Astronomical Heritage Finder


In collaboration
with the

International Astronomical Union

Theme: Space Heritage

  • Info

The term ‘Space heritage’ can have several connotations, of which the commonest perceived could be summarised as:

  1. heritage related to the process of carrying out science in space;
  2. heritage related to manned space flight/exploration; and
  3. human cultural heritage that remains off the surface of ‘planet Earth’.

Although inextricably linked in the public perception, (1) and (2) are largely separate. (1) represents the heritage directly associated with the development of space sciences in a broader sense, while (2) represents the heritage of the technology developed in order to make space exploration (including manned space flight) possible.

Space heritage in sense (3) could arise as a by-product of any human activity in space, and could include both material vestiges on other worlds (e.g. scientific and other equipment left on the moon or Mars; the first footprints on the moon), or material left in space (e.g. orbiting satellites; deep-space probes).

What follows is divided into two parts. The first is a tentative taxonomy of fixed sites and facilities pertaining specifically to space astronomy and/or generally to space science, with illustrative examples mostly from the USA. It focuses on places such as launch facilities, design and test facilities, and tracking sites that have historical meaning and value in relation to space heritage using definition (1). The second is a broader discussion of the heritage of space exploration, including space instruments and the spacecraft themselves.


The heritage of space science and space astronomy

  • Info

In this section we propose a tentative taxonomy of fixed sites and facilities pertaining specifically to space astronomy and/or generally to space science. The major items in the taxonomy are illustrated by examples that might provide useful case studies, but no effort has been made to check to see if they are suitable (e.g. in a state desirable for preservation or restoration) or even still existant. Rather, they are listed here as illustrative of the sorts of site bearing a significant technical relationship to the history of the project, event, or achievement. In other words, this is a ‘blue-sky’ list that is intended purely to stimulate further discussion and investigation; it should neither be considered complete nor representative of any collective opinion and has no proven value related to the World Heritage List. The examples are limited to the USA and Canada but could certainly be extended to other countries.

‘Space science heritage sites’ could be geographical landmarks where instrument packages were conceived and built, tested, launched, controlled, analysed, or somehow employed in the generation of new knowledge about space and the things in space. They could also be sites where capabilities in space flight pertaining to the sciences were conceived, built, tested, etc. Facilities may also be found within these sites, or separate from any designated site. These are structures and environments where the instruments and systems were created, tested, etc. These could be rooms or chambers with or without in situ apparatus unique to the history of the instrument, mission or event. Instruments are best understood in context of the environments that produced them or employed them. We have not considered archival records, or instruments best preserved in museums or for which in situ preservation is no longer possible.

Our taxonomy will emphasize those sites or facilities that were uniquely suited to the design, construction and use of instrumentation that flew in space. Laboratories, launch sites and commercial industrial sites whose remit was more generic have not been considered unless they supported a wide range of activities over many years or somehow participated in an unusually important event, mission or discovery.

There is virtually no overlap with Harry Butowsky’s 1989 report for the National Park Service (NPS)* aiming to “identify the sites, structures, buildings and objects significant in the history of the sciences of astronomy and astrophysics in the United States”, because the sites considered here are under 50 years old. Nonetheless, it is useful to bear in mind the NPS’s criteria for demonstrating historical, cultural and architectural significance on a national level, which state that a candidate site should

  1. “… [be] associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or
  2. … [be] associated with the lives of significant persons in or past; or
  3. … embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or
  4. … have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory.”

The NPS is concerned with commemorating, validating and illuminating historical events, lives of note, and objects of construction or manufacture within their original environments. It is also concerned with land use and national identity. An entity of the Department of the Interior, it promotes programmes in public recreation and education, with preservation at its core.

The suggested taxonomy reflects these criteria. “Significant contributions to the broad patterns of our history” might well include the launch pads that symbolised the space race between nations, or the place where the first dedicated astronomical X-ray satellite was conceived and constructed. Criterion B identifying significant persons of the past should naturally include people like James Van Allen, the leader of the team that instrumented the first successful American satellites that ultimately revealed a whole new portion of the Earth’s outermost atmospheric and magnetospheric regions. Criterion C covers the identification and preservation of laboratories where distinctive practices were developed within distinctive architectural space that led to successful space missions. These can range from vacuum chambers and Faraday cages to deep tanks of water that simulate zero gravity. Criterion D is less obvious or relevant given the huge amount of documentation available for this period in other forms.

No effort has been made to identify extraterrestrial sites of importance in the history of space astronomy. However, one site does comes particularly to mind: the landing site for Apollo 16, where in 1972 astronauts set up the first astronomical observatory on another celestial body—George Carruthers’ Moon Camera.

* Butowsky, H.A. (1989). Astronomy and Astrophysics: National Historic Landmark Theme Study (Washington DC: Department of the Interior, National Park Service). The quote is from p. 11.


The taxonomy 
  • Info

Launch facilities that engaged in space science missions


Holloman Air Force Base Balloon and rocket launch facilities, tracking facilities
Fort Churchill (Manitoba) Balloon and rocket launch facilities, tracking facilities. See the Manitoba Historical Society website.
Wallops Island NACA/NASA facility
Stratobowl Scientific balloon launches from the 1930s
Palestine Balloon launches starting in the 1950s, especially the ‘Skyhook’ series and ‘Stratoscope’ series.

Suggested Case Study:

White Sands Missile Range (formerly Proving Grounds), White Sands, New Mexico. What still exists from the period 1945–1951 when the first ultraviolet solar spectra were obtained from a rocket and the cosmic ray plateau was detected? The first Aerobee sounding rockets were also launched here: Aerobees were the most successful scientific sounding rockets in history. See the City of Las Cruces website and the White Sands Missile Range website, particularly WSMR Launch Complex 33 (National Historic Landmark).

General Resource:

Roger D. Launius and Andrew K. Johnston (2009), Smithsonian Atlas of Space Exploration (Harper-Collins, Bunker Hill Publishing). Part three, “Gateways to Space”, describes mission-control centres and launch facilities including those in the USA, such as Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg and Wallops, as well as the major Russian facility at Bayconour, the European Space Agency facility at Kourou, and others in Israel, Japan and China. A world listing of active, projected and abandoned sites is included.

Conceptual design, construction and testing sites


Applied Physics Laboratory Original campus in Silver Spring, MD—what still exists of the two structures? Present campus located in Columbia, MD has facilities that date from the 1960s. See the Applied Physics Laboratory website.
Goddard Space Flight Center High-bay test facilities, control rooms, vacuum facilities; clean rooms
Jet Propulsion Laboratory Instrument laboratories, test facilities, the Arroyo Seco static test site.
Ames Research Center Wind tunnels, long path-length spectroscopy facilities
Johnson Space Flight Center Lunar receiving laboratory, astronaut training facilities
Applied Science and Engineering (Cambridge, MA)
Naval Research Laboratory (Washington, DC)

Campus sites for design and construction and analysis


University of Iowa Van Allen
University of Colorado Pointing controls
University of Michigan Early space science centre
University of Wisconsin Early space astronomy centre
Princeton Ballooning, OAO, HST

Tracking sites

Satellite-tracking sites for ranging and other geodetic interests

Sites for the Baker-Nunn satellite-tracking network (in the USA: Florida and Arizona)

Goldstone-type sites that received telemetered scientific data


Shirley Thomas (1963), Satellite Tracking Facilities: Their History and Operation (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston).

Specific offices/laboratories


James Van Allen’s office and laboratory at the University of Iowa See the University of Iowa Libraries website
Herbert Friedman’s laboratory or remnants thereof Of special interest would be the preservation of George Carruthers’ laboratory that still contains an original ‘filling station’ where Friedman’s team prepared their halogen-filled proportional counters. See the Smithsonian Institution Archives website
Richard Tousey’s NRL office and laboratory facilities … especially if any of his early V-2 era and Aerobee-era systems are still extant. Extensive oral histories have been conducted with Tousey and his staff members.
Vacuum test chambers … developed and maintained by NRL dating from the 1950s and 1960s, especially one where Vanguard 1 (TV-3) was assembled and tested. See this website
Special Faraday Cage instrument assembly and testing room at NRL Dates from the 1950s. See the Smithsonian Institution Archives website
Laboratories on the University of Wisconsin campus … where the payload for OAO II were designed and constructed and tested.
IUE control room at the Goddard Space Flight Center Building 21 (original control systems have been removed but room still exists?). See the Smithsonian Institution Archives website
Locales critical to the design and development of the first two generations of the Wide Field Planetary Camera (Caltech, JPL, Princeton).
Laboratories and facilities responsible for the construction of Riccardo Giacconi’s original Aerobee X-ray payload that confirmed that non-solar discrete sources of X-ray energy existed (American Science and Engineering, Cambridge).
HST Spacecraft Control Facility, Goddard Space Flight Center.
High-bay test facilities at NASA centres, specifically those utilised to train astronauts for HST repair missions.
The Lunar Receiving Laboratory, Johnson Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama. See Lunar Receiving Laboratory Project History by Susan Mangus and William Larsen (NASA, 2004)
Lockheed Sunnyvale vertical test chamber for HST
Ball Brother Research Corporation The development and refinement of stabilised satellites, sounding rockets and balloon packages. Many of the first-, second- and third-generation scientific satellites were the product of this company.
Space Telescope Science Institute on the Johns Hopkins campus, Baltimore, MD
Pad facility known as ‘launch complex 18A’ at Cape Canaveral for failed attempt to launch Vanguard 1, December 6, 1957.
Pad facility and blockhouse at Cape Canaveral known as ‘Launch Complex #26’ for successful launch of Explorer 1, 31 January 1958. See this Google cache of a news release from the Patrick Air Force Base website


Select bibliography of additional sources 
  • Info

  • Baals, Donald D. and William R. Corliss (1981). Wind Tunnels of NASA. Washington DC: NASA (SP-440), 1981. [Illustrated guide to sites.]
  • Ball Aerospace Systems Division (1982). 25 Years of Achievement. Boulder: Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation, 1982. [Pictorial.]
  • Butrica, Andrew (1997). Beyond the Ionosphere: Fifty Years of Satellite Communication. Washington DC: NASA (Historical Series).
  • DeVorkin, David (1992). Science with a Vengeance: The Military Origins of the Space Sciences in the V-2 Era. New York: Springer.
  • Doel, Ronald Edmund (1996). Solar System Astronomy in America: Communities, Patronage, and Interdisciplinary Science, 1920–1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Foerstner, Abigail (2007). James Van Allen: The First Eight Billion Miles. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. [JvA office and laboratory spaces.]
  • Hirsh, Richard (1983). Glimpsing an Invisible Universe: the Emergence of X-Ray Astronomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hufbauer, Karl (1991). Exploring the Sun: Solar Science since Galileo. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Klingaman, William K. (1993). APL—Fifty Years of Service to the Nation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. [Page 9 identifies the location and appearance of the Wolfe Building, the automobile dealership in Silver Spring, MD that was the first site of APL in May 1942.] The resource for specific scientific programs at APL is W. L. Ebert and R. W. McEntire, eds (1999), Space Department: 40th Anniversary Issue (Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest Volume 20 #44). An excellent visual resource compiled by an anniversary picture committee is: The First Forty Years: A Pictorial Account (Johns Hopkins, 1983).
  • Koppes, Clayton R. (1982). JPL and the American Space Program: a History of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (The Planetary Exploration Series). New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Smith, Robert W. with contributions by Paul A. Hanle, Robert H. Kargon and Joseph N. Tatarewicz (1989). The Space Telescope: a Study of NASA, Science, Technology, and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wallace, Lane E. (1999). Dreams, Hopes, Realities: The Goddard Space Flight Center: The First Forty Years. Washington DC: NASA (SP-4312). [Includes many images of test facilities, especially the high-bay clean rooms where satellite payloads were integrated and tested. Excellent visual source for exploring the nature of the physical spaces that might be worthy of preservation.]


Space achievements as world heritage

  • Info

Since the middle of the 20th century, great breakthroughs in astronomy have occurred owing to the beginning of space exploration. This milestone in the development of human civilization has tremendously enriched and expedited astronomy as well as science in general. All wavelengths have effectively become available from gamma rays through to the far infrared and microwaves: this has allowed us to penetrate deep into space and to observe extraordinary natural phenomena occurring because of matter transformations accompanying the release of huge amounts of energy. Space vehicles have approached other planets and their satellites and even landed on their surfaces; as a result we have opened up new worlds beside us in the Solar System and discovered diverse processes of physics and chemistry responsible for their nature, formation and evolution. Planetary exploration has also advanced different branches of the earth sciences.

Modern astronomy not only attempts to understand what caused the observed large-scale structure of the universe and its overall composition involving dark matter and dark energy; it also touches upon numerous philosophical questions relating to the place and role of humans in space, in particular how we came to exist on this world and our fate in the future. Basic ideas at the frontiers of contemporary physics and cosmology deal with the possible existence of a multitude of multidimensional parallel universes (the ‘multiverse’), a sort of ‘spatio-temporal-foam’ that continually forms and decays in different regions and different times as the result of quantum oscillations in the vacuum and may experience collisions, the origin of our universe being the result of one such collision. A huge range of challenging ideas and new visions such as these have only come about as a result of space exploration and robust space technologies.

In sum, space astronomy has had a huge impact upon our knowledge of our own space neighbourhood as well as the universe as a whole. It is clear that the heritage of space astronomy—heritage relating to historically important achievements in space science and technology—forms a vital segment of global astronomical heritage in general.

If space heritage is to have universal value then it must have a true international significance in terms of humankind’s relationships with the sky. The historical context is human progress from naked-eye astronomy to ever more powerful and capable instruments and eventually to contemporary astronomical facilities and networks. In view of this, we first consider astronomical spacecraft, space-born instruments, and planetary space missions that produce close-up views of other worlds.


Spacecraft and scientific instruments in space 
  • Info

Space scientific instruments

Several instruments on board space vehicles have proved of enormous significance to astronomy. They include the Hubble Space Telescope, which has observed deep space in great detail; the Chandra spacecraft (X-ray Observatory), which has contributed significantly in high-energy astrophysics; the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP); the Spitzer infrared space telescope; the ESA satellite Planck; and the Kepler space telescope, for the discovery of extra-solar Earth-like planets.

These spacecraft have been equipped with very capable telescopes and detectors to make observations in the different wavelengths, and have produced extremely valuable information about various space objects and the processes involved. For example, since 1990 the Hubble Space Telescope has given us hundreds of thousands of images of galaxies, nebulae, and stars at different stages of their evolution, and opened to our eyes the very depths of the cosmos. Even more importantly, these and other observations and the results derived from them have advanced astrophysics through the development of coherent theories concerning the structure of stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and other objects. They have also allowed us to address some of the most challenging problems concerning the origin and evolution of the universe itself, thus advancing both cosmogony and cosmology. Basically, observations from space have opened a new era in astronomy and brought about very significant progress in the field.

Fig. 1: Left: The Hubble Space Telescope. Right: The Spitzer infra-red space telescope. Images from NASA (Public domain)

Space vehicles for lunar and planetary exploration

Another important aspect of space heritage is spacecraft important in the exploration of our Solar System. Many planetary missions undertaken since the very early 1960s have made us better acquainted with our close neighbours in space; these missions can be regarded as the first steps towards humankind’s expansion throughout the whole Solar System. The Moon was the cornerstone along this path, demonstrating the capabilities of both space science and space technology. The Apollo and Luna missions returned lunar soil samples—unique samples of extraterrestrial origin. These provided extremely important information about the Earth-Moon system and the very early stages of Solar System evolution, particularly during the first half-billion years of the Earth’s history: such information has been erased on the Earth by active geological processes.

Space vehicles also given us an opportunity to view other planets at close range, together with their moons and rings, and also some small bodies—asteroids and comets. The information obtained has dramatically increased our knowledge about the diversity of the natural mechanisms operating in the various worlds and, through comparative analysis, has also significantly contributed to our understanding of our own planet. The planets Venus and Mars are the two most important ‘other worlds’ in this regard, since they provide two very different extreme models of how Earth’s evolution might have progressed.

There are many fine examples of space vehicles used for lunar and planetary exploration that deserve to be commemorated as a significant part of our space heritage even where there is no possibility that they could be retrieved and preserved on Earth and they remain typically ‘moveable heritage’. These include Luna 3, the first to fly past the Moon and transmit photographs of its far side; Luna 9, the automatic spacecraft that performed the first soft landing on the Moon’s surface; the Eagle module that performed the first manned landing on the Moon with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin (‘Buzz’) Aldrin in the framework of the Apollo programme; Luna 16, the first automatic probe to land on the Moon and return a soil sample to Earth, and Lunokhod 1, the first Moon rover; Viking 1 and Viking 2, the first spacecraft to land on the surface of Mars and operate successfully; Venera 4, parachuted into Venus’ atmosphere, the first space vehicle to make in situ measurements of the planet’s temperature, pressure, and composition; Voyagers 1 & 2, which performed the first close-up study of the outer planets, their satellites and rings; Vega and Giotto, which performed ‘fly-by’s of Halley comet; Galileo, the first probe to enter Jupiter’s atmosphere; and Huygens, which made the first landing on Saturn’s moon Titan as part of the Cassini-Huygens mission. All these and others—the list could be substantially extended—are astronomical vehicles that have given us hugely valuable information about outer space in general and specifically about the other bodies in our Solar System.

Fig. 2: Top left: Edwin Aldrin descending from Eagle, about to become the second man on the moon. Photograph by Neil Armstrong. Top right: Lunokhod 1, the first Moon rover. Bottom left: Venera 4, Venus descent module. Bottom right: ‘Self-portrait’ taken by Mars lander Viking 2. Photographs from NASA (Public domain)


Other aspects of space heritage 
  • Info

The heritage of space exploration extends beyond the space vehicles that have advanced astronomy and our knowledge about the space environment. It also includes the heritage relating to numerous key technological breakthroughs and elements of space infrastructure. This must undoubtedly include the first satellite Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin’s first orbital flight capsule Vostok, Yuri Gagarin’s and Neil Armstrong’s space suits, many components of the historic Apollo programme, and the first orbital stations (Salyut, Skylab, and MIR), which paved the road to the International Space Station (ISS).

Special attention should be given to Cosmodromes and Deep Space Networks. These were important parts of the overall space infrastructure that ensured the successful launches of spacecraft and provided tracking and operation control, thus making possible all the historically important steps in space exploration. Obvious examples are Bayconour Space Centre, Cape Canaveral Space Center, and Kourou launch site. Launch pads are a complex ensemble of buildings, infrastructures, facilities, technical innovation and applied science, aimed at preparing the way for controlled space flights. Their heritage is complex in terms of attributes of value: they provide evidence of various activities in science, technology and civil engineering; they produce moveable and unmoveable legacies; and they give rise to tangible and intangible heritage. They should probably be understood as part of a ‘presence-in-space system’ at a given time, which would imply the inclusion of the remains of space vessels, satellites, and their scientific instruments.

A rather different, but undoubtedly important, aspect of the heritage of human achievements in space is that relating to the great pioneers in this area—people such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, Robert Goddard, Yuri Kondratyuk, Serge Korolev, and Verner von Braun. Consider, for example, the case of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935), a Russian space-flight pioneer, scientist and general visionary. His works contain in embryo numerous techno-scientific attainments in space exploration and in the development of engineering facilities to help solve many complicated technological problems. His pioneering paper “Free Space” was written in 1883, where he put forward for the first time his ideas concerning conditions in outer space in the absence of gravity, the principles of reactive motion, and the possibility of controlling and stabilising a body in motion in space. Believing that the conquest of space was a goal not only attainable but attainable in the not-too-distant future, he made a detailed study of the life-support conditions necessary for manned flight, investigated changes in the physiological functions of the human body under weightless conditions, and suggested setting up centrifugal facilities to examine the effects of high acceleration on living organisms. Tsiolkovsky is widely regarded as the scientist who paved the way for space science and exploration. The intangible aspect of Tsiolkovsky’s heritage is his impressive vision of the prospects of mankind for conquering space; the tangible aspects would include historical manuscripts with his space foundation and published works.

Concerning the first samples of lunar soil delivered to Earth by the Apollo and Luna missions, the main bulk of these samples is currently preserved in the Johnson Space Flight Center, Houston, USA, and in the Vernadsky Institute, Moscow, Russia. Minor pieces are distributed among various scientific laboratories and universities over the world. These samples represent the accomplishments of humankind in a very direct sense and form a very significant part of the heritage of space exploration. A similar remark would apply to any samples of extraterrestrial origin brought to Earth by future space missions.


Concluding remarks

  • Info

In the last half-century, space astronomy and lunar and planetary missions have progressed our knowledge of the Solar System and of the Universe as a whole, broadening human horizons tremendously. There can be no doubt that the space-borne instruments, vehicles and earthbound infrastructure and facilities that have brought this about form a highly significant segment of our astronomical heritage. Of those that survive, the physical circumstance of where they finish up—back on the Earth, on another body in the Solar System, or permanently in space—seems irrelevant to their value in science or technology heritage terms. Meanwhile, the tangible immovable heritage (in the sense of the World Heritage Convention) relating to space exploration—sites, places, and ‘monuments’ on the Earth such as development sites, launch sites, and tracking sites—generally relates rather more indirectly to the actual science performed in space and more to the technological infrastructure supporting it.

The challenge is to find a consistent approach to these and the other aspects of the legacy of human activity of various types in space. The two different approaches presented in this chapter serve to illustrate the depth and complexity of this challenge and the possibility of different approaches and points of focus. Obviously, we have to think more deeply about what is undoubtedly a growing field of human legacy; this is important both for heritage professionals and for historians of astronomy, science and technology. It raises new questions, some of which can seem a little strange from a terrestrial ‘reference-frame’ (see Key issues). We probably have to develop a systemic approach to the complexity of such heritage, taking account of the many different issues it raises and the diverse attributes of value. On the other hand, the experience gained by trying to apply the World Heritage convention to what could be a very distinctive type of cultural and natural property would certainly help to build cooperation in recognising and preserving heritage relating to human activity in space.

The contents of this page are based upon text in the ICOMOS–IAU Thematic Study. Original text © Clive Ruggles, Michel Cotte and the contributing authors.


joomla template 1.6