Justin Walsh
A NASA generated image of micrometeoroids and orbital debris Author: NASA

Justin Walsh

Space Archaeology Pioneer

a new perspective on the final frontier

meet justin

Justin Walsh, Ph.D., RPA, (USA/Ireland) is professor of art history, archaeology, and space studies at Chapman University, and Ad Astra Distinguished Research Fellow in space habitats and space anthropology at the University of Southern California. He has worked on sites in the US, Spain, Italy, Jordan, and in low Earth orbit. Since 2015, he has been co-PI of the International Space Station Archaeological Project, the first investigation of the material culture of a space habitat, with fellow EC50 2024 honoree Dr. Alice Gorman. In 2022, ISSAP executed the first archaeological experiment in space. ISSAP received awards from the Archaeological Institute of America and the American Anthropological Association for this work. Prof. Walsh has received fellowships including a Rome Prize and a Fulbright. In 2016, he was Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol.

a new perspective on the final frontier
Nominated by: Dr. Janet Walsh, MR'05
Class of 2024 Location USA
The Chapman Excavations at Cástulo team working in Area 3 of the Roman-Iberian site of Cástulo (Spain) in July 2016
The Chapman Excavations at Cástulo team working in Area 3 of the Roman-Iberian site of Cástulo (Spain) in July 2016 Author: Eduardo Ruiz Castilla

The International Space Station Archaeological Project really started because I got frustrated. I saw that NASA and all the other space agencies prohibited people with backgrounds in the social sciences, humanities, and arts from applying to be professional astronauts. I knew that they wanted to send a crew on a three-year mission to Mars, but that they were missing a huge range of perspectives that are actually crucial to mission success because they didn’t see those disciplines as important enough. Then I found a 1972 National Academy of Sciences report called Human Factors in Long-Duration Spaceflight, which called a crewed spacecraft “a microsociety in a miniworld.” This is the driving concept behind our work: you have to understand the society and culture created by the crew in their habitat if you want to improve their experience. So I decided to study the ISS and show what the agencies were missing out on.

It’s been an uphill battle to carry out this work over the last eight years – there isn’t funding, and we often can’t get access to the data we would like. Even some archaeologists tell us that what we’re doing isn’t archaeology. That gatekeeping has forced us to be more creative and to use sources like historic photos or daily status reports in unexpected ways – this is actually my favorite part of the project, finding what’s archaeological in non-archaeological data! And little by little, we’ve shown people in the space industry that they don’t even know yet what they don’t know about what they’re trying to accomplish. We’ve shown that if you ignore what the social sciences can tell you about the technical problems you’re trying to solve, you will come up with a suboptimal solution. And they’re starting to listen – that’s gratifying.

Humans in space are still humans. I see my work as demonstrating that we have to understand living in space as an extension of living on Earth, and we have to understand places in space as being environments worthy of our consideration.

- Justin Walsh

Our work has been driven by a variety of different questions: How do humans adapt to long-duration spaceflight, and an environment that evolution hasn’t prepared us for, one characterized by isolation, confinement, and microgravity? What is the relationship between designs and plans for usage of space technology and architecture, and their actual usage? How can social science perspectives contribute to improving life in space? And finally, what methods can we develop to make it possible to study an archaeological site that we can’t visit in person?

In the last eight years, we’ve developed machine learning algorithms to identify people, places, and things in historic photos from all 23 years of continuous habitation of the ISS. We’ve taken the database used by the ISS space agencies to inventory every object sent to the station, and made it a forensic tool that can be queried. We’ve documented how the crew of the ISS has decorated various modules just like they decorate their homes and offices on Earth. We observed the only ISS material culture that comes back to Earth – scientific samples, broken equipment, and crew personal items – and seen how it reflects the incredibly structured existence of the astronauts and cosmonauts. Their lives are governed by lists and procedures, and they’re constantly under surveillance. And we’ve watched the crew do archaeology in space for the first time in our 2022 experiment, learning along the way that sometimes a workstation isn’t a workstation (it’s a pegboard for storing random things, like your garage), and that there are plenty of opportunities for future space station designers to give space station crews more control over their own lives – when, where, and how they work, eat, sleep, play, etc. All of this contributes to a completely new idea of how humans adapt to life in space.

never stop exploring