Archaeology and NASA

Archaeology and NASA (National Aeronautical and Space Administration), in my view, has a complicated relationship. In many ways NASA supports archaeology, yet it places barriers against archaeologists’ entry into the inner sanctum of the astronaut world.

One way NASA supports archaeology is by allowing archaeologists to work with images taken from NASA satellites. There has been considerable media interest about this over the past few months, focusing on the work of Sarah Parcak, an archaeologist at U of Alabama. This interest has been generated by the announcement of her winning the 2016 TED prize, which carries an award of one million dollars. Stories about Parcak and the TED prize hit much of the mainstream media, including stories in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, and a January appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

NASA collaborates with archaeology by allowing access to satellite images. Source: Wikimedia Commons; NASA
NASA collaborates with archaeology by allowing access to satellite images. Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Parcak’s work is interesting and important, and although details of what she will do with prize money won’t be released until a TED talk on Feb 16th, 2016, there was a teaser on her appearance with Stephen Colbert that she will use it to help document and preserve archaeological sites. Some of the things Parcak, often referred to as a space archaeologist, talked about with Stephen Colbert included her use of satellite images to discover thousands of buried archaeological sites and how she was able to create subsurface images detailing structures at the site of Tanis, made particularly famous to the public via the Raiders of the Lost Ark film, featuring the fictional Indiana Jones.

The seven minute segment with Stephen Colbert is an important event, particularly in regard to emphasizing the scholarly aspects of archaeology in an entertaining yet serious way. Parcak certainly doesn’t shy away from the popular perceptions of archaeology. For example she provided Colbert with an Indiana Jones hat, described her work to Colbert as “imagine if Indiana Jones had a lovechild with Google Earth”, and her own Twitter account is @indyfromspace.

Immediately after Parcak’s appearance on Late Night with Stephen Colbert, the show’s Twitter account (@colbertlateshow)  posted “This will be remembered as the night a million children decided to become space archaeologists.” I have doubts that a million children were watching the show, let alone made the decision to become a space archaeologist but it’s all good for archaeology. Parack is already on her way to becoming a great popularizer of archaeology. She gave a TED talk on her work in 2012 and I expect there will be another flurry of media interest after her next TED talk (Feb 16th) when she details her plans for the one million dollars in prize money.

Parcak isn’t the only archaeologist that has collaborated with NASA. There are others that have used images from NASA satellites, and many archaeologists are interested in space exploration and the impacts of humans in outer space. There have been multiple publications by archaeologists, for example, documenting the human exploration of space, and NASA itself has also published a book which includes contributions from archaeologists on identifying and interpreting evidence of extraterrestrials.

NASA is currently recruiting astronauts, but they apparently don’t want archaeologists in this inner sanctum. The application window opened in December, 2015 and closes February 18, 2016. Not unexpectedly, the qualifications include a university degree. However, they specifically identify a degree in archaeology as non-qualifying. I find this odd, and imagine that those involved in astronaut selection at NASA must have little or no idea of the interdisplinary nature of archaeology, which often includes a useful mix of training and work in the natural as well as the social sciences.

Archaeologists do many of the same things astronauts do, including field work in remote locations. Source: Wikimedia Commons, NASA
Archaeologists do many of the same things astronauts do, including field work in remote locations. Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Some archaeologists would surely make fantastic astronauts. NASA indicates that astronauts must have an ability for robotic operations, should be able to endure activities of long duration, work in teams, handle extensive travel, prepare meals, store equipment, manage trash, and use cameras. Archaeologists do all that. Seems like an entry level job in archaeology. Except for being able to pilot a spacecraft (which I think they leave to those with backgrounds flying jets for the military), I have never seen a single criteria or responsibility from NASA that is beyond the capabilities of a typical archaeologist.

I queried NASA on their exclusion of archaeology as a qualifying degree. Their response included the statement that they believed those with “degrees in engineering or the hard sciences are best prepared to learn and understand the full scope of Astronaut Candidate responsibilities with a minimum of expenditure or training resources.” I think this belief can be easily challenged, with the argument that archaeologists are probably even better trained than those from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields.

I also queried some other archaeologists and anthropologists with an interest in space on what they thought about excluding archaeologists from the astronaut program. Alice Gorman (on Twitter @Drspacejunk) replied ‘Archaeologists would make very good astronauts….an inevitable part of human space exploration is looking for signs of past life in the landscape, which is exactly what archaeologists do on Earth.” Michael Oman-Reagan (on Twitter as @OmanReagan) responded “If we send only astronauts limited by STEM training, and the rest are all based on military training, we’re already producing a particular kind of space culture and that will impact the future of human space societies.”

Archaeology is viewed by many as a pretty cool occupation, but being an astronaut is probably even more awesome. Maybe the thinking at NASA is that an archaeologically trained astronaut would just be too super-cool and awesome. At least some scriptwriters would agree. Captain Picard of Star Trek fame was apparently trained as an archaeologist before becoming a spaceship commander. If there are any archaeology astronaut wannabees out there, I’m on your side. The next task is to convince NASA that an archaeologically trained astronaut in real life would be a great thing.

Bob Muckle has been teaching, practicing and writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. He is based at Capilano U in British Columbia and can be followed on Twitter at @bobmuckle.

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