Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Space research in Australia - the successes and challenges

Space Industry Forum
Tuesday 16 August 2011 from 5.30-7.00pm
followed by refreshments

Council Room,
Level 4, Hawke Building
City West Campus
University of South Australia
North Terrace

Space Research in Australia -
the Successes and the Challenges
Chaired by Brett Biddington, Chair of the Space Industry Association of Australia

Bob Buxton (Flinders University) - Place and Space: Perspective in Earth Observations
Andrew Clark (Vipac) - Greenhouse Gas Monitor Project
Michael Davis (Adelta Legal) - Southern Hemisphere Summer Space Program
Jeff Kasparian (ITR, UniSA) - Space-based National Wireless Sensor Network

*RSVP by 12 August 2011
By email:

* Entry is free but places are limited so booking is essential

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What should Dr Space Junk do on the Day of Archaeology?

Help, everyone.  Next Friday, I will be writing about my day as a space archaeologist for the Day of Archaeology.

Here's what it's about:
Have you ever wondered what archaeologists really get up to? Is it all just digging or is there a lot more to it? The Day of Archaeology 2011 aims to give a window into the daily lives of archaeologists. Written by them, it will chronicle what they do on one day, July 29th 2011, from those in the field through to specialists working in laboratories and behind computers. This date coincides with the Festival of British Archaeology, which runs from 16th – 31st July 2011.

So what shall I do on that day?  In the way these things work, I actually have many interesting things to do in the week before, and even the day before (of that more later); but unless I want to sit at my computer and write, I haven't got anything particularly rivetting apart from farewell drinks for our former Dean of Humanities later in the afternoon on Friday 29th July. OK, so maybe they want an ordinary day, but believe me, no-one wants to read about me visiting the finance officer to see about our budget for the field school or going through the class lists to chase down outstanding assessment, or reading my way through PhD students' chapters. That might characterise an academic's life, but not necessarily an archaeologist's.

Here's my preliminary ideas: I could:

1. visit the Aviation Museum in Port Adelaide to have a serious look at their collections
2. go out to the University of South Australia at Mawson Lakes and have a look at their FedSat materials (actually I'm liking this option!)
3. do one of my favourite activities, op-shopping in the hope of locating rare Woomera or other space souvenirs, and vintage items from the 1950s-1970s related to space (I'm liking this one even more!)
4. make a second version of DrSpaceJunkSat (my cardboard satellite) as a sort of experiment in performance art. (This might be especially appropriate as the day before I am giving a joint seminar on Theatre/Archaeology with a drama person).
5.  write something.  Well they do say "behind a computer" is acceptable.  Perhaps documenting my thought processes would be interesting enough.

So these are the options I've thought of so far, but perhaps I am completely forgetting some marvellous space thing in Adelaide that I should really pursue, or perhaps there is some lead that I should follow up.

Please, if you have any outstanding ideas for my day, do share them.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The psychological effects of Skylab: divine retribution

It is 1979 in Punjab, India. The U.S. space station - SKYLAB - hurtles toward the Indian sub-continent. A young Punjabi boy, six-year-old Puneet, just stomped on a frog during play. Now, as he listens to a radio broadcast about the imminent crash, he fills with dread that SKYLAB will strike his home and kill him and his family. This charming story, inspired by true events, draws us into Puneet's exotic world and with his struggle as a boy growing up.
Written & Co-Directed by - Arshdeep S Jawandha
Directed by - Pat Pecorella

This short film was made in 2006.  I find it interesting for the way it depicts a particular response to Skylab - the idea that an event in the heavens is caused by an action on Earth (The pre-enlightenment view that heaven and earth are interconnected - as above, so below......).  In the little boy's eyes, the disparity in scale does not seem odd at all: he is convinced that the fall of Skylab is caused by his naughtiness in squashing a live frog.  Skylab is used as a way to illuminate the boy's understanding of how the world works.

He's terrified that the small world we see in the film - the house, the kitchen where his mother prepares meals, the garden, his father reading the newspaper in the sitting room - will be destroyed when the space station falls on it.  Skylab is a metaphor for his awareness of the instability of all that seems solid around him.  He's like the frog, for whom the violence of his stomp comes without warning and from above.

The director, Pat Pecorella, commented that "Scientists attempted to guide it [Skylab] into the Indian Ocean, but its crashing somewhere in India was a possibility. Indian people remember this event and how frightened they were as children".  Arshdeep  S. Jawandha, who wrote it and also co-directed (I guess he was basing it on his own experiences as a boy), seems to be a psychiatrist who specialises in children, if my internet sleuthing is correct.  (On the other hand, they could be two completely different people).

The film starts, as you will see, with the text:
NASA launched the Skylab space station in 1973.  It sustained severe damage during liftoff. It was expected to fall somewhere in the Indian subcontinent, where exactly was unknown.

It's true, of course, that the space station was damaged during launch.  But this text implies that the damage was the cause of its de-orbit, which is not the case.  All the same it's a quick and simple way to explain to a general audience how a spacecraft falls out of the sky.  Perhaps Jawandha was conscious of not making people believe that this sort of thing could happen at any old time (which it can, and does) - he has to make a plausible, predictable reason to prevent the same panic shown by little Puneet.

Puneet is concerned about some sorts of scale. He asks his mother,  "Can it [Skylab] be bigger than our house?";  "Is space bigger than Earth?"  The next morning, he finds the body of the frog and buries it.  Then he hears on the radio that Skylab fell into the Indian Ocean, as if his penitence has averted the disaster.

So, in my reading, it's all about causality and scale in the mind of a child.


Friday, July 08, 2011

Skylab songs

Procrastination is a wonderful thing.  Yes, there are still assignments waiting for my red pen (although actually I don't use red pen any more, studies have shown that it upsets the students), and drafts from my PhD students to be read.

So what do I do? Instead of summoning all my energy and determination to complete these tasks so I can have a relatively stress-free Saturday, I am looking up Skylab stuff online.  And I've discovered an amazing thing:  the Electric Light Orchestra's 1979 hit Don't bring me down was dedicated to Skylab.

The lyrics are unenlightening - only the "Don't bring me down" refrain really has any relevance.  But I'm still pretty intrigued by this.  It's the third song with a Skylab connection that I've located during this research.

One is by Steve Dahl, a US radio personality:

Ballad of a Balladonia Night is by the Australian Christian group Family. You can listen to it here on the Honeysuckle Creek website (which is well worth spending time on for many other reasons). I do have the full lyrics, laboriously transcribed, in my office at work, so perhaps will post them next week.

This instrumental, however, is a little more poignant - it's by a group called The Ventures, released in 1973, and the title is Skylab (Passport to the Future).

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Skylab in the cinema, and in French too!

I'm not the only person obsessed with Skylab at the moment ........ French actress and director Julie Delpy is making a loosely autobiographical comedy set in 1979, in which an extended family gathers for a birthday party in Brittany on the weekend of the re-entry.

Julie Delpy herself was 10 in 1979, and the film will be presented from the perspective of the ten-year old Albertine (Delpy plays Albertine's mother).  In mid-July that year, the world speculated about where Skylab would re-enter, and what the consequences would be (many thought the impact may make the Earth explode).  In the USA, people sold hard hats as "Skylab Survival Kits", and a restaurant invented the Skylab cocktail:  "Two of these and you won't know what hit you".  In more war-torn parts of the world, people thought of taking refuge in air-raid shelters; and there was a level of anxiety created by the earlier re-entry of a USSR satellite over Canada which released nuclear fuel.

Thanks to the bloggers at Julie Delpy: A tribute to her talent, I can tell you what the plot is:

Scripted by Delpy, the film is structured like a long flashback experienced by Albertine and triggered by a train journey with her husband and two children. During the trip, she remembers another journey she made when she was ten years old.
We are transported from 2018 to 1979. Albertine is with her parents and maternal grandmother on her way to the house of Aunt Suzette, her father’s elder sister, to spend the summer holidays there.
It’s her paternal grandmother’s birthday and the whole family is gathered together, including uncles, aunts and cousins. Endless meals, heated discussions about politics, racism, sexuality and education: the parents pass on their anxiety to the children who hear everything.
Skylab, the US satellite launched by NASA, thus becomes a huge fantasised monster, when it is just an obsession of Anna, Albertine’s mother, a woman who is as charming as she is neurotic, and is convinced it will crash into the west coast of France.
Here's a shot of Albertine with the family at St Malo, courtesy of Karius de Parius:

Fittingly, the film is being shot as we speak, at the same time of year as the re-entry.  The film is due for release in September, apparently, and you may guess that I will be at the cinema as fast as I can, since it combines two of my favourite things, space and French language.

And as I'm writing this, I realise that in my marking-and-thesis-draft addled brain, it has escaped my notice that the anniversary of the re-entry is coming up on July 13th!  The day before Bastille Day .... perhaps I should combine my traditional Bastille Day brekky with a Skylab celebration!