Three Cheers for Pioneers: A Review of Outer Space Anthropology

Savannah Mandel

“Does that mean you study aliens?”

During the year and half I spent working in the New Mexico and Washington, District of Columbia, space industry community, con- ducting fieldwork and working in policy, a typical happy hour introduction often started off like this:

“Oh, you’re an anthropologist? But, you re- search space? How’s that possible? Does that mean [wiggles fingers above their head like extraterrestrial antennae] you study aliens?”

Usually I would laugh and make a joke, “Maybe someday!” and then explain how a social scientist, stuck on this vibrant, diverse rock called Earth, can research a place so far removed and speculative. How does one research outer space as an anthropologist? And how does one conduct fieldwork at a locale that they’ll probably never get to visit?

Cosmonaut Valentine Lebedev did produce what could be considered an autoethnographic account of his time in space in Diary of a Cosmonaut: 211 Days in Space.1 Likewise, commercial space tourism is just starting to get its feet off the ground with Virgin Galactic’s series of recent successful launches. Tickets onto the International Space Station (ISS) are a bit over the average academic’s budget, however, so that option is a moonshot. But human space exploration has always occurred in tandem with innovation, and social scientists researching outer space are innovating traditional anthropological practice and theory in imaginative and visionary ways.

Valerie Olson, Debbora Battaglia, David Valentine, Janet Vertesi and Stefan Helmreich, some of the first social scientists to study outer space, have suggested a restructuring of classical anthropological techniques in light of the complexities that come with researching human interactions with the cosmic. Some of these complexities include the physical and ontological complications of being human in space, the legal and political implications that will arise if humans succeed in inhabiting extraterrestrial objects and what “extreme” means when the horizon of the extreme continues to be breached. This sort of restructuring includes analysis on new ways of being,2 new environments,3 the creation of new terminologies4 and a reconceptualization of our understanding of nature.5 But this is just scratching the surface of the diverse research being conducted on human interactions with outer space.

Individuals in the space industry — a “hard science” dependent community — often ask whether I’m the first in my field. They’ve never heard of an anthropologist or sociologist working in space science and they’re a bit skeptical of the value of such research in the first place. But my own research and fieldwork was inspired by an incredible and ever-evolving body of literature on the anthropology of outer space, some of which I’ve already mentioned, with an origin story that began decades before I was born. This complex history is given beautiful depth in Oman-Regan’s “Anthropologists in Outer Space,” published in a 2016 issue of Sapiens, and here I aim to expand upon it even further, introducing readers to the original “space anthropologists” and some of the newest pioneers in the field.

Image 1. An image taken by Burton during fieldwork in the Atacama Desert, Chile. Burton identified the faint green tint as microbes, able to exist in the extreme desert conditions, which are not unlike those we might find on another planet. (Photo by Dana Burton)

By coming along for the journey, readers will meet some extraterrestrial experts (yes, some of us do study aliens!), an anthropologist who is worked on the bottom of the ocean floor, a sociologist who has come to know the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, a group of anthropologists currently conduct- ing research in collaboration with the ISS, a science and technology studies (STS) professor and linguist who argues that space is not just for the able-bodied and some geographers who are filling in crucial gaps in research on outer space environmental geo-politics.

Image 2. Image used for the cover of Olson’s book, Into the Extreme. Olsen used open-source images by astronaut Don Pettit that she felt “captures the spirit of the way certain kinds of US astronautics experts represent the 4 dimensional aspects of living in a ‘system,’” (Image credit: Don Pettit)

Image 3. Image from Lisa Messeri’s fieldwork at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. (Image credit: Lisa Messeri)

Extraterrestrial Experts: Stefan Helmreich, Debbora Battaglia and Dana Burton

Dana Burton, Debbora Battaglia and Stefan Helmreich are all anthropologists who explore how life is defined in relation to conceptions of extreme environments, habitability and limitations as these are understood by scientists. Battaglia edited one of the first book-length pieces of literature on the anthropology of outer space in the early 2000s, E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces.6 This volume appeals to me at an emotional level because of the way it critically examines science fiction narratives surround- ing extraterrestrials. As one starts to delve into literature on the anthropology of outerspace, that science fiction plays an important role in earthly conceptions of space and its potential inhabitants. (This is something I’ll detail a bit further later on.) After producing E.T. Culture, Battaglia went on to write several engaging articles on the topic of anthropology and outer space. Two of my favorites are Cosmos as Commons: An Activation of Cosmic Diplomacy,7 which takes the reader on an ontological journey across space and time, and Diary of a Space Zucchini: Ventriloquizing the Future in Outer Space,8 which offers insights into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) anthropomorphization of a space-faring squash. Battaglia is currently Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Mount Holyoke College and was one of the editors for the special edition of Anthropological Quarterly that focused on outer space.9

Image 4. A digital collage by Ashley Shew of her dog, Daphne, and an image taken by Hubble. (Image credit: Ashley Shew)

Image 5. Ellie Armstrong acquired these two “gendered astronauts” at the European Space Agency gift shop while visiting the European Space Research and Technology Center in Leiden. (Image credit: Ellie Armstrong)

In a similar fashion, Helmreich began his research on outer space in the early 2010s; his first book on the subject was Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas.10 His fieldwork at the time was truly reminiscent of Bruno Latour and Steve Woogar’s Laboratory Life and has offered just as pivotal a moment for the social sciences.11 Through fieldwork with oceanographers researching deep-sea microscopic creatures such as hyperthermophiles, Helmreich explored scientific perspectives on life as a category of analysis, terminologies such as “native” vs. “alien” and shifting narratives surrounding conceptions of nature. In tandem with this, he reflected on the search for extraterrestrial life and what might be found on other planets. Following Alien Ocean, Helmreich investigated these concepts further in “Extraterrestrial Relativism,” his article for the special edition issue of Anthropological Quarterly,12 and his most recent book, Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond.13 Helmreich is currently Elting E. Morison Professor of Anthropology with the History of Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society program at MIT.

Image 6. The author standing on Spaceport America’s 12,000-ft-long runway, which was built to accommodate both vertical and horizontal launches. (Image credit: Savannah Mandel)

Now Helmreich’s and Battaglia’s research is being followed up by Dana Burton, a doctoral candidate at George Washington University, who has taken her own stance on the search for life on Mars, as well as concepts such as habitability, biosignatures and contamination.

Burton’s work is currently supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, National Science Foundation and the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science and NASA Ames. Specifically, her research follows NASA scientists, policymakers and private entrepreneurs as they grapple with the potential multispecies dimensions of outer space exploration. She recently published an article in Anthropology News, “Encounters with Lunar Dust,” which explores contamination fears and policies.14 Burton is currently being mentored by Valerie Olson, whose research on the anthropology of outer space is described below.

EthnoISS: Victor Buchli, Aaron Parkhurst, Jo Aiken, Giles Bunch, Timothy Carroll, Jenia Gorbeneko, Adryon Kozel, Aliçia Okumura-Zimmerlin and David Jeevendrampillai

University College London has been experiencing an absolute renaissance when it comes to anthropological research on outer space. Much of this is thanks to a European Research Council grant the school received to conduct a multisited ethnographic study on the ISS. The project aims to study interactions with and on the space station, specifically in relation to material culture and sociality, by interacting with several of its key participants, including organizations working out of the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan. EthnoISS argues that material culture has previously been theorized only in relation to Earth’s gravity, as opposed to microgravity.

The core team is composed of Jo Aiken, an anthropologist with more than 20 years of experience working with NASA; Victor Buchli, an expert on Soviet-era history, socialism and outer space; Giles Bunch, who is currently carrying out research into train- ing for astronauts and ground crews at the European Space Agency; and Timothy Carroll, whose work focuses on notions of transcendence and the discourse surrounding outer space in the context of Russian space exploration. The project’s website states, “Methodologically the project focuses on the quotidian and material dimensions of the ISS and its bodily and material techniques, re-examining traditional empirical assumptions within the innovative conditions of the new polymedia environments in which the ISS is situated.” Though it’s just gotten off its feet, EthnoISS is already producing some incredible publications, such as two forthcoming articles by Buchli, “Extra-terrestrial Methods: Towards an Ethnography of the ISS” and “Low Earth Orbit: A Speculative Ethnographer’s Guide,” which reimagine traditional ethnographic methods to be suited for microgravity.15

“And the Coolest Field Site Award Goes To . . .” Valerie Olson and Janet Vertesi

The story behind this section starts in Key Largo, Florida, 62 feet below the ocean’s surface. It ends 213.68 million miles away, on Mars. Both are field sites that two very lucky anthropologists can claim as research locations.

Valerie Olson began by working with the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations project, a space analog site based out of the underwater research station Aquarius. Her research at the site started with her doctoral dissertation and initially focused on environmental science, medicine, technology and design in the American human spaceflight program.16 She went on to conduct more than seven years of fieldwork with U.S. space agency institutions, publishing on topics such as the political ecology of extreme environmental systems and the ecopolitics of space biomedicine.17 This research culminated in the publication of Into the Extreme: U.S. Environmental Systems and Politics Beyond Earth, which uses a systems approach as an ethnographic tool to examine how perspectives on human space exploration have influenced understandings of the environmental relationships back on Earth.18 Olson is currently associate professor of environmental anthropology at the University of California Irvine.

Not long after Olson conducted fieldwork on the Aquarius, STS scholar Janet Vertesi was being introduced to the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Spirit and “Oppy” both landed on Mars in 2004 as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, and from 2006 to 2008, as part of her doctoral research, Vertesi conducted fieldwork with the team of scientists working on the rovers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Coming from an STS background, Vertesi’s research interests were really focused on how the scientists involved in the rover missions made decisions and made use of the images sent back by the rovers. One of her most interesting observations was that a sort of “reverse anthropomorphisation” began to occur, where scientists took on characteristics of the rovers, using their bodies to mimic and replicate their behaviors and movements as a way of better understanding them. Her first book, Seeing Like a Rover: Images in Interaction on the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, was the product of this research.19 After its completion, she went on to complete seven more years of fieldwork with NASA teams, eventually producing her most recent book, Shaping Science: Organizations, Decisions, and Culture on NASA’s Teams.20 Readers can tune into an interview with Vertesi about the project at

Cosmos as Culture: David Valentine and Lisa Messeri

The work of David Valentine and Lisa Messeri is difficult to encompass because of the sheer diversity of topics covered throughout their research on the anthropology of outer space. Valentine was also among the editors of the special edition of Anthropological Quarterly, where he published work based on field research he conducted with “Commercial NewSpace Industries.” His article for the issue, “Exit Strategy: Profit, Cosmology, and the Future of Humans in Space,”21 became very relevant to my own forthcoming research findings on risk and sacrifice in the commercial space industry because of his focus on short-term economic expectations of commercial space investors as they relate to long-term human survival expectations and cosmological dreams. His more recent work has been far more ontological, analyzing the context of humanness as humans explore real and speculative space environments22 and discussing what it means to be an “Earthling” when humans are no longer living on Earth.23 His research has reflected on sites for colonization such as Mars and Island Three, a fictional rotating cylindrical space settlement.

Messeri has also contemplated ontological concepts but from a more STS perspective. She is eager to understand how scientists contextualize the role humans play in the universe and how Earth as a place is implicated in researchers’ cosmologies. These ideas are explored in her first book, Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds,24 which explains how scientists make Planets into places. Visitable, explorable, colonizable, reachable places. I deeply appreciate how she applies this re- search to ask how “the planetary imagination developed by scientists looking outward might be turned inward and used to comprehend Earth on a planetary scale, necessary for confronting today’s environmental and political crises.” Messeri has also produced some pretty cool research on Martian maps, which speaks to a fascinating STS history on the production of data and knowledge25 and how scientists use Planet Earth herself, as an extraterrestrial analog.26

Making Cases for Disabled Astronauts: Ashley Shew and Sheri Wells-Jensen

Recently, the European Space Agency (ESA) released a call for “Parastronauts,” broadening professional spaceflight opportunities to those with disabilities. The ESA’s website states, “ESA is ready to invest in defining the necessary adaptations of space hardware in an effort to enable these otherwise excellently qualified professionals to serve as professional crew members on a safe and useful space mission.” In light of this announcement, research by Sheri Wells-Jensen and Ashley Shew takes center stage. Both Wells-Jensen and Shew are experts on disability studies. Wells-Jensen, a professor of linguistics at Bowling Green State University, researches disability and inclusion in space exploration. Wells-Jensen has produced a diverse breadth of literature on colonization, disability and extraterrestrials, but my favorite publication of hers is “The Case for Disabled Astronauts” in Scientific American.27 Here she argues with artful simplicity for the inclusion of those with disabilities in outer space missions. Wells-Jensen uses the example of an astronaut with a visual impairment as a case study to make her argument. She writes, “Accessible instrumentation adapted for a blind astronaut (which would also serve a sighted astronaut in the dark) is just one more layer of protection against mission failure.” She goes on to point out that a visually impaired astronaut would be better suited for system failures and emergency events and better acclimated to tactile feedback.

Shew is working with Wells-Jensen to expand this body of literature, hoping to address normative assumptions about minds and bodies that don’t hold true when it comes to extraterrestrial environments and infrastructure. She is interested in exploring questions such as: What does it mean for human bodies to live and age in space habitats? Are there facets of human experience that should be more focal (or that are currently missing) in discussions of future space habitability? What values do people project on human bodies in space programs, and how does that shape how habitability is envisioned? Shew recently co-edited Spaces for the Future: A Companion to Philosophy of Technology, which includes several chapters on outer space and imagination.28

Environmental Geopolitics: Julie Klinger and Ellie Armstrong

Julie Klinger, associate professor in the Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences at the University of Delaware, is not technically an anthropologist or sociologist. But after recently working with her on the American Association of Geographers panel “Terrestrial Environments of Outer Space,” I was absolutely blown away by the context of her research and the crucial gap it filled in social science literature on outer space. In her book, Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes,29 Klinger connects extractive/mining politics to the 21st- century resurgence of space exploration. She then builds upon this idea in several articles, including “Environmental Geopolitics and Outer Space,” which argues that the environmental geopolitics of Earth and outer space are inextricably linked by the spatial politics of privilege and the imposition of sacrifice among people, places and institutions.30 Her work is largely environmental and hones in on the impact humans have on outer space through their interactions with it.

Klinger works closely with Ellie Arm- strong, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Delaware, who explores narratives and imaginaries around space science through a critical, queer, feminist lens. Like Klinger, Armstrong’s current research examines the environmental footprints of human relationships with outer space. She is interested in exploring how the realities of space- related research sites differ from how they are represented in the media and popular culture. Armstrong recently spoke on the topic of gender and sexuality in space science galleries at the Artefacts XXIV conference31 and on the topic of centering young people in space travel narratives at the European Planetary Science Conference.32 Through her work, she advocates intensely for extending the equity and reach of STEM spaces.

Fictional Worlds, Real Theories: Kim Stanley Robinson

I am a big fan of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books, but the reason behind my admiration is more than literary. Robinson explores anthropological themes with an unparalleled depth and from unique angles. His “research,” and by that I mean a vast collection of science fiction publications, is thorough. Thorough enough, I argue, to be considered an analog for real potentialities in our future as a space- faring species. Science fiction has long since been proven to impact policy, law and scientific research33 and it acts as analog in that it role-plays out potentials that could one day occur. Already so much of historic science fiction literature has become science reality.

Robinson’s works are as scientifically accurate as science fiction can be, and they delve into monumental topics such as technological breakdown, social inequality, colonization, class divides, consciousness and artificial intelligence. Earlier I mentioned Messeri’s application of her research, her idea of turning the planetary imagination of scientists inward “to comprehend Earth on a planetary scale, necessary for confronting today’s environmental and political crises.” Robinson does that; his books give a glimpse into how the future might look. For example, Robinson’s publications often explore not too-distant futures where populations face crises already affecting humans here and now in the 21st century. His most recent novel, The Ministry for the Future, considers the impact of an international climate crisis on global society and how it unfolds from myriad perspectives.34 Robinson has even written books that follow a more traditional anthropological line of study, such as Shaman, a reimagining of an important era in evolutionary history.35

Concluding Thoughts on the Unpredictable Future of Space Exploration

Researching outer space as a social scientist requires analysis of things that include the speculative and imaginary. Such research often bears witness to dreams of interplanetary colonization and extraterrestrial resource ex- traction — things that may or may not happen. And such research often hears stories and narratives that mirror fears of alien contamination, that assert intergalactic goals and that avow visions of progress. Not all of these stories and dreams are positive, and many echo damaging imperialist and capitalist narratives with long histories of violence. But by revisiting the past, understanding the present and contextualizing potential futures, social scientists can offer insight into human interactions with outer space here and now. They can have impact on policy, enhance scientific standards of equity and diversity, reach the masses and teach about the origins of life. The research described here strives to answer some of the deepest questions that haunt our journeys into the unknown: What is our place in the universe? Where are we going? And what will we find there?


1. Valentine Lebedev, Diary of a Cosmonaut: 211 Days in Space, trans. Luba Diangar, eds. Daniel Puckett and C. W. Harrison (College Station, TX: Phytoresource Research, 1988).

2. Debbora Battaglia, David Valentine, and Valerie Olson, eds., “Extreme: Humans at Home in the Cosmos,” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 4 (2012).

3. Valerie Olson, “The Ecobiopolitics of Space Biomedicine,” Medical Anthropology 29, no. 2 (2010): 170–193.

4. Stefan Helmreich, “Extraterrestrial Relativism.” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 4 (2012): 1125–1138.

5. Helmreich, “Extraterrestrial Relativism”; David Valentine, “Atmosphere: Context, Detachment, and the Modern Subject in Outer Space,” American Ethnologist, 43, no. 3 (2016): 511–524.

6. Debbora Battaglia, ed., E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

7. Debbora Battaglia, “Cosmos as Commons: An Activation of Cosmic Diplomacy,” Eflux, 58 (2014).

8. Debbora Battaglia, “Diary of a Space Zucchini: Ventriloquizing the Future in Outer Space,” Platypus Blog, July 14, 2014.

9. Battaglia, Valentine, and Olson, “Extreme: Humans at Home in the Cosmos.”

10. Stefan Helmreich, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

11. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979).

12. Helmreich, “Extraterrestrial Relativism.”

13. Stefan Helmreich, Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

14. Dana Burton, “Encounters with Lunar Dust,” Anthropology News, July 12, 2019. https:// encounters-with-lunar-dust/.

15. Victor Buchli, “Extra-terrestrial Methods: Towards an Ethnography of the ISS,” in Lineage and Advancements in Material Culture Studies: Perspective from UCL Anthropology, eds. T. Car- roll et al. (London: Bloomsbury, 2020); Victor Buchli, “Low Earth Orbit: A Speculative Ethnographer’s Guide,” in Anti-Atlas: Towards a Critical Area Studies, eds. W. Bracewell et al. (London: UCL Press, 2020).

16. Valerie Olson, “American Extreme: An Ethnography of Astronautical Visions and Ecologies” (Ph.D. diss, Rice University, 2010).

17. Olson, “The Ecobiopolitics of Space Bio- medicine;” Olson, American Extreme; Valerie Olson, “Political Ecology in the Extreme: Asteroid Activism and the Making of an Environmental Solar System,” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 4 (2012): 1027–1044.

18. Valerie Olson, Into the Extreme: U.S. Environmental Systems and Politics Beyond Earth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

19. Janet Vertesi, Seeing Like a Rover: How Robots, Teams, and Images Craft Knowledge of Mars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

20. Janet Vertesi, Shaping Science: Organizations, Decisions, and Culture on NASAs Teams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020).

21. David Valentine, “Exit Strategy: Profit, Cosmology, and the Future of Humans in Space,” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 4 (2012): 1045– 1067.

22. David Valentine, “Atmosphere: Context, Detachment, and the Modern Subject in Outer Space,” American Ethnologist 43, no. 3 (2016): 511–524.

23. David Valentine, “Gravity Fixes: Habituating to the Human on Mars and Island Three,” Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7, no. 3 (2017): 185–209.

24. Lisa Messeri, Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

25. Lisa Messeri, “Extraterra Incognita: Martian Maps in the Digital Age.” Social Studies of Science 47, no. 1 (2017): 75–94.

26. Lisa Messeri, “Earth as Analog: The Inter- disciplinary Debate and Astronaut Training That Took Earth to the Moon,” Astropolitics 12, no. 2–3 (2014): 196–209; Lisa Messeri, “Resonant Worlds: Cultivating Proximal Encounters in Planetary Science,” American Ethnologist 44, no. 1 (2017): 131–142.

27. Sheri Wells-Jensen, “The Case for Disabled Astronauts,” Scientific American, May 30, 2018.

28. Joseph Pitt and Ashley Shew, eds., Spaces for the Future: A Companion to Philosophy of Technology (Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 2017).

29. Julie Klinger, Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018).

30. Julie Klinger, “Environmental Geopolitics and Outer Space,” Geopolitics 26, no. 3 (2019): 666–703.

31. Eleanor Armstrong. “The Right Stuff? Gender and Sexuality in Space Science Galleries” (presentation, Artefacts XXIV, Edinburgh, UK, October 2019).

32. Eleanor Armstrong. “Summer of Space(s): Centring Young People in Creating a Narrative about Space Travel” (presentation, European Planetary Science Conference/Division of Planetary Sciences, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2019).

33. Felicity Mellor, “Colliding Worlds: Asteroid Research and the Legitimization of War in Space,” Social Studies of Science, 37, no. 4 (2007): 499– 531; David Kirby, “Science Consultants, Fictional Films, and Scientific Practice,” Social Studies of Science 33, no. 2 (2003): 231–268; Howard McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997); David Seed, American Science Fiction and the Cold War (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999); Mitchell Travis, “Making Space: Law and Science Fiction,” Law and Literature, 23, no. 2 (2011): 241–261.

34. Kim Stanley Robinson, Ministry for the Future (London: Orbit Books, 2020).

35. Kim Stanley Robinson, Shaman (London: Orbit Books, 2013).

Savannah Mandel is currently a doctoral candidate in science, technology and society at Virginia Tech. Her research on the anthropology of outer space has been largely focused on risk, analog sites, science fiction, space law and narratives of regret. She is especially interested in exploring the socioeconomic effects that human space exploration has on Planet Earth and its residents. She has conducted fieldwork with Spaceport America and worked with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. In 2019 she was named a “Rising Star” by Ozy Magazine for her work as a space anthropologist. Some of her more recent articles include “The Death of Outer Space Dreams: Hard Decisions and a War of Utopian Demands” (The Geek Anthropologist, 2021) and “What Space Scientists Can Learn from Arctic Peoples” (Physics Today, 2019). In her spare time she writes science fiction and enjoys role-player games.

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