Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Western Australia's ESA tracking stations

A couple of weeks ago I ventured into the Swan Valley to visit the ESA tracking station at Gnangara. Ron Vogels showed me around the control room, where we saw incoming telemetry from the XMM satellite, the recently de-commissioned Intelsat antennae, and the ESA antenna. We climbed inside the antenna as far as it was safe to go, without invoking the special procedures to avoid decapitation by the safety hatch at the top level.

Unfortunately I didn't have the resources (ie time and a car) to go to the Deep Space tracking station near the rather fascinating settlement of New Norcia north of Perth. This community was founded by Benedictine monks who follow the traditions of their order and produce all sorts of culinary delights. But Gnangara also has its pleasures - after my friend Jane Balme was visibly tiring of all the satellite and space talk, we repaired to the Sandalford winery for lunch.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Ice Station Zebra and the poetry of Michael Dransfield

Yesterday I picked up a second-hand copy of Ice Station Zebra by Alistair Maclean, with a beautiful dustjacket of the nuclear submarine Dolphin under the green Arctic ice. My earlier speculation that the eponymous Ice Station may have been established in during one of the International Polar Years (1883 and 1931) was wrong. It is a new one. Reading it at the moment, eyes peeled for good Cold War quotes.

There is more on the literary front too. Last year I attended a mini-conference at Deakin University, Melbourne, on Landscapes and Memory. One of the presenters quoted a poem by Michael Dransfield (legendary Australian poet who very properly died of drug overdose at age 25) about the Australian landscape. As I listened, I realised with a shock that the landscape which he described was Woomera. The poem evoked red sand tracks, mushroom clouds, open desert. On Friday I decided I needed to track this poem down and went into the Special Collections room at UWA library and read my way through every single bloody Michael Dransfield book they had. To my great frustration I could not find the poem I remembered. Unless it was published in another collection, or even unpublished. By strange coincidence, the partner of Alicia, the Special Collections desk person, is a Dransfield expert. She promised to ask him for me. I did find another top space poem though, so my afternoon was by no means wasted.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Kourou controversy

The teaching term is now over at the University of Western Australia. What a relief! I was giving four lectures a week, all requiring a lot of preparation, and I had hardly any time to think of anything else.

Now, finally, there is space in my head to write about Kourou for Sky and Space magazine.

My Kourou experience was very different to my expectations. I was to give a presentation about Woomera, and they asked me to censor it, removing all references to the 1947 protest about the impact of Woomera on Pitjantjatjara people, and to the detention centre. Why would I be talking about the detention centre (one might ask)?  Part of my argument is that Woomera has been a landscape of protest since 1947 until the present day. I also made the mistake of calling the detention centre a concentration camp in my abstract. This is accurate by whatever definition you use. Wikipedia says "the term refers to situations where the internees are persons selected for their conformance to broad criteria without judicial process, rather than having been judged as individuals". The use of this term caused some consternation, apparently.

Unbeknownst to me, at the same time that I was proposing to speak about all these issues, a protest was actually happening at Kourou over the construction of the new Soyuz launch pad. The Guyana Space Centre feared that knowledge of the Woomera protest would fan the flames of rebellion among the local populace.

In some ways I wasn't displeased to think that ideas and history could have so much impact that a lone Aussie archaeologist was a threat to European space operations. On the other hand, the ethical dilemma I faced made me deeply uneasy.