Sunday, November 22, 2020

A space junk bestiary: yo-yo de-spin weights

Among the oldest pieces of space junk in Earth orbit are de-spin weights from the US series of TIROS weather and TV satellites. I've been noticing them in debris catalogues for years, and decided it was time to find out what they were really all about.  

TIROS 1 was launched in 1960 - just three years after Sputnik 1. The satellite is now 60 years old! TIROS stands for Television Infrared Observation Satellite Program. One aim of the satellite was to see if Earth observation from space would work, and could be used for weather reporting and prediction. The other was to test television broadcast potential - so you can see that it is one of the progenitors of two very significant satellite-based industries today.

The satellite was a cylindrical drum covered in solar panels with short, angled antennas. It returned one of the earliest pictures of Earth from outside.

Image courtesy of NASA

There were 10 satellites in the first TIROS series, after which they continued as TIROS-N in collaboration with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Of these 10, five are still in Low Earth Orbit as pieces of space junk.

So what about these de-spin weights?

When rockets are launched, a key consideration is keeping them stabilised so that they don't pitch, roll or yaw, and end up in a crater in the ground instead of in orbit. One way to stabilise them is to spin them perpendicular to their long axis. This method of stabilisation was frequently used for the launch of small, lightweight spacecraft (Cornille 1962:1). The problem with that is when the satellite is released, it has the same spin as the rocket, which is generally too high for it to function. So you have to reduce the spin and reset the satellite. This is what the de-spin weights are for. There might be one or two weights. Two weights are called yo-yo weights, and one is just a yo-weight. 

Fortunately, I did not have to figure this out all by myself, as the Practical Engineer has done a pretty great job of explaining the principles, as you will see in the video.

This is a description of the mechanism from Fedor (1961:1):

The yo-yo de-spin mechanism is essentially two pieces of wire with weights on the ends ...  These wires are symmetrically wrapped around the equator of the satellite and the weights are secured by a release mechanism. At a pre-selected time after satellite spin-up and release from the launching vehicle, the weights are released, thus discarding enough momentum to reduce the spin of the satellite to the desired value.

The weights are not only released, but discarded as mission-related debris. This kind of discard is now discouraged in guidelines for mitigating space debris. 

Something I wonder about is whether the weights still in orbit belong to the TIROS satellites remaining in orbit, or whether they belong to a re-entered TIROS? Did the de-spin weight tend to re-enter with corresponding satellite? Is the orbit an indicator? 

So many questions! Did the USSR use this mechanism for satellite stabilisation? There are certainly no USSR de-spin weights catalogue from this period that I could find.

And what did they look like? Those illustrated in Fedor (1961) look (from the grainy image) to be rectangular, maybe about an inch long. Fedor (1961) also uses a unit of measurement called the slug-ft/2 and I don't even know what it is. OK, I looked it up and this is what it is.

Where else can we find de-spin weights? The Explorer series used them. Here is a marvellous illustration of them working on Explorer 11, launched in 1961 (from Cornille 1962).

This is a de-spin weight from 1962 British satellite Ariel 1. Note that this one doesn't have a rigid cord, but a tightly coiled spring (also from Cornille 1962). The 'stretch' yo-yo design was patented by Cornille and Fedor in 1970. This example has, to my mind, a rather sinister snake-like aura as if it might suddenly spring to life and start seeking you out with its eyeless head and whipping tail.


The Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres, launched in 2007, used de-spin weights, as the launch rocket's 3rd stage was spin-stabilised. I wanted to know where the weights ended up. Fortunately my friend Ady James knew where to look for them and located this blog post by Dawn Mission Director and Chief Engineer Marc Rayman for me:

After the third stage has finished firing, it remains securely attached to Dawn for another 4 minutes 50 seconds. Although the stage is stabilized by spinning, the spacecraft does not operate that way; yet by this time, they would be spinning together at 46 rpm, too fast for the latter’s control system. Therefore, starting 5 seconds before separation, the third stage activates a surprisingly simple system to slow its rotation rate. Wrapped around the Delta are two cables, each 12.15 meters (39 feet 10 inches) long. At the end of each is a 1.44-kilogram (3-pound-3-ounce) weight made of aluminum and tungsten. When the cables are released, the spin causes them to unwind. As they carry the weights farther and farther out, the spin slows down because of the same principle that makes an ice skater spin faster by pulling her arms in or slower by extending them to her sides. After 4 seconds, when they are fully unwound, the cables unhook from the spacecraft. With their weights still attached, they enter independent orbits around the Sun; perhaps one of them will be studied by a future solar system archeologist.

Well there you go, he was right as that's exactly what I'm doing! This post adds some interesting details. The weight is let go by releasing the cable, so the cable is still attached to it. I wonder if it remains taut after release? The cables are 12 metres, more than the length of two tall women end-to-end. No information about the shape of the weights, but we do have materials - aluminium and tungsten. Why tungsten, a metal in short supply on Earth? There is no need to make these weights durable as their only purpose is to be heavy. Perhaps tungsten adds the required weight for size. How does this alloy react to space weather, plasmas and bombardment? Is it contributing aluminium particles to the space environment? Could they combine with the atomic elements so common in the space environment to form new compounds? Al2O3 (aluminium oxide) or tungsten oxides?

The weights would, one presumes, behave like a meteorite as they are solid. And more like a metal-rich meteorite too. Would they be distinguishable through a telescope or by spectroscopy?

So many questions.

How many of these weights are circulating among all the space junk? Jonathan McDowell's catalogue of space objects has 286 de-spin weights listed. How many of these are still in orbit is something I'll have to leave for a future calculation.

What about the damage a collision with a de-spin weight would cause? These are dense, heavy, solid objects, and I'm going to guess for that reason would be far more destructive than something of a similar size, cross-sectional area or velocity, but made of different materials. It should also be possible to model how an impact crater from collision with one of them might differ from other pieces of space junk. This would help identify liability for the damage, as the launching state is responsible for this under UN treaties.

Comparatively, there are not that many de-spin weights, compared say to rocket bodies, but perhaps the greater damage they can do would merit being selectively targeted for active debris removal. 

As Fedor and Cornille are rapidly becoming my yo-yo gurus, I thought I should learn a little more about them. Sadly Henry Cornille died in 2019 at the age of 80. He went on to work on the Apollo programme. I couldn't find anything about Fedor online so this clearly requires deeper archival research. If you think about it, they are the pioneers of today's space tether technology.

I've got another loose end to tie up here - the relation to the popular children's toy called the yo-yo. I realise I don't know anything about its origins. *goes and looks up* Well, this was an eye-opener, as my assumptions that it was 1960s invention turn out to be extremely wrong! The yo-yo is very ancient technology, originating in China (as indeed does rocket technology). 

This is a fetching red figure vase showing a boy playing with a yo-yo in the 5th century BCE, from the Antikensammlung museum in Berlin.

The yo-yo despin weights are a lovely thread linking physics from the past to the future. I've become quite captivated by them.


Cornille, Henry J.Jnr 1962 A method of accurately reducing the spin rate of a rotating spacecraft. NASA Technical Note D-1420 

Fedor, JV 1961 Theory and design curves for a  yo-yo de-spin mechanism for satellites. NASA Technical Note D-708

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Ten more ways to get involved in space without leaving Earth

This post follows on from Ten Ways to Get Involved in Space Without Leaving Earth. When I started to put this list together, it turned out there were SO many more things you could do from the safety of terrestrial gravity and atmosphere! Some of these are also very compatible with Covid-19 isolation. So here are the next ten for your delight and edification.

11. Contemplate the Moon
Could anything be more simple than this? There is even a special night for it! International Observe the Moon Night is on September 26 every year. But you can do this one any time of year, any time of day or night. Just look up. Perhaps there will be a white crescent against a blue sky; perhaps a full disc glowing in the night. Just look, and think or feel whatever you want.

12. Experience weightlessness
Ever wanted to know what it was like to be freefall, without having to pay a cool 65 million dollars to go the International Space Station, or even $5000 to go on the Vomit Comet? Hell, you could even do it without any vomit at all! All you have to do is locate your nearest amusement park and find the drop tower. Dreamworld in Queensland has one that's 119 m tall and gives you 5 seconds of freefall. That may not seem like much reading it on a page, but believe me, you will really feel it! The tallest drop tower is the Lex Luthor Drop of Doom in the Six Flags Magic Mountain park in California (120 m).

13. Visit another world through words.
To be transported to another world, all you need to do is read. There are some wonderful books which make you feel immersed in the environments of another planet. One of my favourites is CS Lewis' Voyage to Venus. Sure, it's based on outdated science (Venus is a warm waterworld in this novel), but it truly makes you feel the sensory experience of skies, waters, plants that are alien and yet speak to some deep human dream.

It would be great to put together an anthology of space environmental writing - passages or short stories which really evoke otherworldly places. Science fiction readers will no doubt have plenty of their own favourite examples, but others might appreciate some pointers. It's not like I need more projects at the moment, but oh this one would be so much fun to do!

14. Watch space films
So much choice here! Settle down with an action adventure, a thriller, a documentary, a romantic comedy. OK, so there don't seem to be many romantic comedies set in space, but did you know, for example, that Notting Hill features scenes on board a space station? And soon, it seems we might have a new one actually filmed in space. NASA has confirmed that it's working with Tom Cruise to make a movie on the International Space Station.

Some of my favourite space films are Christopher Riley's First Orbit, the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, the space mining drama Moon [NB this link has spoilers], and First Man, which I reviewed here.
Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924)

Then there are the vintage classics, many of which you can watch on YouTube. My picks are Forbidden Planet, Aelita Queen of Mars, Frau im Mond, Cat Women of the Moon, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Night of the Living Dead, the original zombie apocalypse film, involves both space (the origin of the zombie plague) and contagion, so it's very appropriate isolation viewing. It holds up much better than you might imagine.

It's always good to have a laugh about the cheesy plots and clunky pre-CGI special effects, not to mention the notions of what the future was going to be like; but many of these vintage films are also quite insightful and raise issues which are very relevant to contemporary issues in space travel and ethics.

15. Best of the best of space on You Tube
One of the best things on Space YouTube is actual live astronauts demonstrating how things work in microgravity. US astronaut Don Pettit was fantastic. He made a series of videos demonstrating how to do basic tasks in microgravity, which you can watch here. Chris Hadfield has also made a number of excellent videos - of course, one of his most popular was playing David Bowie's Space Oddity on his guitar, which became an instant cult classic! You could start with these astronauts, but there is a wealth of material on YouTube and NASA's channel to delight in.

16. Social media space
Getting involved in space is as simple as finding some topic, organisation or person you like, and following them on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, or whatever platform works for you. As well as getting to know the community, you can talk to people, ask questions, or contribute your own thoughts. I've met many lovely people through these encounters! I'm not going to recommend anything here as there is so much, and you will do better to look for the thing that interests you the most.

Why not start your own social media account, or even blog, devoted to the space things you like best? You don't have to be an expert (although it helps not to spread misinformation - please fact check carefully!). And remember it doesn't have to be about hard core science or engineering: perhaps you like space poetry (I know I do), or vintage space-age teacups (another of my favourites). Sharing things you love with other people who love them too is one of the most enjoyable aspects of social media.

17. Support a crowd-funded project
Amateurs have been the mainstay of space since the rocket societies of the 1930s, and have been launching and tracking their own satellites since the 1960s. I'm a huge fan of citizen or community science. We don't have to leave space to the big boys (I say that deliberately). You might not have space or rocket expertise yourself, but you can support those who do and feel part of a project. Of course, it's best to be prepared for disappointment - your chosen project may not make it into space or even get off the ground. For me, it's the participation that is the important thing.

Here's a lists of space projects currently listed on Kickstarter:

Perhaps you have a space project that you would like to resource using crowd-funding! This might be a good place to start:

18. Invite someone to give a talk to your group
In the Covid-19 era, in-person talks have been replaced by Zoom events. These are great as they allow for remote participation, even people from other countries! They reduce costs and allow people who are not able to easily move about or leave the house the opportunity to participate.

Be conscious that people are often asked to give enormous amounts of their time for free, so it's best to have a budget for a speaker - even if the talk is online. Academics and space professionals are often expected to do some public outreach as part of their job, so this is far more critical for freelancers, those without a full-time job, or those for whom public outreach is not part of their job. I'm not saying don't ask if you don't have a budget, just be aware.

19. Attend a conference
Although conferences are usually academic or industry events, if you are able to pay the registration fee there is no reason you can't attend a space conference. You can hear all the talks, meet the people, and feel part of a community. In Australia, the annual space conference is the Australian Space Research Conference, usually held in September-October.

SpaceUps are wonderful 'unconferences' which you can find all over the world. The unconference format is driven by the participants: when you arrive there is usually a big board or wall where people offer talks or workshops, or ask for talks or workshops they would like. It all happens organically on the day. Usually there will be a couple of invited speakers as well.

Of course, the Covid-19 world has meant that many conferences are being run entirely online. This radically reduces the cost of travel and accommodation and all those other incidentals you incur if a conference is not in your home town. Participation has never been easier! The down side is that you don't get to meet and know people in the same way and you need a good internet connection which not everyone has.

20. Download a space app
Space is only as far away as your smartphone or device! There are so many good things out there. Here are a few that I fancy.
What you see with Stellarium

Stellarium: point your phone at the sky, and this app will tell you all the constellations, stars, planets and space stations that are in the sky above you!

Fireballs in the Sky: this is a community science that allows you to contribute your sightings of meteors, fireballs and space junk to a scientific project.

Deluxe Moon: all things Moon including gardening advice. It's got astrology information too, if that is your bag.

Want to photograph the Moon or other night sky features? These apps will help!

So there you have it. No excuses to languish on Earth when there are so many ways to leave the planet without a rocket!

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Dr Space Junk's Pan-Galactic Birthday Party

This is an exercise I created to allow my friends to join me online (through Twitter) to celebrate my recent birthday, as the Covid-19 virus has stopped all physical parties across the world. It was such fun I thought it was worth preserving!  Here it is in nine tweets.

You might need a pen and paper for this. We are going to create a pan-galactic party. I'm going to stay here on Earth for the moment, but you, my Twitter friends, are going to join me from elsewhere in the cosmos. 
And where might this elsewhere be? I will show you how to find out. Please take a moment to get a beverage of your choice (I'm going for some more sparkles) and instructions will follow. 
Step 1. Using this random planet generator, find out which planet you are currently tweeting from. It might not be your home planet, just where you are right now. Save it or write it down! 
Does everyone have their planet now? Step 2. Because you are a super-galactic traveller, you also need your own starship. It will have a witty and satirical name. Of course, it's a Culture ship! Here's how to find your starship's name.  
Step 3. An intrepid astronaut like you doesn't have a regular name, you have a special name befitting your status. This is how you get your astronaut name. Choose from the list
Step 4. Everywhere you travel in this crazy cosmos of ours, you are accompanied by your favourite pet. What species? You decide! But choose it's name from here.  
OK so now you have a planet, a ship, a special astronaut name, and your faithful pet. Step 5. Go to the kitchen and pick a random object. Just whatever speaks to you.  
Step 6. Pretend your random kitchen object is something from your ship, or the planet, or from your last stop. Describe what it does and what it's for. It could be anything. 
Final step! Take a picture of your space (kitchen) object. Tell me your planet, ship, astronaut and pet names, and what your object is for. I can't wait to hear the results!
To give you an idea of how it works, here is one I made earlier. I'm at the planet Rada (see below), not a very hospitable place, so probably I am just orbiting it. My ship is the Rapid Offensive Unit (ROU) Trade Surplus, and I am Commander Jaylen Elmes. I travel the galaxies with my faithful pet Pipsy, a snorgle from the planet Bepo. (I looked up the Random Planet Generator again to find this planet).

Planet Rada. Perhaps I'll go home now.

I always take one of these when I travel. It's a matter re-organiser. You can choose from four different fields, which will recreate the material you feed into it as crystal, antimatter, dark matter or cheese.  

Matter re-organiser, a very handy machine.
So there you have it, a way to create your own galactic adventure. If you were sufficiently energetic you could write a story to go with it. I just sat back and enjoyed what my friends came up with. Many added their own witty touches to the basic structure, and I was vastly entertained! I might have been in isolation, but it was one of the best birthdays!

Monday, April 13, 2020

Is Earth's core a global commons and what does this mean for outer space?

On April 6, 2020, US President Trump issued an Executive Order rejecting the 1979 Moon Agreement and the idea that outer space is a global commons. 

What is space if it is not a global commons? Other such commons include Antarctica, the deep sea, the atmosphere, and cyberspace. We plebs cannot be denied use and access to these places - no-one is going to be selling us oxygen to breathe, on Earth at least, and for the foreseeable future. But as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, I don't think anything can be ruled out. (Note that the atmosphere on Mars might also be a global commons, but as it's not suited to human use, manufactured breathable air may be a commodity there). 

I think Trump's rejection of space as a global commons is really insidious, and the precursor to carving up space between commercial interests. It got me to thinking about a place that mirrors outer space, only you couldn't get any more inner, or deeper into the gravity well. I'm talking about Earth's core.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Image by Roen Kelly

The core has two layers. The outer core is a fluid iron-nickel layer about 2400 km thick wrapped around the inner core, a solid iron-nickel sphere, about 1220 km in diameter.  They're both rotating, but in different directions. The temperature of the outer core ranges from 4000 to 6000 degrees celsius. One of the key effects of the core is to generate Earth's magnetic field, which protects us from the solar wind. Without it life on Earth would be very different.

Sure, it's a big ball of molten metal that we can't get to, but I don't see why this prevents us from thinking about it's status. Space was once inaccessible too, and Jules Verne imagined journeys to both. In 1864, he published Journey to the Centre of the Earth, where his heroes attempt to descend to the core through lava tubes. They don't achieve their goal and there is, sadly, no hidden path straight to the centre. At this stage the nature of the core was unknown but one theory was that it was molten. It was also thought that there were large cavities inside Earth which might sustain ecosystems of different kinds (some containing prehistoric fauna). About 200 km down, Verne's intrepid explorers find a vast underground lake and caverns with their own weather systems.

Source: Wikimedia
The existence of the core was proven by Richard Oldham in 1906, and by the early 1930s, the analysis of seismic waves passing through Earth showed that it was indeed liquid. The solid inner core was discovered by Danish seismologist Inge Lehmann in 1936 from analysis of a New Zealand earthquake. 

These days we think of Earth as solid, like a boring Easter egg. There are some very deep caves both on land and under the sea, but they're only about 2 km. 

Technology may help where we can't find natural routes to the underworld. The problem is the increasing temperature and pressure as you go down through the mantle, which crushes and melts the equipment. The deepest humans have ever drilled is 12 km. That's just 0.4% of the 2900 km you'd need to go to get to the core.

All the same, the mysteries of the interior of Earth continue to influence our desires and imagination. Only in recent years have scientists started to explore the dark biosphere, microbial and wormy life which thrives in the dark fissures and seams of the deep rock. Perhaps there aren't plesiosaurs in subterranean lakes, but it seems the deep Earth is not sterile, either. And perhaps we need Planetary Protection policies for the deep layers of this, and other planets.

A global uncommons?

The next question is whether there are any resources in Earth's core that could be used by humans.  We may run out of easily accessible iron ore near the surface, for example. This is one of the reasons asteroid mining is being pursued. We might not quite be equipped to deal with extracting it in liquid form, though. 

Heat from the core is already used in geothermal energy, but the extraction happens close to the surface. Geothermal energy is a renewable energy source, and is regulated at a national level. 

How much can be owned below the surface of Earth is also a matter for national regulation. In Australia before 1891, land titles extended to the core in the common law principle of usque adcoelom et usque ad inferos.  The complete sentence is 'whoever's is the soil, it is theirs all the way to Heaven and all the way to Hell'. After 1891, states placed limits on the depths below the surface. In Victoria, for example, the Crown owns the land below 15 m to the centre of Earth. 

And what about treaties or conventions setting out the ground rules for interacting with the core, like there are for outer space? If they exist, I couldn't find them. There seems to be nothing to prevent me claiming ownership of the core, apart from the tiny annoyances of being unable to access it or enforce my ownership. (In 2010, a woman claimed legal ownership of the Sun).

Perhaps we could call Earth's core - and by analogy all planetary cores, and unbreathable atmospheres, a global uncommons or perhaps even dyscommons. Everyone has rights to them and the benefits that derive from them (for example, the protection of magnetic fields), but they have limited or zero commercial use for the people who think of Earth in that way (which I'd prefer not to). The uncommons may underlie the commons that are the subject of competing claims and conflicts.  The commons then only comes into being when it has something of value to offer. For example, geostationary orbit is very valuable real estate, but only became so when it was possible to elevate satellites to this region. We may see something similar with cislunar space in the future.

But uncommons don't have to be metrically defined regions of Earth or space at all. As Judith Farquhar, Lili Lai and Marshall Kramer say,
The uncommons is not, in other words, an exterior to the one-world world; rather, it is a possible world that can make itself partly known in a mottled and ever-changing light and shade. (2017)

The one-world world (Law 2011, 2015) is a single vision of what Earth or the cosmos is. Pretty much all of our legal and scientific approaches to space are based on a one-world world. Law argues that the dominance of this one-world world by northern hemisphere thinking (ie industrial capitalist nations) makes the raising of multiple, but simultaneous, ways of experiencing the world seem eccentric and self-indulgent. Think about this and tell me it has not sometimes been your reaction when hearing about, for example, Indigenous worldviews about space. It's not easy to train yourself out of this, to see a fractiverse, as Law puts it, rather than a universe. For me, at least, it's an ongoing project.

My final question is both about how this furthers our thinking about outer space as a global commons, and what this means for defining commons or uncommons on regions of other planets. I don't have any answers just now but I feel I'm on a path of thought that might be productive.


Farquhar, Judith, Lili Lai and Marshall Kramer 2017 A Place at the End of a Road: A Yin-Yang Geography. Anthropologica 59(2): 216-227

Law, John 2011 What’s Wrong with a One-World World? Paper presented to the Center for the Humanities, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut on 19th September, 2011 d.pdf

Law, John 2015 What's Wrong with a One-World World? Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 16(1): 126–139

Friday, January 31, 2020

Australian space icon: Mr Squiggle, the Man from the Moon

The impact of the Space Age was not just in science and technology - it was also in popular and everyday culture. If you were a kid growing up in Australia from the 1960s until the the 1990s, you would have been familiar with a children's television icon: Mr Squiggle, the Man from the Moon. Mr Squiggle is a huge part of Australian television history, but I'm more interested in what the programme says about how space travel was perceived in the 1960s and after.

Squiggle basics

This is Mr Squiggle's theme tune:
Here's Mr Squiggle
With lots of fun for everyone
Here's Mr Squiggle, sing a happy tune
You can see we're as happy as can be
Mr Squiggle, the man from the Moon.

Mr Squiggle was the brainchild of political cartoonist and puppeteer Norman Hetherington. The pencil-nosed puppet's television debut was in 1959. At first Mr Squiggle was part of a six week stint on the Children's TV Club on the ABC, but soon gained his own stand-alone programme. Margaret, who married Norman in 1958, wrote the scripts for the show while Norman performed all the character voices. (Note that while Norman has his own Wikipedia page, Margaret doesn't).

Children would send in their 'squiggles', and Mr Squiggle used his pencil nose to make them into pictures, accompanied by a female sidekick. Other characters included Bill Steamshovel, Gus the snail, Merv Wallop and his nephew Wayne, Reg Linchpin, Doormat, the grumpy Rocket and a talking Blackboard.

Mr Squiggle lived at 93 Crater Crescent on the Moon and travelled to Earth every week in his rocket or by going for a 'space-walk'. He could also break out into gravity-defying 'space-walks' spontaneously in the middle of shows. Sometimes, if Rocket was very grumpy, Mr Squiggle would use an umbrella for the descent. 

The action takes place in a very ordinary, regular backyard, with gum trees, in the fictional location of Bandywallop. (The Collins dictionary defines Bandywallop as 'Australian informal: noun. An imaginary town, far from civilization'). There's a rainwater tank where Bill Steamshovel hangs out, and old, weathered yards surrounded by bush. I guess part of the appeal of Mr Squiggle, as we got so much US and UK children's television, was that it was set in Australia with Australian accents and culture. 

Mr Squiggle's female sidekicks were:
The science fiction writer Terry Dowling was a resident guest on Mr Squiggle, from 1979 to 1982. He wrote songs and performed them on the programme with his guitar.  Comedian and radio personality Mikey Robins played Reg Linchpin for a year in 1989-1990. The programme ended in 1999. 

Two books were spin-offs from the series. Margaret Hetherington wrote them, and Norman did the illustrations. They were Mr Squiggle and the Great Moon Robbery (1980) and Mr Squiggle and the Preposterous Purple Crocodile (1992). There was also a colouring book in 1989 - Mr Squiggle and His Rocket Activity Book

Bradshaw, Richard 2010 Eulogy for Norman Hetherington 1921 - 2010. OPEN: Oz Puppetry Email Newsletter Issue 11

Gorman, A.C. 2018 Gravity's playground: dreams of spaceflight and the rocket park in Australian culture. In Darran Jordan and Rocco Bosco, ed. Defining the Fringe of Contemporary Australian Archaeology. Pyramidiots, Paranoia and the Paranormal. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 92-107.

Gorman, A.C. 2011 The sky is falling: how Skylab became an Australian icon. Journal of Australian Studies 35(4):529-546

Jones, Melissa 1989 Mr Squiggle chalks up 30 years. The Australian Women's Weekly p 65 (reproduced at

Solman, Peter 2010 Norman Hetherington Remembered. A personal recollection by Peter Soloman. OPEN: Oz Puppetry Email Newsletter Issue 11

Wilkins, Richard 2011 Black Ties, Red Carpets, Green Rooms. Chatswood: New Holland

Wilson, Peter J. and Geoffrey Milne 2004 The Space Between: The Art of Puppetry and Visual Theatre in Australia. Sydney: Currency Press

Friday, December 27, 2019

Stone Age to Space Age in 1960s and 70s American sitcoms

One weekend I was idling at home watching cheesy American sitcoms from the 1960s and 1970s, and I chanced across a very interesting episode of The Brady Bunch. I was arrested by a theme that I've written about often before: the trope which places the 'Stone Age' and the 'Space Age' in opposition. The Brady Bunch was a pretty unlikely place to stumble across a critique of this, but stranger things have happened.

This led me to recall a double episode of my favourite Space Age sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie, set in Hawai'i. I watched this again just as I was beginning to feel my way around my space research over a decade ago, and it's been in the back of my mind ever since. Its themes are similar to the Brady Bunch episodes, and it's interesting to see how they appear to the contemporary eye.

From buffalo to blast-off

In the Brady Bunch episode Grand Canyon or Bust (1971), Cindy and Bobby wander off during a family holiday and get lost. They meet Jimmy, a Hopi boy who has run away from his grandfather.

This is in the midst of the Apollo human spaceflight program: Apollo 14 had been launched in January 1971, and Apollo 15 in July.
Cindy and Bobby meet Jimmy

In the third episode of this story arc, The Brady Braves, Mr Brady rescues the three children. Jimmy says he loves his grandfather, but ran away because his grandfather talked about the past all the time. He says, 'Mr Brady, I'm tired of being an injun [sic]. I want to be an astronaut'. In his mind, the two are mutually exclusive. The 'Stone Age' cannot meet the 'Space Age'. 

When he is reunited with his grandfather, the grandfather says to Mr Brady, "He thinks because I speak of buffalo, I don't understand blast-offs". There are generational dilemmas in this phrase. The implication is that knowledge is lost in simply three generations between the grandparents and grandchildren. The youngsters don't want to know their heritage; the connection between the past and the future is not obvious to them. The grandfather thinks differently, however: for him the buffalo (a term commonly used for North American bison), a species which had been decimated by European invasion, is still the present, not the past. The buffalo symbolises the impacts of colonialism which young Jimmy wants to forget, but the grandfather sees the connections between the 'Space Age' and 'Stone Age'.

Later there's a ceremony in which the Brady Bunch are inducted as members of the tribe and given new names. There is an exchange of values flowing between past and present, invader and vanquished. Of course none of this is as fluffy and light in reality as in Brady Bunch world, but the episodes attempt to break down the idea that there should be a division between buffalo and blast-off - the Hopi boy can have his American Dream without giving up his heritage. It's a hopeful message about the reconciliation between Stone and Space Ages.

'Pity the Indians of Outer Space'

There's quite a few stories of American Indian reactions to the Apollo missions. They centre around the themes of Indigenous knowledge vs 'scientific' knowledge.

In series of stories (I heard one account first-hand from a US anthropologist), American Indian people tell anthropologists who ask their opinion of the Apollo lunar landings that they already knew the Moon was just a grey dusty rock. There was no need to spend billions on a mission to find out what was already known!

Another set of stories has a tribe sending a message to the lunar inhabitants, or the lunar spirits, to watch out for the visitors. They will only steal their land, or ruin the environment as Europeans have on Earth (eg Young 1983: 273).

These stories place Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge in opposition, and are told with the intention of mocking Western science - but the 'superstitious' knowledge of the First Nations people is also satirised. The 'Stone Age' and 'Space Age' still define the encounter. Like all good urban legends, the stories stop short of telling you what happened next. The conflict is not resolved but left hanging in the air.

As Young (1983:274) argues, however, these are different registers of knowledge. Although they are juxtaposed in the metaphor, they are not commensurate. Each requires a different class of action. And First Nations people are not, by these stories, positioned as the first astronauts. They are still excluded. The Space Age is seen as unnecessary for them.

I dream of a terra nullius

There's an interesting parallel in the on-location Hawai'ian episodes of I Dream of Jeannie, which are basically US propaganda to justify the illegal annexation of the islands. Hawai'i was an independent sovereign kingdom until the monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, was overthrown by an American conspiracy in 1893. In the 1960s, an independence movement was emerging in Hawaii just at the time when tourism was becoming a big industry. The IDOJ episodes represented space as soft diplomacy.

Hawaii was quite an important place in the US space program. NASA built a tracking station on the island of Kauai, in Koke'e State Park, in 1961 to support their first human spaceflight program, Project Mercury. The station went on to support Gemini and Apollo. Neil Armstrong himself was posted to the Kauai tracking station in 1965 when he was the CAPCOM (capsule commander) for Gemini 3. It's now called the Koke'e Park Geophysical Observatory.

The tracking station on Kauai in 1965. Image credit: NASA
The returning Apollo astronauts dropped into the sea; and the Pearl Harbour naval base, near Honolulu, was where the recovery fleet was stationed. (You might remember that astronaut Tony Nelson finds Jeannie's bottle on a tropical beach with palm trees when he steps out of his capsule). The Apollo 11-14 crew were quarantined in Honolulu.

NASA also used the stark volcanic landscapes of Hawaii to familiarise the Apollo 11 astronauts with lunar geology. In January 1965, the crew traipsed over terrain shaped by lava in training exercises, including a hike to the summit of the Mauna Loa volcano.

But of course, these uniquely Hawai'ian landscapes were not a terra nullius, the legal fiction of a land belonging to no-one. They were only a lunar analogue if you stripped away all history and culture; reduced them to a narrow geology where people had never set foot before.

'Oh, you don't think he's serious about this invasion business, do you?'

Oh, you don't think he's serious about that That invasion business, do you?

Read more:
Oh, you don't think he's serious about that That invasion business, do you?

Read more:
In Jeannie Goes to Honolulu (December 19, 1967), Tony and his comedic sidekick Major Roger Healey are on a 'working holiday' in Hawai'i when Jeannie joins them. The second part is The Battle of Waikiki (January 2, 1968). Tony expresses the desire to meet King Kamehameha, who founded the Kingdom of Hawai'i in 1810, and of course Jeannie summons him up.

Tony and Roger chat to King Kamehameha in downtown Honolulu.
Image courtesy of Sitcomsonline
The script is so entangled with colonial metaphors it would take a whole essay to pull them apart.  I'm not going to do it now! But there are some key points. Famously, Kamehameha was in power when Captain Cook came through and 'discovered' the islands in 1778.  There's a whole narrative of space exploration which co-opts the colonisation of the Pacific by intrepid seafarers, followed by the European colonial voyages, into a supposed universal human 'urge to explore' which leads to space. Thus Hawai'i's subjugation by the US is subsumed into an arc of inevitability. The connections in this narrative are so strongly embedded in space culture that the Apollo Lunar Surface Journals were created in emulation of Cook's journals during his Pacific voyages.

Part of the humour resides in King Kamehameha's reactions to modern technology. 'He has a chance to see what civilization has done for his country' says Roger. The king surveys the office buildings, hotels, sidewalks and motorcycles, but he's not impressed. He insists that they are removed. The astronauts are confused. Isn't it obvious that this is better? 'He's got to be made to see that civilization has helped, and the progress that's been made here', Tony says.

Once again, Indigenous knowledge and western scientific knowledge are brought face to face. Kamehameha performs a dance and causes it to rain (with intervention from Jeannie). Dr Bellows sees an opportunity:
Dr Bellows: Don't you realize if he went to Washington with us, have you any idea what it would mean? 
Tony:  It would certainly shake up the boys in meteorology.
Dr Bellows: Well I think so! Predicting the weather is one thing, but making the weather? Why, we're just beginning to experiment!
Interestingly, Dr Bellows prefigures the current trend to incorporate Indigenous knowledge in land management. Of course, the joke's on him: as Tony points out, no-one would believe him about the rainmaking.

The King is in no mood to be trifled with, and proposes to raise an army to take back the islands. But the only canoes he can find are rented at $2.00 an hour to tourists, and the only spears are souvenirs for purchase in the hotel gift shop. His soldiers are the staff at the 'Living Hawai'i' museum.

While King Kamehameha plans his moves, the NASA staff all head off for a grand luau with roasted pigs and tropical fruits. Kamehameha's attack is interpreted as a performance and his army desert to participate in the luau. The King gives up in disgust.

By the end of the program, he has been brought to heel. 'I do not understand your way of life but my people seem happy. Perhaps this progress is good for them', he says. 'You make sure your civilization take care of my people.' An interesting statement in light of the social divisions unremarked upon in the episode: the local Hawai'ians are employed to serve food, sell souvenirs, hire out war canoes to white American military personnel and tourists looking for authentic tiki culture.

And so by the end of the episode, all conflict is resolved neatly, delivering political stability in advance of the Apollo 11 mission.


The episodes are both blunt instruments and nuanced in ways you don't expect. The Brady Bunch episode has so many cliches and stereotypes, and yet it is basically promoting the idea that the Stone Age and Space Age are not opposed: the young Hopi boy CAN become an astronaut. The buffalo and blast-off can co-exist, neither erasing the other.

The Battle of Waikiki is a reverie on the continuity of colonial manliness, a theme analysed by Anne McClintock in Imperial Leather. King Kamehameha conquered and united the Hawai'ian islands, just like the astronauts are going to conquer space. And like the cannibal mythos, the astronauts have absorbed some of King Kamehameha's heroic qualities. They become his symbolic heirs in conquest. In doing so, they retrospectively bestow value on Indigenous cultures, which are not excluded but incorporated into the narrative while staying firmly fixed in the past.

Hawai'i is still a battleground of Stone Age/Space Age values. It's the location of the Hi-SEAS (Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) habitat, meant to simulate the experience of isolation on a long-duration space mission to Mars. The colonial refiguring of the landscape has morphed with changing USA space aspirations.

More recently, there has been controversy about the construction of a new telescope on the mountain of Mauna Kea.  The easy resort of placing 'Stone Age' in the past while 'Space Age' represents the future is being challenged by protectors resisting a manifestation of colonialism masked in science. It's complex and I don't pretend to understand enough about the issues to explain them here. One commentator, however, has called the protests 'one of the largest uprisings of Native Hawaiians in modern history'.

There are no Indigenous people in space, I have heard stated many times. Space is up for grabs with clean hands as no humans will be displaced, alienated, subjected to genocide. Space is the colonialist's wet dream.

But I would argue that it's a false framing to say that the lack of space Indigenes creates a carte blanche, a tabula rasa, a terra nullius. It's just that we don't recognise how deeply space is now inscribed with white, male, capitalist and colonialist values, as these are the default, invisible to the scientific and military cadres of which the space community is mainly composed. But because these things are defined by what they exclude, the exclusions are already present. You need a different perspective to perceive their power.

McClintock, Anne 1995 Imperial Leather. Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge

Young, Jane 1983 'Pity the Indians of outer space': Native American views of the space program. Western Folklore 46(4):269-279

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Words and poems by women in Dr Space Junk vs the Universe.

In my book Dr Space Junk vs the Universe: Archaeology and the Future, I start every chapter with a poem or a quote by a woman. This was something I decided to do very early on in the writing process.

There were poems and poets I already knew I wanted to include, such as the inspiring Christine Rueter (@Tychogirl). For other chapters, I had to do a lot of research to find the right fit. This, as you can imagine, was an incredibly rewarding process as I trawled through the internet poetry archive, discovering wonderful works and poets I had never come across before. There were some interesting Twitter conversations which led me to all kinds of beautiful writing. So much amazing poetry! I would have used them all if I could. (I'm very open to offers from a publisher to edit a book of women's space poetry....)

Then began the process of gaining permission to use the quotes. This came as a shock to me, as it's generally not necessary in academic writing. As my book was a regular bookshop book expected to make money, I had to negotiate copyright clearance. Sadly some did not come through in time and I had to find alternatives. Of that, more later.

Here are the poems/quotes as featured in the book, links to their full version, and a little explanation of what they mean for me.

Introduction: Looking Up, Looking Down
I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

From Ursula K Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969
Ursula K. Le Guin.
Image Credit: Dana Gluckstein / MPTV Images

The Left Hand of Darkness
is a justly renowned novel by the great master of science fiction. She explores the impacts of sex and gender on human social systems by imagining a society where neither exists as we understand it. It's what good science fiction should be: something that gives us insight into the other, and in doing so invites reflection on the causes and consequences of our own social being.

The quote implies that facts are not enough to tell a story, and facts themselves are dependent on context. I felt this was a fitting way to open the book, as I did not want to talk just about facts. I wanted it to be about the things that usually get left out of space narratives - feelings and emotions, social context, and the everyday.

Chapter 1: How I became a space archaeologist

And I am as far as an infinite alphabet
made from yellow stars and ice,
and you are as far as the nails of the dead man,
as far as a sailor can see at midnight
when he’s drunk and the moon is an empty cup,
and I am as far as invention and you are as far as memory.

Excerpt from Susan Stewart, Yellow Stars and Ice, 1982.

Susan Stewart.
Image credit:

I love this poem because it's about the distance between things that can't be measured. It seems to capture a paradox of space for me. Space can't be characterised by just numbers; its vast distances can be both infinite and intimate at the same time.

I love the juxtapostion of invention and memory. This reminds me of the Platonic theory of anamnesis: that all knowledge is just remembering what we already knew before our current embodiment.

It also reminds me of the story of little yellow droplets of frozen urine from the Mir space station, which sometimes became embedded in the windows of the US space shuttle.

It's a magical incantation too, with shades of the tarot in the empty cup, the dead man, the Moon. Perhaps I need to go back and read the rest of the poem in this light.

Chapter 2: Journey into Space

Our trajectory
the nautilus shell curved path
away from our home.

Poem by Christine Rueter, Our Trajectory, 2015

Christine Rueter. Image Credit: @tychogirl
I've been inspired by Christine Rueter's poetry and artworks ever since I met her on Twitter, and she is unfailingly generous in giving me permission to use her work. I first started to think about shell-and-space metaphors when I read Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space (1958). I had kind of hoped that the Poetics of Space would have a lot more of outer space in it than it did, but in fact outer space is folded into and interleaved with inner space if you look for it in this work.

The nautilus shell in Christine's poem is a curve both inwards and outwards. Home is the planet Earth, but also the home where I start this autobiographical chapter. The nautilus shell is the curves of orbit, the journey not to centre of Earth, vide Jules Verne, but into the infinite expanse of outer space.

Chapter 3: Space Archaeology Begins on Earth

This morning this planet is covered by winds and blue.
This morning this planet glows with dustless perfect light,
enough that I can see one million sharp leaves
from where I stand. I walk on this planet, its hard-packed

dirt and prickling grass, and I don’t fall off. I come down
soft if I choose, hard if I choose. I never float away.
Sometimes I want to be weightless on this planet, and so ...

Excerpt from Catherine Pierce, Planet, 2017.

Catherine Pierce. Image Credit: Brooklyn Poets

In the previous chapter I had talked of the moment of getting my first glasses, at age 11, and the sudden revelation that the species of bird could be identified visually while they were in flight. The other revelation was leaves on trees, which suddenly became individual and distinct. I remember so well wearing my new glasses on the drive home from Albury, the town where the nearest optometrist was, with this new vision: marvelling at all that had previously been hidden from me.

In recent years I've become more and more interested in dust (lunar, cosmic, interplanetary), and the 'dustless light' is a contrast to, for example, zodiacal light, which is the sun's rays reflected from the particles of dust between the planets. This dust is left over, they say, from the formation of the solar system.

I interpret the 'come down soft if I choose, hard if I choose' as a statement about how gravity is experienced. It's not just an abstract quality, and equation, a way to characterise different motions and places in space. It's also something all living things interact with. Pierce reminds us that we are not helpless victims of gravity. We can choose - sometimes at least - how to engage with it. Later in the book I pickup the theme of gravity in more detail. 

Chapter 4: Junkyard Earth

Strange flashes of radiation
zip through your ghost eyes
on this frenzied carousel
hurtling round Earth.
You wonder if radar will pick
you up as a spectral shadow
or dark mass. An unexplained
phenomenon cataloged and
monitored in the wasteland flux
where blackness leans into the soul.

Excerpt from Marina Lee Sable, Space Junk, 2010. 

Space junk. Image credit: University of Miami

In the book I'm trying to convey the message that junk is never just junk: how we classify it says something about our values. This excerpt speaks about the general invisibility of space junk and its ghostly qualities. It's a visual picture of what's above our heads - a high speed whirling carousel of dark objects which you can only see when they catch the sunlight. Apart from these moments, they are in darkness and beyond human senses.

Dead satellites have been called zombies. They are not buried, they don't stay put, they move. But they have no direction; there's no-one home inside. Sable evokes a colourless wasteland populated by shadowy beings whizzing frantically without purpose: damned, condemned to orbit, their soullessness threatening our souls. Space is haunted by the ghosts our past.

Chapter 5: Shadows on the Moon

The grey unknown
was acceptable for so long
but then we got close
and color leaked in

Poem by Christine Rueter, Color leaked in, 2015

Goethe's theory of colours. Image credit: unknown.
I chose this poem because it contrasts our vision of the Moon from a distance, where it appears a relentless grey, and the experience of it close up when humans finally walked there on the Apollo missions of the 1960s. There is the scientific observation of light and shadow, and then there is the embodied experience. As a former painter, I've long been intrigued by Goethe's colour theory; and although it has been heavily criticised, I think his exploration of coloured shadows has something to offer the way we understand colour on other worlds, in other atmospheres. Astronaut Alan Bean devoted his post-Apollo life to painting the colours he saw on the Moon: mauves, yellows, greens, hidden in the shadows. You can see his paintings here.

I do hope Christine publishes a book of her poetry and artworks, because it would be truly beautiful and I would buy many copies to give to my friends.

Chapter 6: The edge of known space

Black upon black, the fissure in the ice,
The outer rim where you passed
Once, but not twice.

Excerpt from Alice Gorman, Eurydyssey,  2018.

Glidden Fresh Hyacinth.
Image credit: Encycolorpedia

Originally I had wanted to use a quote from HD's Eurydice, a poem that pierces you to the core. You can find the full text here. However, I didn't get permission to use it in time. This left me with a dilemma. My publisher suggested finding another poem; but in the diminishing time I had left to both find one and obtain permission, it was a tall order. I was stymied, my beautiful scheme of women's words about to become unravelled.

I asked my esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis for advice. Her answer was: why not write one yourself? But I'm not a poet, I replied. So? she said. I thought about it for a little while, and then thought, what have I got to lose?  I can at least have a go. It doesn't matter if it's crap, it need never see the light of day....

So this is my effort above. The conceit is that it's from a longer poem - it's just that I haven't written the rest yet! I called it Eurydyssey to reference the inspiration of HD's Eurydice, and as a play on the Odyssey, as this chapter was about far-voyaging spacecraft. 

While I wanted to make it a homage to Eurydice, I also had to avoid the risk of plagiarism. There had recently been a massive plagiarism scandal in the poetry world, and many people were discussing the issues around writing something 'after', or 'in the style of', a poem or poet. My three meagre lines were inspired by a verse in HD's Eurydice:

What had my face to offer 
but reflex of the earth, 
hyacinth colour 
caught from the raw fissure in the rock 
where the light struck

In my mental vision of this verse, there is a vivid streak of blue contrasted to the dull brown fissure in the rock. I feel this to be a primeval Earth, like the rock is new, but what lies beneath it is far, far older.

The fissure in my version has riven the icy surface of Pluto, and the outer rim is the circumference of a hypothetical sphere around the planet which the New Horizons deep space probe entered briefly, before flying past - visiting only once. The rhyme of ice, twice, was unintended, but when I had written it, I thought why not?

I begged my publishers for honest feedback - would I embarrass myself by using this feeble effort? Is it ACTUALLY a poem or just some words flung together? They assured me they would never let that happen, so I was very brave and put it in the book. Now I just have to think of how to write the rest of it.

Chapter 7: Whose space is it anyway?

08 morning star song, Venus rising                         comet dust string 
to a lorikeet dawn, ironwood fire cracking, reverberation of the verse
stringybark                             sugarbag                           lines of song

Excerpt from Meredi Ortega, ‘Liner Notes, Voyager Golden Record', 2013

Meredi Ortega.
Image credit: Red Room Poetry
Meredi Ortega won the 2013 Australian Poetry Science Poetry competition with this beautiful work about the Voyager Golden Records. While so much has been written about the Golden Records, including Carl Sagan's 1979 Murmurs of Earth, and you can find the full playlist on the JPL website, one thing the records lacked was an actual cardboard sleeve with the customary liner notes.

A few years back I was researching the Aboriginal music on the records, a fascinating trail which led me to the original tapes in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. In the book, I wanted to write about how Indigenous culture intersected with space industry, a perspective I felt was often lacking in the space world. This seemed like an appropriate place to use the part of Ortega's liner notes which refer to the music, two tiny bits of longer songs by the Yolgnu musicians Djawa, Mudpo and Waliparu. The verse is so evocative of Australian smells and sounds.

Chapter 8: Future Archaeology

The wider our universe becomes due to science, and the furthest we go – we think we go so far when we go to the Moon – the nearer we need to come to the centre of ourselves in order to interpret this world, in order to find values, in order to give our lives meaning. 
Excerpt from speech by Anais Nin, Hampshire College, 1972

As an undergraduate university student, I came across the work of Anais Nin and loved it. I too kept diaries, and her early diaries in particular spoke to me. They were about the life of the mind, emotions, senses, reactions, and navigating the world as a young woman. I felt that she should be in my book somehow.

Nin is a controversial figure in literary history, often overshadowed by her lover and friend Henry Miller. I'm pretty sure, though, that she is more read these days than he is. Recently I returned to her novels, and I'm blown away all over again by how she uses language to capture such fine shades of experience. Through her words you catch a glimpse of a sensory universe like no other.

This quote comes from a speech she gave at Hampshire College in the US in 1972. It captures one of the themes of Chapter 8, about how outer space is entangled with everyday space, and its emotional resonances.

This is the full speech:

In the course of writing the book, I also realised that I needed to read more work by women in general. But that's a story for another time.