Alice Gorman is an archaeologist who specializes in the material culture of space exploration, from its origins in the 1930s through to the present.
Alice Gorman – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
My story begins one day about 10 years ago when I was working as an archaeologist in Central Queensland on the kind of job I do most of the time which is looking at Aboriginal archaeological sites.
So I was out in the field, I was on a construction site so I had the steel capped boots on, high vis vest, hard hat. All of that stuff. Got to the end of the day. Hot, tired, sweaty. Went home. Didn’t bother to take off the boots or the vest. I went straight to the fridge and I got a cold beer and I went out onto my front veranda.
Now it’s in Queensland and as you know there’s no Daylight Savings there. So it’s pretty dark already by this time.
And when I look up into the sky — so I’m sitting back, sipping my beer, and suddenly a thought pops into my head. Amongst all those stars, some of those little bright dots are probably actually satellites. And some of them are probably quite old. They probably have some kind of archaeological potential.
So this was really the light bulb moment for me. I decided from that point that I was going to try and find out if one could do an archaeology of space exploration. After much soul searching I decided that I couldn’t actually pursue this idea from the wilds of Queensland.
So I resigned from my job. I packed up my entire house and put it into storage. And I embarked on that journey to find out. Like all space missions, that journey actually started on the surface of the earth for me.
So I started visiting rocket launch sites. I went to the US. I went to Woomera in the deserts of South Australia.
And I went to South America. I started looking in space museums and archives from Canberra to Paris. And I also started turning up at space conferences where the presence of an archaeologist raised a few eyebrows, to begin with.
Then I was offered a job at Flinders University in the department of archaeology. This gave me the opportunity to actually carry out this research as part of my normal job.
So what I’d like to do today is take you to some of my favorite archaeological sites and to some of my favorite artifacts in the rest of the solar system.
I’d like you to imagine that the Sydney Opera House is actually a massive space liner and we’re currently sitting on the tarmac at Sidney spaceport about to take off. We’re going to be the first space tourists, proper space tourists. And I’m going to take you to low Earth orbit, then to the Moon.
We’re going to pop over to Venus for a brief stop. And finally go out to the very edge of the solar system.
So let’s start in Earth orbit, low Earth orbit specifically. This is the area about 200 kilometers to about 2,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. And it is actually crawling with space junk or orbital debris. And it is, as I’m sure many people are aware, it’s a significant environmental problem for our time. We’re dependent on so many satellite services for navigation, telecommunications, Earth observation.
All of these things we rely on, even your ATM. Every time you use an ATM, it’s working on satellite signals. But there’s so much junk up there, it’s starting to get in the way. So something will have to be done, there’s no doubt about that.