Friday, November 18, 2005


Have just been reading a book about female pirates on the high seas (cross-dressing, hurrah!) and thinking about pirates in space. In Asimov's Space Ranger series, Lucky Starr was instrumental in cleaning up a pirate ring based in the asteroids. Maritime metaphors abound in space literature for obvious reasons. Must think more about this.

Unfortunately, International Talk Like A Pirate day has been and gone without my noticing. Alas.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Sputnik sandwich

One of these days I am going to write a space recipe book. I have a recipe for space food sticks (spookily enough) and a special Woomera hors d'oeuvre that I found in a community cookbook. And now - the Sputnik sandwich! In 1957, a Japanese chef came up with this one. I don't know what was in the sandwich but it was crowned by an olive with 4 toothpicks as antennae. Also a garnish that would work on a martini, it occurs to me.

RIP Space Food Sticks

When I began my space research, it registered at the back of my mind that you could still buy Space Food Sticks in the supermarket. They are still popular camping food, my more outdoor-minded friends inform me. I took a bunch with me to Kourou to give to people. They taste pretty bland, not half chocolatey enough, and the packet has a BMX biker on the front! But I liked them as a relic of the space age.

Then I discovered that Australia is pretty much the only country that makes an Apollo-era spinoff in the space food stick line. White Wings are even importing them to the USA, although most distributors seem unaware that they are Australian in origin.

I badly wanted to put a space food stick in the conference "showbags" for my Woomera symposium on the 4th November. But do you know what? I couldn't find any! Not in the major supermarket chains, not in the smaller ones. Sometime between April and November this year this historic food item has vanished. Goodman Fielder (owner of the White Wings brand) tell me that SFS are now manufactured by Uncle Toby's at Wahgunyah, not a million miles from where I grew up. I will ring them and find out the story!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

An icy cold one goes down well with a slice of lime

Just recently I've decided that the satellite which goes awry in the film 'Ice Station Zebra' (one of my favourites as readers of this blog will know) must be a CORONA.

Space cowboys home on the range

The Woomera symposium was a great success. I was particularly impressed with the film shown by Geoff Speirs and Bev Hocking, a segment on the V2 that is the opening encounter with the redesigned heritage centre at Woomera. It was almost heart-stopping in its intensity.

It was also wonderful to have Andrew Starkey, a Kokatha representative, speak about Kokatha culture at Woomera. Poor Andrew had to drive to and from Port Augusta just for the afternoon, and I would like to express my appreciation for his efforts.

To my regret, no-one from Defence attended. I would not like to second guess their thoughts but word reached me from some quarters that their heritage people viewed the symposium with alarm. But since they didn't contact me personally or come to the symposium to hear what was said, there's not a lot I can do!

The next step is publication.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Home on the Range: a symposium about heritage at Woomera

Home on the Range: the Cold War, space exploration and heritage at Woomera, South Australia

A symposium

4th November 2005
12.30 midday – 6.00 pm, Room 149 Social Sciences South, Flinders University
Hosted by the Department of Archaeology, Flinders University
Cost: Free
All welcome to attend. Please register by calling 0428 450 418 or email

In 1947, barely two years after the Second World War, Britain and Australia signed a joint agreement to develop ballistic missiles in a region perceived as remote and barren: the red desert of South Australia. Len Beadell, “the last of the explorers”, surveyed a rocket range and a town that became known as Woomera, an Aboriginal word for spear launcher.

Woomera was an integral part of the development of space capabilities for Britain, Europe and the USA, through the launch pads and tracking stations established in and around the boundaries of the vast restricted area. In 1967, Australia joined the “Space Club”, becoming the fourth country in the world to launch a satellite. Until the 1970s, Australia was at the forefront of developments in both civil and military technology. The infrastructure provided by Woomera enabled Britain to conduct a series of nuclear tests at Maralinga and Emu Field. Woomera was very much a Cold War place.

Throughout this period, families were raised and gardens nurtured in the town of Woomera. Under the watchful eyes of security, swimming carnivals and football matches took place; annual balls with beauty competitions, and an endless stream of visiting dignitaries and royalty stepped off the tiny planes to visit Australia’s premier weapons and space facility.

Today, the huge launch pads lie in ruins and the township is experiencing a decline in population. Woomera is remembered more for the detention centre than its glory days as the world’s second busiest spaceport. How can we understand the heritage of Woomera and what it means for contemporary Australians? This symposium explores aspects of Woomera from secrecy and security, town planning, and technology, to Indigenous perceptions of the landscape.

Presenters include:

Associate Professor Peter Morton, Flinders University, author of “Fire across the desert”
Dr Alice Gorman, University of New England
Dr Christine Garnaut, University of South Australia
Mr Geoff Spiers, museum consultant for the new Woomera Heritage Centre
Mr Phil Czerwinski, Archaeologist, Australian Cultural Heritage Management
Mr Andrew Starkey, Indigenous Liaison Officer, Defence Support Centre, Woomera
Ms Andrea Williams, Honours graduate, Flinders University
Mr Kael da Costa, Project Co-ordinator, Murray-Darling Basin Commission

For more information please contact Alice Gorman on 0428 450 418 or

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The archaeology of orbital space

My abstract for this paper to be presented next week at the Australian Space Science Conference is at:

I am a little nervous, I must confess. I've talked to space scientists before - at the British Interplanetary Society, the Australian Space Science forum last year in Canberra, and at Kourou earlier this year. But none of those was a formal conference setting. It's a different world to that of archaeology where I know the territory very well. So we'll see .....

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Programme for the Australian Space Science Conference

Less than a month to go until the Australian Space Science conference in Melbourne in mid-September. For more details check out their website.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Australian Space Science Conference

I'm busy writing my paper for this conference, in Melbourne in September. It's my first time at a science conference and having to submit the paper beforehand is a bit of a shock - it never happens in the archaeological world - archeologists always prepare their presentations at the last minute! Still it's a good discipline. I'm speaking about cultural heritage management of orbital debris. See the conference website.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The velvet urinal in the outback

I did find the Michael Dransfield poem I was looking for. It's called "Outback" and it is resonant with images and historical references to the rocket range at Woomera. So much so, that I now must find out whether he went to the red South Australian desert, and when. Fortunately there is a new biography out that may provide answers.

Did I mention that I am back in Adelaide? I've been thinking about Alf Watt, secretary of the South Australian branch of the Communist Party of Australia when Woomera was established. I want to know more about him also.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Western Australia's ESA tracking stations

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

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

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Ice Station Zebra and the poetry of Michael Dransfield

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

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

Friday, June 03, 2005

Kourou controversy

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


In French Guiana people drink ti-punch, the famous Caribbean drink. And it's so humid there that drinking rum at lunch time seems quite cooling. Here's how you make it:

White Caribbean rum
Sugar cane syrup (I suppose a home made sugar syrup would do just as well)

So. Cut a thick slice or wedge of the lime and squeeze it into the glass and then drop the lime in. Pour some rum over. Then add enough sugar syrup to stop yourself wincing at the rum (that's how it works for me anyway). Stir. Adjust to taste. Add ice cubes if you want. Voila!

Claude from Guyanespace Voyages, who was our tour organiser for the International Space University trip to Kourou, very kindly gave us the essential ingredients for ti-punch. I took the bottles back to Paris with me, thinking a ti-punch would go down very nicely after my long days in the Documentation Centre of the Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace. But it was cold in Paris, and dry. Somehow ti-punch was just too strong there. I gave the bottles to Regis Moello of SNECMA, who works on the Vulcain motor for the Ariane rockets but has never had the opportunity to visit Kourou. A taste of the tropics in far off metropolitan France .....

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Back to Earth

It's my second day back in Australia after an epic journey through the space places of French Guiana and France. I must express my heartfelt thanks to Juan de Dalmau (International Space University), Regis Moello (SNECMA), and David Redon (Mairie of Kourou) who all contributed to my having a fabulously wonderful time. Also Marie-Pierre Joseph-Alberton (CNES), Christophe Rothmund (SNECMA), Laura-Kate Wilson (ESA), and the staff at the Documentation Centre of the Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace. My return journey was twice as heavy as my outgoing one: from the quantity of books and papers I was carrying in my luggage, and I must confess, slightly more of me too - after a distinct lack of restraint in the direction of French patisserie and boulangerie. I was in Paris over Easter (enough said).

So now I am trying to get back into a work routine, in Perth where I am teaching in the archaeology centre for a few months. I will relate more of my space adventures soon.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

From penal colony to spaceport

In just over a week I will be on my way to the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana. It will be sticky and hot, and as a precaution I am taking anti-malarials, even though the coastal strip is fairly safe.

As a big fan of Papillon, I am looking forward to visiting Devil's Island, decommissioned as a penal settlement in 1951. But there will also be all the rockets a girl could wish for. I hope I will get to see the Blue Streak being used as a chicken coop by a Kourou farmer!

My Guianese adventures will be published in the magazine Sky and Space when I return to Australia in April. After Kourou, my space researches continue in Paris.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Spaceport Queen countdown commences

Last year the delightful Juan de Dalmau invited me to give a lecture at the Kourou spaceport. For a while, it looked as if other commitments might get in the way, but everything has worked itself out and I am off to French Guiana in March. In the meantime I must contemplate my talk. Juan wants me to discuss Australian reactions when the nascent ESA - called ELDO - moved operations to Kourou from Woomera. Let me tell you right here that "pissed off" is an understatement. The French had been wooing the British for some time to throw their lot in with them, and then the Poms decided to buy US weaponry rather then developing their own at Woomera. The Australians felt betrayed, yet again, by Britain. They were happy to contaminate Australian soil with nuclear tests, but not prepared to demonstrate any commitment to the development of the colony.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Little Lemon

My father told me a very interesting story a few days ago. We used to keep racehorses, and our champion horse when I was a child was called Gooyong. She was born in the same year that Laika the dog went into orbit. My father wanted to call her "Little Lemon", as Laika was also known as Limonchik. For those of you unfamiliar with the racing industry, all horses have to be registered, and to avoid duplication of names, a board has to approve each one. Dad's application to call the new horse Little Lemon was rejected. He was very annoyed. But it seems that no-one else had applied for the name. Was this Cold War paranoia?

Funnily enough, Gooyong still has a space connection. It is also the name of a street in Woomera.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

A spacey New Year

Happy New Year to all and sundry. I have had a few computer problems since I last posted, but a new operating system has made all the difference.

Did anyone watch the documentary on the moon landing conspiracy theory last week? I was pleased to see the ease with which they debunked the main arguments. James Oberg, who was to have written NASA's book on the subject, figured heavily. But I wonder if such solid evidence convinces the die-hard conspiracists?

I have a friend who is 'undecided' on the issue. When we discussed it, she was unaware that (1) there are research programs and publications and experimental results on moon rocks brought back from the Apollo missions - an enormous effort to fake all of it - and (2) that the moon has, obviously, a radically different geological history and composition to the Earth. It would also be hard to fake moon rocks!