If you asked me what space archaeology was a few days ago, I would have simply offered a shrug or, at best, fudged my way through an explanation involving alien exploration or digging holes on Mars. To be fair, that’s probably the first thing you thought of as well.
Of course, that’s not at all what a space archaeologist does, so I had a chat with one to find out the real deal, which, as it turns out, is far more interesting than I could have imagined. Dr. Alice Gorman is an Australian archaeologist, lecturer, heritage consultant, and a pioneer in the field of space archaeology. We spoke about her work, Australia’s little-known space history, and Elon Musk‘s extremely obvious midlife crisis.
“It’s basically using archaeological theories and methods to look at the material culture of space exploration,” Dr. Gorman told PEDESTRIAN.TV. While she says archaeology is certainly about old things a lot of the time, the same principles can be applied to material from any period, including, of course, the spacefaring era of humanity.
“At the end of the day what it’s really about is how do humans interact with objects and the environment to create cultures and societies, and what can we learn about space exploration by focusing on these material things?”
In other words, there’s far more to how we’ve approached space than just metal and clever engineering, and most of it is an aspect I had never even considered, particularly when it comes to the symbolic element of the different methods used by each spacefaring country.
“A really interesting example of this is just recently when Elon Musk launched the sports car into space,” Dr. Gorman said. “That’s hugely symbolic in so many ways, but when I was having discussions with people on social media about this, people got very upset if you implied that there’s more going on than just a marketing ploy or a demonstration of technology.”
What a lot of people don’t understand, she explained, is that even very practical objects have symbolic meaning and convey messages about human culture.
“In the case of the sports car – and this is quite funny – some of the most obvious symbolism of a red sports car is the male midlife crisis,” Dr. Gorman said. “I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that.”
Given Musk’s recent behaviour, it’s not hard to put this view into perspective at all. Another example is the varying ways in which different countries and cultures design their rockets, and what that says about them. As Dr. Gorman told me, “there’s no one way to build a rocket”.
“You look at US rockets of the early space age and they tend to be big, long, tall cylinders, they tend to have a first stage, a second stage, a third stage,” she said. “But Russian rockets of the early period had those big booster fuel tanks that drop off once the fuel is expended, they were attached to the side of the rocket, so the rockets look really different.”
“They’re doing the same thing, but there’s a technological style that means the minute you see a Russian rocket, you know it’s Russian because it looks Russian.”
These are the sorts of things an archaeologist of technology is looking at. What can the way different cultures approach the same problem tell us about that culture and period of time, and what choices led to those developments?
“Knowing where we came from, whether that’s 6,000 years ago or 60 years ago in the case of space, tells us something about what possibilities are open in the future,” she said.
Dr. Gorman’s main work centres around space junk and the effect it has on us here on Earth. While the popular perception of things orbiting the globe usually include a space station and a handful of satellites, the actual number of things up there is almost overwhelming to look at.
All of those dots are satellites, and what happens when a satellite stops working? Well, it continues to float around until eventually, the orbit decays enough for it fall to Earth, but in most cases it’ll burn up long before it hits the surface. These redundant or simply broken bits of technology circling the globe is what’s referred to as space junk.
“The modern world relies on satellites for so many things and the classic example is every time you use an ATM, it’s using timing signals from satellites,” Dr. Gorman said. “We rely on space for so many things, so we need to understand what’s going on.”
When I asked about her thoughts on Australia’s announcement of its very own space agency, it brought up an interesting conversation on the country’s past involvement in space. While it may seem like we’ve always taken a backseat to such events, it turns out we played a much bigger role than most people are actually aware of.
“When I first started working in this area I was naturally drawn to looking at the Woomera rocket launch site, which is about five hours from Adelaide,” she said. “So from the late 40s through to the 70s, it was major site of space development at a global level and I think that stuff’s really important to remember right now.”
“I hear all the people saying ‘oh this is great, we’re gonna have a space industry’ and I say no, we’ve had a space industry the whole time.”
The thing is, we’ve never really seen space as part of our national identity in the same way countries like the US and Russia do, but as Dr. Gorman explained, there are little snippets throughout history that speak to the contrary.
“This stuff was in the newspapers, all the stuff that was going on, but it’s like it’s been forgotten, it’s like Australians have kind of walked away from that and even feel a bit uneasy with embracing a space identity,” she said.
This lack of celebration around our achievements in space is partly due to many of the missions being classified, but also because the main launch site in Woomera is far removed from any major city. One way of changing attitudes towards our space identity, Dr. Gorman says, is to tell the stories that so few of us know.
“The big one is that in 1967 Australia became the first nation to launch a satellite from its own territory, which is huge,” she said. And while we did have these big moments, it’s the classic Australian larrikinism that often cements them into national memory. As it turns out, there were a few of those moments stashed away as well.
“The thing that people love is that this satellite, WRESAT 1, was carted around at one point in the back of a ute and there’s some wonderful pictures of the satellite just sitting up in the tray and a couple of people in the tray bouncing along,” she said. “That kind of thing people really relate to for those kinds of stories.”
Another good example of this is in the film The Dish when they play cricket in the huge satellite dish. “I think the aspects of space that Australians actually get a bit of a kick out of are those sort of larrikin elements,” Dr. Gorman said. “So there’s kind of a knot of some kind of identity there that I think people do relate to.”
She also told me about Australia’s second scientific satellite, Australis-Oscar 5, which was built in the 1970s by a group of students from Melbourne University. “The got together, they designed and built this satellite, they had help from a US group and through them they managed to negotiate a free launch with NASA and this little satellite is still up there in orbit,” she said.
At the end of the day, it’s important that everyone in Australia knows that whatever our future in space is, they have a say in how it happens. As Dr. Gorman explained, it’s critical that we understand our role in the global space industry, but also that we understand its role in our lives. We should certainly start caring more as a nation and to be honest, I reckon we will.
If you’re interested in space archaeology and all things tech, you can catch Dr. Alice Gorman at Adelaide’s Hybrid World where she’ll be talking on a panel about the space industry and technology in Australia. You can learn more about the event and grab tickets right here.Image: Getty Images