Postorbital discard and chain of custody: The processing of artifacts returning to Earth from the International Space Station.

Justin St P. Walsh, Alice C. Gorman, Paola Castaño

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Abstract

Few items that comprise the material culture of the International Space Station ever return to Earth. Most are left on the station or placed on cargo resupply ships that burn up on atmospheric re-entry. This fact presents a challenge for archaeologists who use material culture as their primary evidence. Together with a sociologist, we observed the processes that have been developed by NASA contractors to handle and return items that come back to Earth on the Cargo Dragon vehicle. We observed two missions, CRS-13 and CRS-14, in January and May 2018, respectively, traveling to the locations of work and interviewing the contractors and associated staff. These observations are described here, using the lenses of archaeological understandings of discard practices, the anthropological concept of the chaîne opératoire, and the forensic idea of “chain of custody” to interpret the meanings and associations of the various kinds of objects returned from space.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)513-531
Number of pages19
JournalACTA ASTRONAUTICA
Volume195
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022

Keywords

  • Space archaeology
  • International Space Station
  • Human factors
  • Discard practices
  • Chaîne opératoire
  • Science and technology studies
  • Chain of custody
  • Process and procedure

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