Over fifty years ago on July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the Moon. More Americans would walk on the lunar surface through 1972 when NASA cancelled the Apollo space program. Now archaeologists want to protect the history they left behind.
When we think of archaeologists, we think of Indiana Jones, the movie character played by Harrison Ford. Real archaeology, however, is not nearly as exciting though it has its moments.
And the one thing that’s indisputable is that their work is Earth-based. Archaeologists are working on sites all around the globe. They are discovering the Church of the Apostles in Israel. They are finding 115,000-year-old human bone art in China. They are finding Celtic bark shields in the United Kingdom. And they are discovering lost colonial homes in the United States.
It really is a great time to be an archaeologist. They may not be outrunning large boulders or fighting Nazis, but they are making groundbreaking discoveries that are rewriting the history books every day on our planet.
But a few are turning their gaze to space and wondering what they can find out there.
One of the jobs of an archaeologists is to not only find history, but to preserve it the best they can so future generations can enjoy it as well.
Alicia Gorman, a Flinders University Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Space Studies, is a space archaeologist who is currently studying space junk.
In an op-ed for the Conversation, Gorman notes that archaeology in space will be important going forward if we want to protect the history of the astronauts who have already been there.
Landing on the moon is a monumental human achievement that only a few humans have experienced. But as space travel becomes more common in a distant future, Gorman is concerned that some of the history of human activity that’s already on the Moon will be lost.
“I don’t believe, for example, that anyone has ever fully documented the position of all of the boot prints of the Apollo astronauts on the Moon,” she wrote. “We know what they look like. We know that they’re there. They’re reproduced in countless photographs of the Apollo sites…”
“…But has anyone ever actually catalogued them?” Gorman asked. “Has anyone studied them for what they can tell us about how these human bodies moved across the lunar landscape, how they adapted to this environment so different to that of Earth?”
“Those footprints may reveal that astronauts were doing things that they didn’t even consciously recognise since they didn’t speak about them or record them,” she explained.
“If you did an archaeological study of those footprints, we would expect to see differences from Apollo 11 through to Apollo 17.”
We could literally document the movements of each Apollo team by examining their footprints, giving us a literal step by step of what they did while they were there. Furthermore, while there’s great documentation of what objects are currently on the moon, Gorman points out that there may be objects up there that are undocumented. We could also see the evolution of the Apollo program with each mission.
“We ought to be able to see the evidence of how each astronaut crew incorporated the knowledge of the previous one, and how the design of the suits and the equipment was changed or adapted from each previous mission,” she said. “We should be able to actually chart this using physical evidence.”
Space tourism, however, could destroy the evidence of the Apollo missions.
“They could approach the Apollo sites and in the process completely erase all of those footprints and cause further damage by stirring up the lunar dust again,” Gorman says.
Even archaeologists are careful when they excavate a site.
“There is an archaeological principle that you never excavate all of a site,” she said. “You always leave an unexcavated deposit, or you leave rock art on the walls. You leave material for future scientists to sample because we don’t know what techniques will be available in the future.”
The same goes for space archaeology. Technology has already been crucial to archaeological digs around the world as advanced DNA and scanning technology allow researchers to see a site and study people in ways pasts researchers could only have dreamed about.
But it’s not just the Moon that Gorman is thinking of, but Mars as well.
Humans are eventually going to go to Mars. Former President Barack Obama set that goal for NASA during his time in office as NASA ended the shuttle program to develop a new spacecraft to carry humans further into space to the Martian surface, where a colony might be founded someday. That ultimately means people are going to die on Mars and be buried in cemeteries there.
“This is going to have to change how we feel about space,” Gorman says. “When we look at those planets in the sky and think there are cemeteries there; perhaps there are human bodies being incorporated into the lunar regolith or into the red Martian dust. How does that make these places feel to us if they become cemeteries?”
More revered, one would hope. But also of great interest to archaeologists who will want to document it. And, who knows, they might even find evidence of long dead civilizations while they’re at it; because burying a person means digging in the ground, which is what archaeologists do best.
And while Americans and Russians are the primary nations sending people to space, Gorman expects space to become more culturally diverse in the future, which gives archaeologists even more to study.
“If we look 50 years into the future I expect that landscape will be even more diverse,” she said. “We will have many countries who may be at the moment are not considered to be spacefaring, but who will have sent their own missions to the Moon.”
“Or maybe they’ve had experiments that are part of other people’s missions. Maybe they’ve sent their own astronauts. I think the Moon is going to be culturally very diverse, with an archaeological record that reflects all of those different cultures as well.”
That would help future generations learn about what cultures thought of as most important to them based on the objects they leave behind in space or what actions they took.
It certainly sounds like an exciting field of study that many would sign up for. After all, it may be archaeology, but we’re still talking about going into space.