this is a habitat we can’t access anymore?

Justin Walsh:                19:00                So, on the one hand, we are really interested in how people adapt. So what are the adaptations? How are those enacted? What are the most important issues that people face? We think that one area is because they’re living in microgravity and we are absolutely not just adapted for 1G, we are also used to 1G. We expect that when we pick something up or we put something down, when we put something down, it’s going to stay where we put it. That doesn’t happen in space. If you let go of something, it’s not just going to float there, but the ventilation is going to carry it away from you somewhere, and you’ll have to figure out where. And you can’t just like put it on a table because it won’t stay there. Again, it’ll move. And so they have developed these very simple technologies on Earth that are applied up in space.

Justin Walsh:                19:58                Like sometimes there’s double sided tape on the galley table or Velcro. So you have patches of Velcro on the walls. And then the things that you’re using, you put them into a Ziploc bag, the Ziploc bag has the other side of the Velcro, you stick it to the wall and it stays there. Or you have handrails, or you have bungee cords. These kinds of things. Or clips. We refer to these, this is really my colleague Alice’s term that she developed, gravity surrogates. So the idea is that you can actually, using the photographs, the historic archive of photographs, we can actually watch how certain areas of the space station need more gravity because of the kinds of activities that are happening there.

Justin Walsh:                20:48                How do we see it? Well, we see it in the accretion, the buildup of more and more pieces of Velcro. So on the one hand, you might have like a workstation table, like one of the areas we’re surveying in our current experiment, has 40 pieces of Velcro. And they’re all perfectly arranged geometrically in a grid. That obviously was done on the ground before it was sent up. It was like, “They’re going to want to stick things here. So there’s a panel, we’ll put it on the wall and there’s lots of space to stick stuff.” But if you look around that, you could see lots of other pieces of Velcro that are completely haphazard. They’re not aligned. They’re kind of off kilter. You don’t have them arranged in row or anything like that. That is where in response to contingencies, the crew has decided, “I need to be able to stick something here now.” And then the fact that Velcro remains on the wall means it’s still useful.

Justin Walsh:                21:39                Sometimes you can even see the residue from the glue of the backing of the Velcro after one has been removed, and you say, “Okay, that was where Velcro was needed, but then stopped being needed later.” What does that mean? It means that for people who are developing new space stations, they need to be able to think using data, like the data that we’re generating about these issues, where and in what kind of situations does the crew need the surrogate gravity? Where they need quote, unquote, more gravity or less gravity? And how do we provide that for the crew? How do we accommodate those needs by designing this well so that it doesn’t constantly need to be changed around? That’s where we hope to be offering insights that lead to better space station designs.

Sara Whitlock:              22:39                I’m curious, do you think that you’ll do similar documentation of future space stations? Or will they be less important in some way because they’re not the first one or the first majorly inhabited space station?

Justin Walsh:                22:52                We would love to. And in fact, even it would be nice to look back at older space stations. What evidence is there for what life was like on Skylab or on the early Salyut stations in the ’70s and ’80s or on Mir? And we’ve actually, in our study of the visual display in the Russian part of ISS, we’ve been able to connect the way in which they were doing those displays to not only Mir, but also the Salyut stations going back as far as 1976, the idea of putting pictures on the wall and decorating the space with images of Soviet space heroes.

Justin Walsh:                23:25                And what about going forward? What is that going to be like? And not only that, but in those locations where those displays have happened, it’s not because the designers made an accommodation and said, “Oh, by the way, here, we’ll give you some areas with frames and hooks or whatever and you can put whatever you want on the wall there.” It’s because the crew was opportunistic and said, “There’s a blank space there that you can see it really easily from different parts of the module. And that’s a good place to put things,” like your refrigerator door. It’s something that everybody in the family passes, everybody can see, and that’s what they’ve used it as. So to make the kinds of statements that they want to about themselves and what they care about.

Justin Walsh:                24:10                So will future space station designers accommodate what is clearly a desire on the part of astronauts and cosmonauts to do this kind of thing? Time will tell, but I would argue that taking an interest in such a banal kind of daily life sort of thing could actually have real positive effects on the psychology of the crew by giving them the opportunity and saying, “This is for you to do what you want with it.” Because they don’t just work in this space. They live in it. It’s their home. So how can you make it more homey?

Sara Whitlock:              24:46                So mostly you’re hoping that your research work in the future will be used to help the next space station be that much better than the International Space Station is.

Justin Walsh:                24:54                Yeah. That’s one aspect of it. And I would say that’s a sort of really critical aspect of it, where even as unusual as this project is, another way, an additional way in which it’s unusual, is that we can have practical outcomes for the future. Not a lot of archeology projects have that opportunity. But of course then the other aspect of it, as you were getting towards with a previous question, is the fact that the space station won’t be there anymore. It is undeniably a historic site of human activity and yet we are going to burn up most of it in the atmosphere and send the rest of it to a watery grave, thousands of meters deep. And so there won’t really be much for us to examine if anything. So the question is, how can we document that location, that site?

Justin Walsh:                25:42                It’s very similar to thinking about, “Oh, we want to build a dam, hydroelectric project.” Okay, build a dam, but, oh, there’s all these historic sites that are on the banks of the river that’s then going to flood because of the dam. So archeologists go to those sites and try and document as much as they can. And maybe even bring back artifacts from those locations. So you photograph it, you draw it, you study it. And then when it floods, it’s like, “Okay, well we at least know what was there instead of not knowing at all.” So that’s kind of what we’re contributing. We’re using all sorts of different data sets in order to be able to say, “This is what ISS was,” because we know it’s not going to be there going forward.

Shane Hanlon:              26:43                So this is the end of the ISS, but, Sara, do you know, are they planning for another or future space stations?

Sara Whitlock:              26:53                Yeah, actually, there’s going to be a commercial space station that’s going to continue operating around the Earth. And then NASA has plans for a space station that’s going to orbit around the Moon to support future space missions.

Vicky Thompson:           27:04                A commercial space station? Like I can visit it, like a hotel?

Shane Hanlon:              27:08                Oh my gosh. I hope that’s the case. What would your requirements be to be on a space station, Vicky? What kind of a level of accommodations are we talking about here?

Vicky Thompson:           27:17                Oh, oh. Well obviously space suit. That would be needed. Full space suit.

Shane Hanlon:              27:23                Are you planning on going outside?

Vicky Thompson:           27:25                Yes. Every day. I’d like an excursion itinerary. And, oh, I think like Egyptian cotton sheets.

Shane Hanlon:              27:36                All right.

Vicky Thompson:           27:36                Right?

Shane Hanlon:              27:40                We’ll take all this down, create a checklist.

Vicky Thompson:           27:41                Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              27:41                And send it to our friends at NASA.

Vicky Thompson:           27:43                Yeah, send that to your people.

Shane Hanlon:              27:45                Just for you, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           27:46                Thanks.

Shane Hanlon:              27:47                All right, folks. Well, that’s all from Third Pod From The Sun.

Vicky Thompson:           27:51                Thanks so much, Sara, for bringing us this story and to Justin for sharing his work with us.

Shane Hanlon:              27:56                This episode was produced by Sara with audio engineering from Colin Warren.

Vicky Thompson:           28:01                We’d love to hear your thoughts on the podcast. Please rate and review us. And you can find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or at thirdpodfromthesun.com.

Shane Hanlon:              28:10                Thanks, all. And we’ll see you next week.

Shane Hanlon:              28:17                This is the end of the ISS. And I know there’s been, like there used to be Mir, I think was the last one? But Mir, Mer, Mir, Mir? I don’t know. It was called something like that. I’m a terrible, this is too long. All right. Sometimes you just cut yourself. All right. Let’s try this again.

Vicky Thompson:           28:41                If you had just like stopped like three Mirs in, it would be fine.

Shane Hanlon:              28:47                No, I know. I know. It’s when you start staying-

Vicky Thompson:           28:47                Mir, Mer, Mir, Mir.

Shane Hanlon:              28:48                -when you focus on a word, you’re like, “This is a weird word. I don’t know how to say this.” Yeah. This is why we just keep it running because all of this copy is just golden.

Vicky Thompson:           28:57                You’re like, “What’s my face look like when I, Mer, Mer?

Shane Hanlon:              28:59                Mer?

Vicky Thompson:           28:59                Is that correct?

Shane Hanlon:              29:02                All right, let’s try this again.


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