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Lincoln en route to Mars

February 15, 2012

This 1909 Lincoln penny is bound for the Red Planet. Source:

There’s a bit of recent news that represents one giant leap for space archaeology. OK, so maybe the reference is a bit strained, but the failings of my prose don’t detract from this cool news item.

The blog aardvarchaeology has a post about what has become the oldest human-made object in space: a rare 1909 Lincoln penny that’s taking a ride to Mars, courtesy of NASA’s Curiosity rover.

The penny is mounted on a calibration scale that will be used when the rover’s photographic arms take pictures of Martian rocks and features. The same principle is at work when archaeologists take photos in the field or snap shots of artifacts in the lab. Usually we use a centimeter scale, but in a pinch, a penny works just as well. The idea being that people know how big a penny is, so when you see one in a photo, you can judge the relative size of the other things in the frame.

This isn’t just any penny, either. It’s a 1909 VDB penny. What’s so interesting about that? And also, what the heck is “space archaeology”? More on both of those things below the break.

Lincoln’s bust hasn’t always been on the U.S. penny, of course. The first Lincoln pennies were struck to honor the centennial of his birth, which means they were issued in, yep, 1909. The Lincoln penny was the first U.S. coin to feature the image of a named historical figure. And at first, the initials of the designer, Victor David Brenner (hence, VDB), were prominently placed on the reverse. This was judged to detract from the overall look, so they were removed shortly afterward.

The point is, NASA got ahold of a really rare coin, the one that most perfectly matches the intentions of the designers, which was to honor honest Abe. For more on the history of the Lincoln penny, check out this site from the U.S. Treasury, and you can read about the recent Lincoln redesigns here, courtesy of the U.S. Mint.

Out-of-this-world archaeology

Now, “space archaeology” refers to archaeology and heritage management of sites related to the exploration of space, and it can include, more broadly, the Cold War and the related “Space Race.” This includes sites like the NASA launch center in Florida, rocket testing facilities, and even the Space Shuttle Columbia crash sites. To space archaeologists’ thinking, all of those sites are important to human history, and we should be taking the appropriate steps to preserve and interpret them.

Note that space archaeology does not refer to the archaeology of space aliens, which is hypothetical and largely the realm of fiction.

Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. creates a feature on the Lunar surface with his Model A7L boot. Source: Lunar Legacy Project

But the folks who do this are also quite serious when they say that “sites” don’t have to be on Earth to be important to human cultural heritage. Isn’t the web of satellites currently in Earth orbit an important cultural landscape, they ask? What about the huge amount of trash and other objects that we left on the moon? What about the astronauts’ footprints? Wouldn’t their loss or destruction be an irreparable loss to our heritage?

And don’t be too quick to dismiss this concern. Space tourism is a real thing, and history suggests that it will only expand, perhaps even to the moon. If you visit a National Park and pilfer some archaeological remains, you can be prosecuted under preservation laws. We should have the same sort of system in place before we have to deal with the loss of, say, the “We Came In Peace” mission plaque.

The best online resource about space heritage that I’m aware of is the Lunar Legacy Project, based at New Mexico State University. On that site, you can view a complete list of the approximately 106 artifacts left on the moon after the Apollo XI mission. The Lunar Legacy Project has simple goals: to preserve the archaeological and historical record surrounding the mission, and to get the location of the landing declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To me, this is important work, and as someone interested in history and material culture of the recent past, naturally compelling.

So now there’s a new human-made object heading into space, the oldest that we know of so far. And it’ll sit on Mars until someday, perhaps, another human will see it in person for the first time in decades, maybe centuries. Hopefully we’ll remember Lincoln and emancipation, and the penny and its rover will be safe as monuments to our species’ space heritage.

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