Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Where next for Australian space activities?

Life has been quiet on the space front for me lately. I'm deep in the country, surrounded by dogs and sheep and utes. But next week I'm off to Canberra to speak at the forum Where next for Australian space activities? It is run by the Cooperative Research Centre for Satellite Systems, whose funding was not renewed by the Australia Research Council this year. As they point out, Australia is the only country which has given up the opportunity to be a spacefaring nation not just once but TWICE. I will be making a presentation on the inclusion of cultural heritage in space Environmental Impact Statements.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Biscuits in space

Here is the URL the discussion I had with Nicey on this topic:

(Incidentally, Nicey has released a book, and there may be more about biscuits in space in it too).

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Virgin Galactic biscuits

News just in: Richard Branson is planning to offer sub-orbital flights for the wealthy ($300 000 a pop), with the expectation that prices will eventually come down.

Nicey (from the fabulous web site "A nice cup of tea and a sit down") may get to have his hypothesis for the first biscuit in space tested. I think he thought it would be a fig newtony type thing - I must go and look.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Spaceport Queen rides again

I wasn't mistaken. The delightful Juan de Dalmau does want me to give a presentation about Woomera at the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana! I am so excited.

And now I'm thinking of other possibilities. The local music scene, for example. I must re-read Papillon, for Devil's Island is just off the coast and it was one of my very favourite books when a teenager. And of course I must master some of the more complicated French tenses and increase my French space vocabulary a thousandfold.

Here are some examples of French space lingo:

fusee - rocket
micropesanteur - microgravity
navette - space shuttle
scaphandre - spacesuit

I love the word scaphandre. It reminds me of the river Scamander, somewhere in the region of Troy. Very Homeric.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


I have nine days to finish an article about the Vanguard 1 satellite, labelled Kaputnik because the launch vehicle exploded on the stand in one launch attempt. It's hard not to like Vanguard 1. It was nearly the first satellite in the world, but was beaten by Sputnik 1, and it was nearly the first US satellite, but was beaten by Explorer 1 .... James Van Allen devised instrumentation for it but when he saw which way the wind was blowing he transferred his project to Explorer. (Fickle bastard). As a result Explorers I and II had the honour of discovering the Van Allen radiation belts when it should have been Vanguard. I think my Australian tendency to favour the underdog is definitely aroused by poor old Vanguard! And yet it provided the technical foundations for the contemporary US space industry, and it is still in orbit today when all those other early satellites have long since re-entered.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Remembering the Cold War

I've just moved from Adelaide to the southern Riverina. A few nights ago I went out for dinner with a number of more "senior" folk. I took the opportunity to ask them what they remembered of the launch of Sputnik and the Cold War activities at Woomera.

A few said that they were very aware of Sputnik 1, and even went out to watch it. There was no fear, nor a special sense of excitement; it was just an interesting thing going on. As for Woomera, no-one had been particularly aware of what was going on there at all.

What people did talk about was the bombing of Darwin in WW II. At the time it was downplayed, because the government did not wish to alarm people, and it is still not widely known even among Darwin residents, said Rachel who had lived in Darwin for the last few years.

Friday, September 10, 2004

I am the Spaceport Queen

I may have neglected to mention that Juan de Dalmau, Director of the International Space University and lovely man, has invited me to participate in a professional tour of the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana next year. And I believe he wants me to give a lecture. I think that's what he suggested; I was so overwhelmed I may have misunderstood. But if he was serious I am determined to deliver it in French. French spoken with an English accent (and Aussie too I hope) is, my French friends tell me, as sexy as English spoken with a French accent. Well, I can live in hope.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The art of flight

If you are in the UK this weekend, you might want to check out this event:

An Arts Catalyst event

Artists Airshow

Former Royal Engineering Workshops, Farnborough, Hants
Sunday September 12 1PM-6PM
Free entry by reservation, places are limited so book as soon as possible.

A day of art and flying in and around Europe's largest wind tunnel. Right next to the runway used for the official Farnborough Airshow are the abandoned wind tunnels, test tanks and life-size helicopter flight simulators where secret projects were developed during the second world war and the cold war. Saved from demolition, they will now be developed into a heritage centre and business park.

Selected artists, working with ideas of flight, will present a day of process-based works and experiments for a limited audience, with guided tours of the wind tunnels. These artists include Louise K Wilson, presenting a work based on flight simulation, stunt-flying and Britain's lost technological heritage. Australian artist Zina Kaye will show documentation and talk about her 74cc 3 metre wingspan surveillance airplane 'Observatine'.

Please give names of those attending. You must be on the list of people attending to get on to the site.

To reserve a place please email:
If you have any special requirements please call: 020 7375 3690

Special bus £10 return at 11 AM from East/Central London. The site is 15-20 minutes walk from Farnborough British Rail Station. Bus details, map and car parking directions will be emailed when you reserve. Light refreshments provided.

Friday, September 03, 2004

More on Moonwatch

In the National Archives today. I discovered that there were Moonwatch groups in Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, and Townsville as well as Woomera, all devoted to optically tracking US spacecraft. The Australian operation was coordinated by Professor Elford at the University of Adelaide and the the information sent in code to the Smithsonian in Washington DC by the Weapons Research Establishment in Salisbury just outside Adelaide.

Even though Moonwatch was set up in the IGY specifically for Vanguard, it proved so successful that the program was continued into the 60s. The main subject of the file in the National Archives was the trouble the Woomera Moonwatch group had with customs when the US sent them a crate of binoculars.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Flying Saucers at Woomera

Well. Yesterday I got my hands on the formerly secret UFO file from Woomera. I did not have to wait for it to be retrieved from the National Archive stores as the file was already out - a UFO researcher had been using it the day before. (Who are they? I am dying of curiosity).

The file is very interesting reading and not what I was expecting. I'm not sure what I expected, really. There is a 1953 letter from the Air Force to the Superintendent of the Long Range Weapons Establishment (the organisation which ran the rocket range at Woomera), asking the the LRWE appoint a liaison person to talk to the president of the Australian UFO Society, Fred Stone. Stone and his colleagues were concerned that legitimate UFO sightings could be confused with launches from Woomera. As I learnt from Bill Chalker's book on Australian UFOs, societies like this one were just being set up in the early 1950s. There are also accounts of several UFO sightings at Woomera.

There is no hint that the observers were subscribing to the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis of UFO origins. But these people were ballistic and aeronautical scientists, accustomed to observing aerial and high atmosphere phenomena on a regular basis. It does make you think. (Can I really be saying this?) And there were security issues that would make the unidentified appearance of aerial stuff of concern.

Tomorrow I will complete my work on the file and move onto the more relevant topics of Woomera's participation in Project Vanguard.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

An unusual occurrence

I have been searching the National Archives of Australia in preparation for some research. On the top of my list is the file entitled "Unusual Occurrences of Flying Saucers at Woomera".

With the heavy traffic of sounding and research rockets, which released all kinds of things from grenades to chalk dust, it would be surprising if someone had not seen a UFO.  Rocket experiments at Woomera were often visible over hundreds of miles.

I'm also going to check out the activities of the Communist Party of Australia, my old friends the Natural History Society, and the Moonwatch group.

And tomorrow morning - the collections of A.B. Jay, a Native Patrol Officer in the Woomera Restricted Area. These are held at the South Australian Museum.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Secrets and lies

Yesterday I was flicking through the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, thinking that I might find some discussions of Woomera in the 1950s volumes. I didn't, but there was a lengthy article discussing the geology and geomorphology of the area. The author had conducted fieldwork between 1945 and 1950, and was presenting a report aimed at managing pastoral activites in the north-west of the state. So you would think he might have fallen across the fact that a bloody big rocket range was being built out there, and this might possibly have some impact on said activities! As an Adelaide resident, he could hardly have failed to notice the protests of 1947 when plans for the rocket range became known. But no, there was no mention at all of Woomera or the rocket range.

Of course it's possible that at this early stage any impacts of the range on local environment or people were unclear, but still, you think he'd have just mentioned it in passing.

Perhaps it was a security issue then.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Rocket art

Yesterday I went in to the South Australian Museum with my colleague Geoff Spiers, who has redesigned the Woomera Heritage Centre. We wanted to find the photograph and artefact collections of A.B. Jay, one of the last Native Patrol Officers at the Woomera Rocket Range. The curator told me of a painting in the Museum depicting depicting an ELDO rocket. The painting was done by one of the Arnhem Land Yunupingu family in 1967, when there was an ELDO tracking station up there. It is an extraordinary piece of work. As it is unlabelled, you wouldn't necessarily recognise the motifs unless you were already aware of its subject. And I knew nothing of it because I am a stone tool person, not a rock art person! (Indeed I have always found rock art rather boring, but I suppose they think the same of stone tools). Aboriginal art contains many depictions of Macassarese trepangers and European ships, and it hadn't occurred to me to look towards art to investigate the interaction of Aboriginal people with the space age.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Gibber Gabber

Back from Woomera, utterly exhausted. The weather was glorious but I spent much of my time inside, at the Heritage Centre and the library, researching old newspaper clippings and the Woomera newsletter Gibber Gabber. And what a rich mine it turned out to be! I traced the activities of the Natural History Society, who collected artefacts and went looking for rock art sites, and of the Moonwatch group, formed to track Vanguard 1 optically in 1957. There were many notices about Moonwatch meetings but the Gibber Gabber was strangely silent on the event of Sputnik 1's launch. Later, however, the Moonwatchers were happy to report sightings of Sputnik 3. (The moon referred to was the artificial satellite). The idea of having volunteers undertake tracking was promoted by Fred Whipple of the US IGY Committee.

As well hard work, some happy hours were spent in the ELDO bar ....

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Home on the Range

This morning I leave for Woomera, to do some archival research and oral history. The weather will be balmy, the desert red and dry, the bar at the ELDO Hotel inviting. What more could a girl want?

I hope to discover more about the activities of the Woomera Natural History Society, who, among many other things, undertook investigations of Aboriginal material culture and made collections of artefacts. I would like to find out if they had any interaction with the real, living Kokatha people of the area.

I will be accompanied by a Flinders University archaeology student, Andi Williams, who is looking at the social and military use of space in the township.

More when I get back.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Purity of essence

Dr Strangelove is playing on one of the cable channels this morning. General Ripper and his obsession with precious bodily fluids brings to mind Klaus Theweleit's outstanding study of the Freikorps diaries prior to WW II. These young soldiers were similarly obsessed with the idea of contagion and contamination by Jews, women, the masses. In later times, the Western bloc would often use metaphors of contagion for communist ideology.

I've been reading a lot about the International Polar Years in the last couple of weeks. Frankenstein's monster ran away to the North Pole when experiencing an understandable existential crisis. Unfortunately it's a little too early to be related to the 1888 Polar Year. But I'm still thinking about the Ice Station Zebra connections.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

At last: a study on how microgravity affects women

The European Space Agency has put out a preliminary call for women to take part in a two month bed-rest study, the first such undertaken in order to understand the longer term affects of microgravity on women. (For more details see

We know that the Mercury 13 women, in 1960, performed better at many tests than their male counterparts, the Mercury 7. However, the gender imbalance in space has not really shifted that much: after Valentina Tereshkova's historic spaceflight in 1962 (the poor dear had to do it with period pain too, what a heroine), it was another TWENTY YEARS before another woman was allowed into the bloke zone. So in effect, despite a growth in women astronauts and cosmonauts, the boffins still don't really know how women's bodies adjust to space. Good on the ESA for doing something about it.

So bring on two months in bed with trashy magazines and cable television. If I lived in Europe I'd be there.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Syncom 3

Syncom 3 was the first satellite to be launched into geostationary orbit, after Arthur C. Clarke had predicted the use of GEO for telecommunications in a 1945 article for Wireless magazine. I must do some more research about its possible heritage significance.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Our German scientists, your German scientists

I went searching for the script of Ice Station Zebra on the web. As you might imagine, you can find the scripts of any amount of rubbish, but Ice Station Zebra is not available. The film had some fantastic lines, including one about German scientists. I fear I shall just have to rent the video again and transcribe it myself. Or perhaps I should find the novel by Alistair McLean.

There is some fascinating literature on Cold War gender politics about. I wasted my money on the new version of the Stepford Wives on the weekend (I don't recommend it) but it did make me want to see the very fine original again. I think it was made in the 1970s? It certainly reflects a Betty Friedan, World War II backlash.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Ice Station Zebra

It's SO Cold War. I hadn't seen this film for years and I'd forgotten how dramatic it is - Ernest Borgnine as the Russian double agent, Patrick McGoohan as the cool, cool British spy, Rock Hudson as the hunky all-American submarine captain. There's sabotage, confrontation, and a million Cold War metaphors out on the ice bergs. The film opens with a satellite initiating a burn to bring it into the atmosphere, where it falls with its precious cargo of high-resolution film showing both US and USSR military installations. (I won't spoil the end if you feel inclined to go out and get it).

The North Pole is a good place to develop Cold War metaphors, of course, but it made me think of other things too. The International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, when the superpowers engaged in a race to be first in orbit, was a follow-up to the International Polar Year. I can't remember the exact date but it was 1920s or 1880s. So it's quite likely that the eponymous Ice Station Zebra, a British polar weather station, was established as part of that international cooperative research effort.

When Sputnik 1 was launched, by necessity it overpassed foreign airspace - or post-atmosphere space - I'm sure there's a correct legal term - and established by fiat a convention whereby orbits are not held to violate international conventions on sovereignty. Aeroplane intrusions in foreign airspace were a matter of conflict long after satellites on both sides were performing surveillance with immunity.

Ice Station Zebra rocks! (And you gotta love an opportunity to use the word 'eponymous' .....).

Monday, July 19, 2004

Rocket lineages

Yesterday I watched a short film by space artist Louise K Wilson about the Spadeadam missile test site. I was very struck by the similarities of the physical remains of launch pads to both Peenemunde, where Wernher von Braun developed the V2 rocket, and on the other side to Woomera, where the British descendants of the V2 were launched.

Also, if you've had trouble trying to post a comment, I hope that problem will be remedied soon ....

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky goes to the Moon

Last night I went to a screening of a 1935 Russian Science Fiction film, called 'The Space Race', on which Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was the scientific adviser. This was arranged as part of the International Space University by Kerrie Dougherty of the Powerhouse Museum.

Tsiolkovsky is often called the father of modern rocket science; he published a book in 1903 that suggested interplanetary travel using rockets. His main innovation was the use of liquid instead of solid fuel.

The film contained microgravity sequences, among the earliest to be attempted, and wonderful scenes on the surface of the moon. Little animated figures leap about in slow motion, in a landscape very much more interesting than we know it to be now!

And, get this: the spaceship had automatic doors. Now, I'm not a Trekkie, but I understand from Trekkie friends that automatic doors were an innovation of that series, and it took some time before real life was able to catch up. They had people hidden out of sight to pull and push the doors! This may or may not be true; however, there were automatic doors in this 1935 film .....

And in 1935 the predicted future when men and women went to the moon wasn't 1969, or 1984, or 2001, but 1946! Ambitious, and yet, given the extraordinary achievements of Russian and American space programmes with what seems to us now to be such primitive technology, perhaps it was not entirely unrealistic.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Dr Strangelove and the Space Race

From the script:

Muffley (Merkin Muffley, the US President, played by Peter Sellers):

But this is absolute madness, ambassador. Why should you build such a thing?

DeSadeski (Russian Ambassador):

There are those of us who fought against it, but in the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. And at the same time our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we'd been spending on defense in a single year. But the deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a doomsday gap.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Australia in the Cold War: the legacy of B.A. Santamaria

B.A. Santamaria was a major force in promoting opposition to communism in Australia. I'm reading a fascinating book by Ross Fitzgerald called The Pope's Battalions: Santamaria, Catholicism and the Labor Split (University of Queensland Press 2003). It's a real eye-opener and makes sense of the vestiges of sectarian attitudes still evident in Australia. Funnily enough, I was taught violin by one of Santamaria's daughters. She was a fine musician, but was there some political motivation in sending me to her? (My father was a big supporter of Santamaria). The book presents important background to understanding Cold War Australian politics, and it's quite frightening to think of the power held by this man who was not even a member of a political party.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Artefacts on the Moon

Watching a documentary on space artefacts this evening. On the Apollo 14 mission, Alan Shepherd took a modified golf club with him, and left two golf balls behind on the lunar surface.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

International Space University

Last week I gave a lecture at the International Space University Summer Session Program, being held in Adelaide. It's really the first time I've been part of a completely spacey group, although I met some of the British Interplanetary Society in 2003. I wasn't sure how the students would react to the political aspects of my lecture regarding US cultural hegemony. In fact I edited the lecture in an effort to be more sensitive in this regard! However, I had an interesting discussion with Michael, who works on the Space Shuttle, a couple of days later. He noted that there was an emphasis on the US space programme in other lectures as well, and he found it embarrassing at times.

But so far the International Space University is sensational. Students from 27 countries will learn more about Australian space policy than they ever realised possible! I can't help wondering what the long term effects of having the summer programme (eg Adelaide winter) in Australia will be.