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Home » Alice Gorman on Space Archaeology at TEDxSydney (Transcript)

Alice Gorman on Space Archaeology at TEDxSydney (Transcript)

Alice Gorman at TEDxSydney

Alice Gorman is an archaeologist who specializes in the material culture of space exploration, from its origins in the 1930s through to the present.


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.

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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.

What I want to do though is ask the question before we start trying to get rid of some of this stuff, does any of it actually have cultural significance for us? Does it have heritage value and do we want to do something sensible about that instead of just destroy it all without thinking?

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To give you some examples, I’m going to look at two of my very favorite spacecraft. The first is Vanguard I. It was launched in 1958 by the United States and it’s currently the oldest human object in Earth orbit. It’s a particularly interesting satellite because it was part of the whole Cold War adversarial relationship between the US and the USSR.

But because the US wanted to promote a particular view of space as a peaceful and democratic place they did some really interesting things. They approached a number of countries to set up satellite tracking stations including Australia, and they also set up groups of volunteers that they called Moon watch groups to help visually track the satellite and send data in.

And again there were quite a few moon watch groups here in Australia. So this wasn’t Cold War confrontation, this was actually international cooperation involving ordinary citizens, what we’d now call the “citizen scientist”.

So I think this gives Vanguard I a very particular social meaning. It’s very historic, but it’s also something that means a lot of things to all of these citizen scientists. And as the oldest human object in orbit, I think we shouldn’t blast it out of the sky into bits if we don’t actually have to.

A bit closer to home is the Australis Oscar 5 satellite. In the 1960s a bunch of physics students at Melbourne University and their friends and colleagues decided they wanted to build and launch their own satellite. So they got together and they designed it from scratch. They had no money. They were amateurs in this game.

So they had to test new technologies. They had to beg, borrow and steal components. They even had to buy stuff just straight off the shelf at the hardware store. And they nearly launched Australia’s first satellite. They were beaten to it by WRESAT I which was launched in 1967 and made Australia the third nation in space.

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Anyway, they weren’t the first Australian satellite, but they did manage to secure a launch in 1970 from Vandenberg Air Force Base. They also used volunteers. There were people in 27 countries across the world who volunteered to track this little black and white box and send the data back so its scientific experiments could be done. And it’s still in orbit.

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