Monday, December 07, 2009

The brumby and the bomb: archaeology at Maralinga

So much going on at the moment.  New Zealand's recent launch, new stuff in Australian space development and orbital debris mitigation, and many many thoughts that my three functioning brain cells are somehow managing to produce, despite the resemblance of the rest of my brain to lime jelly.

For yes, I am the nominal chief organiser of this year's Australian Archaeological Association conference, being held at Flinders University in less than a week.  This is an experience that I hope never to have again.

And no - just in case you were going to ask - I haven't written my paper yet.

BUT for your delectation, here is the abstract.

In the 1950s and 60s, Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia were the site of a series of nuclear tests, controversial not least because of their effects on the Aboriginal people of the region.  Following the period of active testing, Maralinga Village was largely dismantled with buildings, equipment and materials sold and dispersed.  The “ground zero” areas were remediated in 1967, and in several phases between 1994 and 2000. 

With proposals to develop the tourist potential of Maralinga, the challenge is to represent what is no longer there.  The ground zeros are now marked by monuments, and warning signs, the pits of nuclear testing filled in and smoothed over by remediation.  However, despite this massive re-landscaping, the ground is still littered with the remnants of test infrastructure.  In places, vehicle tracks from the remediation phase survive, overlain by those of more recent visitors.  Among the more personal remains are “dinner camps” left from the 1950s survey by Len Beadell, and construction workers into the 1960s.  Ephemeral sites such as these have been the focus of a contemporary archaeological approach at other nuclear test landscapes, such as the Nevada Test Site in the US.  In this paper, I consider the potential of archaeology to inform the stories that can be told about this brief phase in Australia’s Cold War history.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Quirky, yet methodologically sound: a review of Space Travel and Culture: From Apollo to Space Tourism

Space Travel and Culture: From Apollo to Space Tourism

Many books have been written about the manned exploration of space across its 50-year history and from all manner of perspectives: autobiographical, political, technological. In this 40th anniversary year of the Apollo 11 landing, it may seem that there is very little left to say on the matter.

This volume of illuminating essays begs to differ. The editors immediately and correctly identify the curious phenomenon of the dearth of academic social science studies of space travel, in spite of regularly produced and transmitted documentaries on the space age and the iconic status of many of the images associated with the missions (including the breathtaking shots of Earth seen from space, Earthrise and The Blue Marble, and pictures of Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the lunar surface). And yet, in the modern age, spaceflight has come to be seen as an obscene waste of taxpayers' money.

The articles in this volume are generally not written from the position of the dewy-eyed space fan either. Many are critical of aspects of America's endeavours in space, especially the perceived fall from greatness signalled in the shift from Apollo to Shuttle. The latter comes out of the book particularly badly, as a poorly worked-through compromise that squandered both the real potential and the mythical dimensions of preceding space programmes.

Others are less critical. The focus is largely not on the big stories but on the associated ones, the backroom ones and the simply unknown. In one article, for example, the seldom (if ever) acknowledged Apollo checklist, in both its massive engineer's manual and miniature spacesuit "cuff" versions, gets a historical context and an acknowledgement of its indispensable importance in an age of overwhelmingly complex technology. Another examines the legal and political significance of geostationary orbit - that height above Earth when a satellite can travel at the same speed as the planet rotates, thereby staying in the same position; important for reaching the maximum area of the Earth's surface for communication and monitoring purposes.

Two articles consider the relationship between space travel and capitalism: of how the huge funds granted to Nasa supported the growth of the major US aerospace companies; of outer space being the new "outside" of non-capitalism that capitalism needs in order for its economic model to continue to work; and, of course, currently the fledgeling projects to develop space tourism as a viable commercial entity.

Gender and space is also looked at, both in terms of Nasa's poor attitude to women (from sexually harassed secretaries and administrators through to a female astronaut programme brutally cancelled by Nasa after it showed that women, in many ways, made better astronauts than men) and the homosocial bonding of the all-male crews. In the first instance, the argument is perhaps a little unfair, making Nasa seem almost uniquely misogynist at a time when society as a whole limited the professional possibilities open to women.

Other articles examine even less considered areas of space exploration - for example, how its history can be reconstructed creatively by looking at forgotten sites associated with space travel: the launch complexes in remote parts of Algeria and Australia; the sheds of amateur radio hams who listened in on downlinks from the missions as they flew overhead.

Such quirky and yet methodologically sound investigations offer a fresh look at the well-rehearsed history of space exploration, and give the volume a pleasurably offbeat quality that suits it well. Of course, the articles weren't all equally interesting. Edited collections seldom, if ever, are; aiming to please, at best, most of the people most of the time. And although the geostationary orbit of satellites is considered in one article, all the others focus firmly on manned spaceflight, which gives the volume an unbalanced feel. Also, the discipline-specific terminology of some of the articles - the complex legal and economic language in the capitalism articles, for example - could be off-putting for the general reader.

But while, on the one hand, this indicates that this volume will be bought and read for its parts rather than its whole, on the other, it suggests that drawing on a broad range of disciplines means that it will appeal to a wider readership than if it had adopted a single perspective. All in all, it is a book to be recommended.

Edited by David Bell and Martin Parker. Wiley-Blackwell, 232pp, £17.99. ISBN 9781405193320. Published 29 May 2009

Reviewer : Michael Allen is senior lecturer in film and electronic media, Birkbeck, University of London.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Your chance to communicate with Venus, courtesy of JAXA

I've been researching Venusian landing missions for a while, but have not really paid much attention to orbital material.  In fact I should; the combined terrestrial and orbital components of the exploration of Venus have a unique signature when compared to those of other celestial bodies, in terms of the nationalities represented.  (This makes me think of creating some sort of index which captures this for all of the celestial bodies.  Where is cultural material mostly located - on or above the surface? What can this reveal about spacefaring cultures?).

But I digress.  There is something very appealing about sending the messages of regular people into space, and JAXA are about to do it for Venus, as explained in the story below.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is enhancing people's interest in space and the Earth by holding a message campaign. People are invited to send messages that will be printed in fine letters on an aluminium plate and placed aboard the Venus Climate Orbiter AKATSUKI.

Messages are being accepted from Japan and overseas, so the feelings and thoughts of everybody in the world can be combined in a single place and injected into the orbit of Venus.

Through this campaign JAXA aims to boost the public's knowledge about space science research activities in Japan as well as abroad. This project is in cooperation with the IYA2009 Japan Committee.

The Venus Climate Orbiter AKATSUKI is the world's first planetary meteorological observation satellite to unveil the mysteries of wind on Venus. It will explore the atmospheric movement and cloud formation process. Ultimately, this mission aims to deepen our understanding of the formation process of the Earth's environment and its future by comparing Venus and the Earth. Its planned launch date is May 2010, to arrive at Venus in December 2010.
To register your message, please visit:

Source:  IYA Newsletter and Dave Reneke's Astro Space News 23

Further digression:  a map of sites in the solar system, by nationality (where this is clear, of course).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Antipodean space - New Zealand launches its first rocket

First NZ space rocket ready for blast off
Chris Keall
Monday November 16 2009 - 12:10pm

Just half a century after it began, New Zealand is set to enter the space race.

In the week beginning November 30 (subject to weather), Rocket Lab’s Atea-1 “launch vehicle” (what most of us would call a rocket) is due to blast off, carrying a payload 120km into the heavens (space starts at 100km up; the international space station orbits at around 320km above us).  Atea-1 will become the first privately-funded rocket to launch from the Southern Hemisphere.

After reaching 120km, Atea-1 - and its payload - will arc back to Earth. As its payload won't be placed into orbit, Rocket Lab pitches its launch vehicle as suitable for any scientific kit that needs to take a "sounding" in (brief) low orbit, micogravity conditions.

Compared to past and present US and Russian behemoths, Atea-1 is a tiddler - just 150mm wide and 6m tall.  And its payload is restricted to a modest 2kg (compared to the Space Shuttle's 22,700kg).  But Rocket Lab's chief executive Peter Beck told NBR that’s all the capacity his company needs for commercially successful launches (although larger rockets are planned).

Each launch will cost a mere $50,000 to $100,000 - barely enough to buy a drinks holder for a Space Shuttle mission.  The launch will take place on Great Mercury Island, east of the Coromandel.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sensing heritage - "fragre" in the writing of Iain M. Banks

I do find that science fiction writers are often finely attuned to heritage concepts.  Here is an interesting discussion from Iain M. Banks' Transition about how heritage feels - a form of aesthetic significance, I suppose.

It is in a sense the sense of history, of connection, of how long a place has been lived in, a feeling for the heritage of human events attached to a particular piece of landscape or set of streets and stones.  We call it fragre 

Part of it is akin to having a sharp nose for the scent of ancient blood.  Places of great antiquity, where much has happened over not just centuries but millennia, are often steeped in it.  Almost any site of massacre or battle will have a whiff, even thousands of years later.  I find it at its most pungent when I stand within the Colosseum, in Rome.  However, much of it is simply the layered result of multifarious generations of people having lived there; lived and died, certainly, but then as most people live for decades and die just the once, it is the living part that has the greatest influence over the aroma, the feel of a place. 

Certainly the entirety of the Americas has a significantly different fragre compared to Europe and Asia; less fusty, or less rich, according to your prejudices. 

I'm told that New Zealand and Patagonia appraise as terribly fresh compared with almost everywhere else.

This leads me back to earlier musings about the senses impacted by space.  Would any space places acquire fragre in Bank's terms?  Or would it just be the scent of burnt metal?  The International Space Station is longest occupied space place; lunar landing sites are really ephemeral camps.

What about the fragre of Maralinga? (which I'm thinking about also, as I have to write a conference paper on it in the next few weeks).

Monday, November 02, 2009

Stone Age-Space Age metaphors

I'm always interested in these when I find them, which is quite frequently ...... here is one from Iain M. Banks' latest book, Transition.

"So, if there are civilised aliens, you'd guess they can travel between stars.  You'd guess their power sources and technology would be as far beyond ours as supersonic jets, nuclear submarines and space shuttles are beyond some tribe in the Amazon still making dugout canoes".

Friday, October 23, 2009

Space: the final frontier of junk

By SCOTT CASEY, Brisbane Times
October 19, 2009

It's home to everything from gloves to tool kits, spatulas to disused rockets, urine bags to relic Cold War satellites.  Space is quickly becoming a floating scrap heap, with more than 14,000 pieces of space junk larger than 10cm currently being tracked orbiting the Earth.

Australia: prime landing destination
 Australia is a prime landing destination for space junk that may plummet towards Earth.  Early last year, James Stirton found a 57-centimetre wide, 20-kilogram chunk of rocket on his property near Charleville in south-western Queensland after it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere over Indonesia and burnt up.

"I was just riding along on my bike and it was beside the road, beside a track out in the paddock," Mr Stirton told AAP.  "I just wondered what it was so I went over and had a look at it and I figured it must have fallen from the sky because there's no tracks or traffic or anything out here."

Mark Rigby, curator of The Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium, was called upon to identify the piece of space junk at the time and says due to our landmass Australia attracts much waste falling from space. "Because we are such a large land mass we do tend to collect space junk coming down," Mr Rigby said.  "The best example of that is Skylab in 1979, NASA announced it came down in the Indian Ocean then we heard all the reports from Perth and Esperance of blazing bits of space junk coming down.  Over the years we've had bits of Russian satellites, spherical tanks, a number of those sorts of things have been found in the outback."

It's crowded up there
Mr Rigby said the build up of clutter in near Earth orbit - about 3279 of the pieces are former payloads such as defunct satellites or probes - was beginning to become a massive problem for space agencies across the world.  "We've made the near Earth environment quite hazardous - it is a growing concern and there are international bodies looking at what we can do to clean this up and try and prevent it in the future," he said.  "Things like the International Space Station need to be manoeuvred every now and then to avoid the possibility of a collision, they don't like anything coming with in a few kilometres of it."

The threat of collisions is real with NASA saying on the website of its Orbital Debris Program Office an average of two windows on the Space Shuttle are needed to be replaced after every launch due to debris and micrometeorite impacts.  In the private sector a US communications company Iridium found out in February the danger of space debris when one of their satellites collided with a disused Russian military satellite, Kosmos 2551. Such collisions produce more small particles of space junk which then pose the threat of further collisions.  "Those pieces of debris will be up there for many many years," Mr Rigby said.

Recently an elderly British couple had a two-kilogram chunk of metal, part of a booster rocket, smash into their home.  "We heard this sound and went outside and saw this hole in the roof. The lump had destroyed two tiles and made an absolute mess," Mair Welton, 62, from Hull in north-east England  told The Telegraph.  "My granddaughter's boyfriend had to put on some oven gloves to fetch it because it was so hot."

In January of this year China drew the ire of all countries which operate satellite programs by shooting a missile at one of its own disused satellites, destroying it and producing hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of debris.  In 2001, the MIR space station was, as part of a controlled re-entry program, crashed into the southern Pacific Ocean.  Looking ahead, Mr Rigby said the world's space agencies have future problems not just in cleaning up space but carefully negotiating the destruction of the biggest and most valuable object in orbit, the International Space Station.  "That will be trying to bring down several hundred tonnes of stuff and it's going to be tricky," he said. "One of the things which made Skylab unpredictable was solar panels which tended to allow it to skim along the atmosphere and instead of landing in the Atlantic, as they were predicting, it came down over Australia."

Call to save space rubbish
But Dr Alice Gorman, an archaeology lecturer at Flinders University in Adelaide, believes there is a duty to protect space junk for its cultural significance.  "It comes back to that basic thing in archaeology that the objects themselves have a significance not captured by written material," Ms Gorman told the magazine Archaeology in 2007.  "It's difficult this early on to get a sense of what kinds of questions people are going to want to ask of the orbital record, but early telecommunications satellites, for example, are the artefacts that created the modern world. We should keep spacecraft that are unique, or ones that represent a nation. Indonesia sent up a few satellites early on, and they're quite rare. Satellites that represent major leaps in technology are also notable, like the first geosynchronous satellite."

Professor Fred Watson, Astronomer in Charge at the Anglo-Australian Observatory, said Ms Gorman's comments were important to consider for the future of space travel.  "You might want to declare the Apollo landing sites on the Moon a heritage site because they are of great historical interest, the same is true of spacecraft but whether you should take something which is a hazard and make it heritage-listed is a different issue," Dr Watson said.  "Some of the spacecraft need to be actively boosted in orbit to keep them up there because otherwise they will come back down to Earth and that means you have to put energy and effort into that and you might not want to do that for the sake of history."

Dr Watson said due to the time it takes for some older objects to degrade, we still have time up our sleeve to assess their historical significance.  "The oldest is spacecraft in orbit is Vanguard One which was launched in 1958 and that is expected to remain in orbit for about 200 years before it naturally comes back to Earth, so it means we've got some time to find out if we want to save it as a heritage listed item," he said.  "By then we might have the wherewithal to bring these things down with something like the space shuttle but at the moment we just don't have that capability."

Spotting junk from home
Mr Rigby said it was not too difficult for amateur astronomers to observe space junk from their own backyard.  "To see a satellite or a piece of space junk you need to be in twilight or darkness and it needs to be in sunlight," he said.  "Morning twilight or evening twilight are good times but if you're trying to look in the middle of the night you won't see satellites and they'll be in the Earth's shadow.
For help spotting space junk, Mr Rigby recommended, where users can set their location and see a map of all object currently passing over their area.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Is the U.S. Flag From Apollo 11 Still Standing?

Is the U.S. flag planted on the moon 40 years ago still standing? That's just one of many questions researchers hope will be answered this year by new pictures of old Apollo landing sites.

Posted using ShareThis

Sunday, October 11, 2009

On the indeterminacy of rockets

More musings inspired by Ray Bradbury.   In his early stories, he talks simply of rockets:  generic, uncomplicated, obvious.  They don't have names or specific purposes:  they are just the vehicle of interplanetary travel. This seems indicative of a period where people don't really know what is going to happen in space.

Later, in the real world, rockets do have names and purposes.  They are the Saturn V, to launch a rocket to the Moon; the Blue Streak, to launch a nuclear warhead towards the USSR; the Europa, to launch a satellite into geostationary orbit.  They are no longer vague; they look different depending on their purpose, they have names and identities (military, civil, scientific, nationalist).

I don't know where I'm going with this.  Just thinking.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Ground zero in the outback: return from Maralinga

Back from Maralinga yesterday.  An amazing journey and I don't really know where to start.  Have to go through my field notes, label all the photographs, gather my thoughts.

We spent time roaming through Maralinga Village on our first day there.   On the second day we attempted to get to Emu Field, but constant rain forced us to turn back only a couple of kilometres from the village as driving conditions had become too dangerous.  Needless to say, the following day was clear and sunny .... Finally, before leaving, we went out to the major test sites at Taranaki, and the airfield.  Our host at Maralinga Village, Robin Mathews, told us that this airstrip was the only one in the southern hemisphere suitable for the space shuttle to use as an emergency landing site.

The most interesting thing for me, possibly, was the inconsequential surface artefact scatters - broken ceramics, beer cans, spam tins, nails etc, the small things that indicated the everyday life of the Maralinga staff.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

New rockets on Dr Space Junk's Space Heritage List

I've been a bit quiet on this front lately, but the prompting of space geographer Fraser MacDonald, and the aerial Brett Holman's recent visit to the UK National Space Centre (Leicester) led me to add two more objects:  the sounding rocket WAC Corporal (the subject of Fraser's research) and the lovely Blue Streak, of course.  They join the V2 as the only rockets so far on the Space Heritage List.

Other rockets I should include are the Agena - plenty of them still in orbit, and no doubt on the ground, and in museums, Saturn V, Redstone, the R7 Semiorka, and Veronique and the Pierres Precieuses (still think that is a great name for a band).  I tend to neglect rockets as I find them slightly less fascinating than satellites.  It's also slightly harder to find out if there are extant examples, and then there is the question of their actual existence to begin with (see my earlier post on the identity of rockets).

Monday, September 21, 2009

Pentagon Wants ‘Space Junk’ Cleaned Up

The orbit around Earth is a very messy place and the Pentagon’s far-out research arm wants to do something about it. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency put out a notice last week requesting information on possible solutions to the infamous space debris problem.

“Since the advent of the space-age over five decades ago, more than thirty-five thousand man-made objects have been cataloged by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network,” the agency notes. “Nearly twenty-thousand of those objects remain in orbit today, ninety-four percent of which are non-functioning orbital debris.”

These figures do not even include the objects too small to count. Hundreds of thousands of these smaller objects are estimated to exist, and as debris hits other debris, it creates even more small pieces, exponentially increasing the objects that could threaten satellites and spacecraft.

Space debris has long been a concern as the number of satellites in orbit has increased over the years. But the issue was again highlighted in 2007, when a Chinese anti-satellite missile test created a massive debris field of some 40,000 pieces. The next year, the U.S. conducted its own shoot down of an errant satellite, creating yet another field of debris. The concern is that these pieces of debris could strike satellites, or a manned spacecraft, like the International Space Station.

It doesn’t take much to cause a catastrophe; even something as small as a paint chip could prove potentially disastrous if it struck the space shuttle. Darpa is looking for “solutions that could effectively remove significant amounts of debris in a cost-effective fashion.” No doubt, there will be a good mix of creative, unusual and bizarre suggestions.

Source:  Wired

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Dr Space Junk goes to Maralinga

Or will go, to be more precise. I'm so excited I can hardly contain myself. At the end of September I will be accompanying my nuclear heritage colleague Mick Broderick on a road trip to Maralinga and Emu Field. Must polish up the steel caps and prepare other field gear!

Monday, September 07, 2009

Space junk hurtles towards Space Station

NASA is preparing contingency plans in case a large piece of orbital debris is deemed a threat to the International Space Station. The chunk of space junk measures about 19 square meters, large enough to do significant harm to the ISS in the event of a collision. As a precaution, NASA mission controllers are preparing a plan that would see the ISS fire its booster rockets in order to escape the path of the debris, which is circling the earth in an elliptical orbit.

NASA currently estimates that the space junk will come within 3 kilometers of the ISS on Friday morning. The agency did not state the origin of the debris, but the Earth is encircled by countless particles of refuse from spent satellites, industrial waste, dust, and other sources. The ISS is equipped with shielding that offers some protection from space junk.

Information Week USA

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Orroral Valley Tracking Station - all systems go

On Tuesday I flew to Canberra for the announcement of the 2009-2010 ACT Heritage Grants. And yes - I got one, to do background research and a geophysical survey of the Orroral Valley tracking station, in collaboration with my elegant geophysicist friend I. Moffat. Everyone was very enthusiastic about the project, which was lovely.

So now I really have to think about the rationale of contemporary archaeology (which is the subject of a recent debate on the Contemp-Hist-Arch list too). What, exactly, can I use archaeological methods to find out that documents/oral histories can't? A simple enough question, but surprisingly difficult to answer .....

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The phenomenology of space landscapes

Minitrack pylons at Island Lagoon (author's image)
There are happy occasions when the rigours of teaching become worthwhile. This morning I am reading drafts of an honours thesis by my student Claire, who is working on a phenomenological analysis of the Twenty Mile Mission near Weipa in northern Queensland (in collaboration with my fellow archaeology blogger Mick Morrison). Her discussion of Christopher Tilley's application of phenomenology to Neolithic/Mesolithic monumental landscapes is particularly good.

So in the back of my brain I was thinking about the Island Lagoon tracking station near Woomera, and a photo I took at my last visit, of an array on concrete columns which look like building stumps. In terms of theses columns becoming part of the archaeological record, I likened them to Stonehenge or Avebury ....

And, since I am also very much thinking about the kinds of research questions that could be answered by survey or excavation of a tracking station (intending to do this at Orroral Valley in the ACT), perhaps in terms of the interaction of everyday life and high technology, and the social experience of high technology, it occurred to me that a phenomenology of space landscapes might be the way to connect these elements ....

Space landscapes may also be high security landscapes, so not unlike missions/plantations/asylums/prisons etc in terms of surveillance, boundaries between the inside and outside, domination and resistance etc etc. But individuals would be constructed very differently within the space landscape in terms of their agency.

These are vague thoughts so far.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The smell of space

Reading Volume 1 of Ray Bradbury's short stories at the moment. A mixed bag in some ways - much that is not science fiction, and much that is clearly written to pay the rent.

And from the opened case spilled his black uniform, like a black nebula, stars glittering here or there, distantly, in the material. I kneaded the dark stuff in my warm hands; I smelled the planet Mars, an iron smell, and the planet Venus, a green ivy smell, and the planet Mercury, a scent of sulphur and fire: and I could smell the milky Moon and the hardness of the stars.

Annoyingly, the volume does not provide original publication dates for the stories, but this is clearly written in the time when it was thought that Venus was tropical and may support life.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Preserving spacesuits and Tranquility Base

Museum battles to preserve moon suits for posterity
By Virginie Montet (AFP) – Jul 16, 2009

WASHINGTON — They have travelled further than any fashion item on Earth, surviving a hostile environment and extremes of heat and cold on a world far from ours. But now age is catching up with NASA spacesuits. "There is a lot of decay," admitted sadly Cathy Lewis, curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, who is charge of looking after a dozen spacesuits worn on the Apollo missions.

She even has under her care the suit worn by Neil Armstrong when he stepped out on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, and made history as the first man to walk on the moon.

But she agrees the passage of time has not been kind to these historic artifacts. "They don't do well because of the light and the humidity," she said. "They are made out of 21 layers of synthetic material. They are brittle," she said, adding that over time an ongoing chemical reaction between the different materials in the suits still encrusted with moon dust was taking its toll.

Displayed behind glass at the museum since the late 1960s, the spacesuits have been withdrawn to be restored or at least to halt the ravages of decay as the United States prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of the moon landings. "Most of them are in restoration, but we can put them on display in a controlled environment for a short period of time," said museum curator Allan Needell.

The custom-fit suits are made of a complex mixture of Teflon, polyvinylchloride and latex laced with tubing all aimed at allowing the astronauts to carry out their missions in the harshest of all environments. Today's suits have interlockable pieces so that none of the astronaut's skin is exposed to space, while multiple layers help protect the astronaut from extreme cold and heat. It is waterproof, fire-resistant and also made of the same material as bullet-proof vests.

Lewis said the spacesuits made for the 12 moonwalkers were "made for very hard conditions, but for a very short period of time." She said the gloves were coming apart, the metallic layers were rusting and the rubber joints were deteriorating.

The suits only spent a few days on the moon, where temperatures oscillate between minus 150 degrees Celsius and 120 degrees Celsius. But they have spent the rest of the four decades in some of the nation's most humid places, like Houston, Texas, home to the Johnson Space Center; Florida, where the Kennedy Space Center is located; or the museum in Washington, known for its sticky summers.

Lewis said that to preserve this part of history it is unlikely that the whole suits -- topped with a helmet with its visor blackened by a layer of gold to protect it from ultra-violet light -- will continue to be displayed. "We won't display them as a suit any more, but we hope to have the component on display in five years" such as gloves or boots if technicians manage to halt the decay she said. It depends on the funding, she added.

The lunar lander is also undergoing a make-over.

The four-footed module, which is seven meters high, is one of 12 constructed by NASA for the Apollo program which ended in 1972. The one on display never went into space but is identical to the others which were left on the moon when the astronauts returned to Earth.

Along with the astronauts' footprints still imprinted on the lunar surface, the museum curators are anxious to conserve the site of the original moon landings, especially as NASA gears up for a return by 2020.

"This is an actual artifact," said Needell of the landing site at the moon's Sea of Tranquility. "Let's hope the next ones won't put footprint over the old footprint at Tranquility Base. I hope they will leave it alone," he said, worried that future generations of moonwalkers may try to remove pieces of history and sell them on eBay.

"It's not abandoned property, it belongs to NASA," he stressed.

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Dr Space Junk at the End of the World Symposium

Next Friday evening, 24th July, I am talking at the End of the World Symposium in Melbourne, about the space heritage of the solar system. The evening is to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. More information is available at Do come!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Space archaeologists in Inseminoid

So finally I saw this cult classic, featuring a bunch of hapless space archaeologists and a nasty alien that impregnates one of the team for reasons unknown. I dare say it has some kitsch value for those who like this sort of thing, and I have decided that I don't. Still, no stone left unturned, etc etc.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Just published: The Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology and Heritage

Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology, and Heritage
Edited by Ann Darrin (John Hopkins University) and Beth L. O'Leary (New Mexico State University)
Series: Advances in Engineering
CRC Press (Taylor and Francis Group)

Expanding the discipline of archaeology into the cosmos, this unique volume offers a perspective rarely considered. It discusses the trail of debris that humankind has left behind during space exploration as artifacts worthy of investigation, whereas they provide evidence to our heritage as a planet. Gathering together a number of leading thinkers, it discusses topics that are no longer merely science fiction. They discuss the landscape of space, spacecraft forensics and field techniques, our environmental footprints, and the establishment of an archaeological record in space. Highly authoritative, it goes a long way in separating fact from science fiction.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The scientific value of astronaut waste

Thinking about this again after a conversation with Professor Maciej Henneberg from the University of Adelaide. At present, people only stay in space for relatively short periods of time. (The longest occupation was a USSR cosmonaut who spent over a year on Mir in 1994-1995). There are many health issues related to living in space; one of the major risks is prolonged exposure to cosmic rays and other high energy nasties.

So in terms of assessing the long term effects of this exposure on human tissues, we're lacking serious longitudinal data.

But wait! Perhaps we're not .... you see where I'm going with this. Studying human biomolecules from liquid/solid waste ejected during crewed missions could supply us with that data, without having to risk the health of actual people! The very fact that DNA and other complex molecules would have been degraded by high energy particles is not an impediment to scientific research: it is in fact the very information that we seek.

Of course there are many other factors to consider ... location and retrieval, dating the length of exposure, the source mission, the likelihood of survival in LEO, etc etc. We know that Mir was surrounded by a halo of frozen urine particles, and returned aerogel surfaces have preserved yellowed traces of impacts with it ... so perhaps this is the best way to obtain the samples.

Someone will be persuaded of the value of this argument eventually .....

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The heritage values of Tranquility Base - from the Los Angeles Times

Needless to say, I agree with the argument presented here.

Space archaeology
The final frontier already has some historic sites -- such as Tranquility Base on the moon -- that deserve protection from well-meaning but potentially destructive private projects in outer space.
By Jill Thomas and Justin St. P. Walsh
June 1, 2009

Cultural heritage has emerged in the last few decades as a subject of increasing debate and interest. Controversies such as the Greek claim on the Parthenon Marbles, in the collection of the British Museum since 1816, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 and the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad in 2003 have shown how objects and sites can have significance for both scholars and the public.

Nations and collectors claim ownership, while disenfranchised populations assert their rights and identities and experts work to preserve fragile ruins. Now, efforts to preserve archaeological remains face a vast and challenging new frontier lacking definitive legislative regulation: outer space.

Man-made objects preserved in the vacuum of space are irreplaceable artifacts of humanity's scientific achievements. Although the United States retains jurisdiction over the equipment left at the moon's Tranquility Base, the 1969 Apollo 11 landing site, for example, Neil Armstrong's famous words highlighted the importance of the first moon landing for all of us: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

Today, however, some of the most important elements of that shared space heritage, including Tranquility Base, are threatened. The Lunar X Prize, a $20-million award funded by Google, is being offered by the X Prize Foundation, which previously held a competition to develop private space travel. The first private group to land and maneuver a robotic rover on the moon before Dec. 31, 2012, will be the winner.

A "Heritage Bonus Prize" of perhaps $1 million (the actual amount has not yet been made public) will be given to the team that also sends back images of man-made objects on the moon. In order to take photographs of these artifacts, groups would have to first target their craft to land close to a previous landing site, then move their rover as close as possible -- even into the area where human activity occurred 40 years ago.

The rules for the competition state only that participants seeking the Heritage bonus must have their plans approved by the foundation "in order to eliminate unnecessary risks to the historically significant sites of interest," but there is no explanation what criteria will be used to judge risks as "unnecessary" or what steps are recommended to avoid damage.

The sites of early lunar landings are of unparalleled significance in the history of humanity, and extraordinary caution should be taken to protect them. Armstrong's iconic footprint and the American flag placed by the astronauts may yet be intact -- there is no wind or rain on the moon to damage or destroy them.

NASA, the most experienced, successful and best-funded space agency in the world, has occasionally found it difficult even to place satellites in orbit. And those missions are far simpler than landing a robotic rover on the moon within a kilometer or two of a specific, and culturally important, location. Private groups operating on much smaller budgets and attempting such a project for the first time are likely to encounter failure. But far more catastrophic would be a near-success -- a crash landing, for example, in which a historic site was damaged or destroyed.

One team in the competition, Astrobotic Technology, plans to launch as early as December 2010, with Tranquility Base as its stated target. It is not too late for the sponsors to withdraw their bonus prize for approaching and imaging lunar landing sites. Indeed, they should ban competitors from targeting regions within 100 kilometers of prior lunar landings, with violators excluded from receiving any prize money. The bonus money could instead be offered as the award in a competition to design plans for studying, preserving and protecting sites such as Tranquility Base, and presenting them to the public.

We have no doubt that space tourism, perhaps even as envisioned by the X Prize Foundation, will be a reality someday. The competition itself has already inspired interest in the Apollo sites among the general public. Once lunar travel becomes easier, there will also be significant interest from scholars in the emerging field of space archaeology. The demands and desires of both groups must be respected. But in the absence of effective international agreements that treat space objects as heritage, it is necessary to take a step back and consider what the best strategy would be for permanent preservation of sites and objects of historic significance.

We have the opportunity now to ensure that there will still be something there to see when tourists eventually visit, and for our descendants to understand and appreciate.

About the authors: Jill Thomas is a graduate student in Louisiana State University's School of Art who has done research on cultural heritage in space. Justin St. P. Walsh is an assistant professor of art history and archaeology in the school.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Space adventures in Canberra - could this be the Love Pygmy?

My elegant geophysicist friend I. Moffat accompanied me on my tracking station expedition a couple of weeks ago in Canberra. He took me to a former planetarium with the most wonderful futuristic design (some have commented that this is how they imagine the Love Pygmy).

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

My very own Sputnik

A wonderful archaeology student, Alex, made a 1/4 scale model of Sputnik 1 for his class today. It's absolutely gorgeous, and despite my protests, he has insisted on giving it to me. I am absolutely overcome with delight!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dr Space Junk does Canberra tracking stations

What an amazing three days. I've just returned from Canberra, where I gave a presentation in the Quaternary Forum series at the Australian National University, and visited three tracking stations, Tidbinbilla, Honeysuckle Creek, and Orroral Valley, in the company of my elegant geophysical friend I. Moffat. SO much potential. I will post some photos when they are downloaded.

So I'm planning a field season now, and this means tackling the thorny question of just what I could learn by excavating abandoned tracking stations. I have many ideas, but I'm not sure how robust they are - whether they justify an excavation. The geophys, though .....

Saturday, April 18, 2009

New entries on Dr Space Junk's Space Heritage List

I am still working away at this, and will have to do some serious thinking about it soon as I rashly promised to give a research seminar in May about how I made the list!

There are currently 44 entries in Dr Space Junk's Space Heritage List. In the last month, I have added the following:

Launch sites:

Baikonur (Russia)
Jiuquan (China)
Barreiro do Inferno (Brazil) (I love this - the "Gates of Hell"!)
The San Marco platform (Italy/Kenya)


444 people have sent space heritage gifts on Facebook, so you can see it's not just me and my friends! Fortunately I found out recently how to track those which I have sent myself, so I can remove myself from the stats when I get to the stage of analysing them.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The edge of space

Hold on to your hats, or in this case, your helmets: Scientists have finally pinpointed the so-called edge of space — the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space.

With data from a new instrument developed by scientists at the University of Calgary, scientists confirmed that space begins 118 kilometres above Earth's surface. A little further than originally assumed.

The boundary recognized by many in the space industry is also a somewhat arbitrary 100 kilometres. Scientist Theodore von Kármán long ago calculated that at this altitude the atmosphere is so thin that it's negligible, and conventional aircraft can no longer function because they can't go fast enough to get any kind of aerodynamic lift.

This 100km boundary is accepted by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), which sets aeronautical standards.

The United States, however, has never officially adopted a set boundary standard because it would complicate the issue of overflight rights of satellites and other orbiting bodies, according to NASA.

NASA's mission control uses 122 kilometres as their re-entry altitude because that's where the shuttle switches from steering with thrusters to manoeuvring with air surfaces, NASA states.

Others point out that the "Now Entering Space" sign should be posted way out at 21 million kilometres because that's the boundary where Earth's gravity is no longer dominant.

Article by Andrea Thomspon, 9 April 2009.  Copyright-Imaginova Corp. Thanks to Dave Reneke for passing this on.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Digital people - my review of Incandescence

My review of Greg Egan's Incandescence is out this month in the Australian Book Review. Here is the opening paragraph:
What do you do when you can live for thousands of years, travel nearly everywhere you wish in the galaxy, and customise your environment and your body to be exactly the way you like? When there is no risk of starvation, injury or disease? When your back-up simply takes over when, for some reason, you die? What do you do when the whole universe is your playground and you’re just plain bored?
Greg, if you're out there, I think I am nearly brave enough to want to know your reactions .......

Monday, March 16, 2009

"Mixing" natural and cultural values in space

I love the occasional synergies between teaching and research .... this morning I'm revising a lecture on international heritage charters and conventions. This reminds me that I have been intending for some time to make a charter for space heritage, and also that in untangling natural and cultural heritage values in space, I should keep in mind the World Heritage concept of "mixed" properties - those inscribed for outstanding natural and cultural values, Kakadu National Park being the exemplar. I'm not saying that the idea of "mixed" values is the ideal solution, merely that this is how it is currently thought of at the international level, so I should explore it a bit further. All sorts of cultural landscape issues here, needless to say, and I should also pursue an old idea, that outstanding universal value presupposes an external observer.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Fiji in space and boy scout rockets

I'm procrastinating again .... but thought I would do some preliminary investigations on Polynesian space activities. I started with Fiji, a random choice, and found little available. A couple of interesting leads to follow though: Mir debris collected from the beaches, satellite television developments and rocket mail. In the early 1900s, rockets were used to deliver mail from the ship to the shore on one of the Fijian islands. The main reference for this seems to be:

Kronstein, Max 1986 Rocket Mail Flights of the World to 1986 The American Air Mail Society

I'm not especially interested in rocket mail, but it was a theme that continued after WW II, with a popular children's author writing a book on rocket postal services from Woomera.

Also in my investigations this morning I came across a reference to boy scout rocket launches. This is in direct line with my interest in amateur/public space programmes, so must definitely follow it up.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sweden's Kronogard launch site and the noctilucent clouds

I would write about this even if it were not significant, just because noctilucent or "night-shining" is such a gorgeous word.

Looking (as I often am these days) for places or objects that satisfy the somewhat loose set of criteria I have established for my space heritage list. I currently have graduate students working on Nigeria, and places registered on national heritage lists, but this still leaves much for me to do.

Sweden is as yet unrepresented, and I discovered the existence of the Kronogard launch site, near Kabdalis in the far north. The Stockholm Institute of Meteorology, with assistance from NASA and the US Air Force, launched Nike-Cajuns from 1962 to conduct upper atmosphere experiments by releasing large quantities of talcum powder at altitude - artificial "noctilucent" clouds - and studying the effects. Experiments of this kind were also very common at Woomera, but my impression was that they were done during the daytime rather than night.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Testing and designing lunar modules: a talk by Kerrie Dougherty

Illustrated talk: Apollo 9How do you land on the moon?

Curator, Space Technology, Powerhouse Museum
Sunday 8 March 2009
2.00–3.00pm, Level 2

On March 7, 1969, the first flight tests of the Lunar Module, the vehicle that would enable astronauts to land on the Moon, were carried out during the Apollo 9 mission. This lecture will explore the development of a Moon landing craft for the Apollo program, from the early designs to the first test flight in space of the selected Lunar Module design. It will also look at how the astronauts trained to fly a spacecraft that could not be tested on Earth. This presentation is part of a series of lectures that will culminate in July 2009 with the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

Free with Museum admission.
Part of the Powerhouse Museum 2009 Adult Learning Program.

For more information go to

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Duncan Steel on orbital debris

Last week I attended a seminar on orbital debris by Duncan Steel from QinetiQ. Of course we talked about the recent collision between the Iridium and the Kosmos .... Duncan showed some very interesting simulations of how debris disperses over time, and also said that the data from the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF), which was launched in 1984 and retrieved in 1990 so that the impacts on its materials could be assessed, had never been really systematically analysed taking into account all factors of the space environment. He was also very skeptical about the various proposals to remove debris actually happening any time soon. Which is kind of good for me!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Draft Criteria for a Space Heritage List

This is based on Australia's Commonwealth Heritage List. I think it kind of works?

Considering the Earth as part of the space environment, including also interplanetary space, celestial bodies of the Solar System and galactic space, then:

A place that is a component of the natural or cultural environment of space may be inscribed on the Space Heritage List if it is of international or other special significance or value to humanity for future generations as well as for the present community because of any of the following:

(a) its importance in the course, or pattern, of the natural or cultural history of outer space;

(b) it possesses uncommon, rare or endangered aspects of outer space natural or cultural history;

(c) it has potential to yield information that will contribute to an understanding of outer space's natural or cultural history;

(d) its importance in demonstrating the principal characteristics of:

(i) a class of outer space’s natural or cultural places; or
(ii) a class of outer space's natural or cultural environments;

(e) its importance in exhibiting particular aesthetic characteristics valued by a community or cultural group;

(f) its importance in demonstrating a high degree of creative or technical achievement at a particular period;

(g) its strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group for social, cultural or spiritual reasons;

(h) its special association with the life or works of a person, or group of persons, of importance in outer space's natural or cultural history.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Halley's Comet new on Dr Space Junk's Space Heritage List

Well, I've done it now. With this addition, I really will have to tackle natural/cultural heritage issues on my list. (I have been toying with heresy after reading a stunning article by Val Plumwood about the autonomy of the non-human world).

I also need to sit back and think more about why each place/object has made it onto the list. Ideally, I should write some statements of significance, and formally assess them against my draft criteria. This would be fascinating, I'm sure! but too time consuming at the moment with teaching only a week away and overdue papers to work on. Perhaps something I could ask a clever graduate student to help me with.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ghosts in the machine

More musings inspired by my recent re-reading of Out of the Silent Planet.

Ransom wakes up in the spaceship (which is spherical, like the early satellites).

For the first time a suspicion that he might be dead and already in the ghost-life crossed his mind.

Another ghost reference, when Ransom asks Weston where they are:

"You mean we're - in space", Ransom uttered the word with difficulty as a frightened child speaks of ghosts ....

This made me think of how similar to the cliche of Egyptian mummies astronauts are; wrapped up, with the body inside virtually invisible, except through the face-plate, somewhere between life and death like Schrodinger's cat: if you unwrap the windings, or remove the helmet, what will you find? Indeed, this was part of a recent Dr Who plot.

Spacesuits, however, are still far in the future when Lewis is writing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Contemporary Archaeologies: Excavating Now

It's out! Can't wait to receive my copy.

Contemporary Archaeologies: Excavating Now
Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang. 2009. 221pp, 50 illustrations, paperback, index. ISBN 978-3-631-57637-3.
Edited by Cornelius Holtorf, University of Kalmar (soon Linnaeus University), Sweden and Angela Piccini, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada and University of Bristol, UK.

This book is about the archaeology of the present and the very recent past. Archaeology's repertoire of questions, procedures, methodologies and terminologies, its material manifestations (protected sites, public museums, archives) and its popular appeals are rooted in modernity.
Contemporary archaeologies marry archaeology in the modern world with the archaeology of the modern world. Their strengths lie in a stimulating mix of interdisciplinary practices across academic, public-sector and professional contexts.

Angela Piccini/Cornelius Holtorf: Fragments from a Conversation about Contemporary Archaeologies

Julian Thomas (University of Manchester, UK): Sigmund Freud's Archaeological Metaphor and Archaeology's Self-understanding
Cornelius Holtorf (University of Kalmar, Sweden): Imagine This: Archaeology in the Experience Economy
Sarah May (English, Heritage, UK): Then Tyger Fierce Took Life Away: The Contemporary Material Culture Of Tigers

Mike Pearson (University of Aberystwyth, Wales, UK): 'Professor Gregory's Villa' and Piles of Pony Poop: Early Expeditionary Remains in Antarctica
Colleen M. Beck (Desert Research Institute Las Vegas, USA)/John Schofield (English Heritage, UK)/Harold Drollinger (Desert Research Institute Las Vegas, USA): Archaeologists, Activists, and a Contemporary Peace Camp
Louise K. Wilson (University of Derby, UK): Notes on a Record of Fear: On the Threshold of the Audible

Mats Burström (Södertörn University, Sweden): Garbage or Heritage: The Existential Dimension of a Car Cemetery
Jonna Ulin (Göteborg, Sweden): Into the Space of the Past: A Family Archaeology
Alice Gorman (Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia): Beyond The Space Race: The Material Culture Of Space In A New Global Context

Angela Piccini (University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada and University of Bristol, UK): Guttersnipe: A Micro Road Movie
Paul Graves-Brown (Llanelli, Wales, UK): The Privatisation of Experience and the Archaeology of the Future.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Experiencing space: a 1938 account

This week has had its share of cosmic coincidences .... on Friday I decided I needed something to read on the way home and pulled another old favourite, Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, off the shelf. I've always loved his description of Ransom's response to finding himself in space, but this time I read it in a whole new way.

What's extraordinary about this book (or one of the many things) is that Lewis wrote it in 1938, and back then, when it really wasn't clear if life could survive in space at all (as in another remarkable piece of writing, Cordwainer Smith's Scanners live in vain), he attempted a description of the sensations and emotions that would accompany such an experience. In this account, cosmic rays and other high energy particles aren't the destructive nasties we now know them to be; instead they create a sense of well-being and euphoria.

Lewis imagines what it is like to see the heavens without the murk of the atmosphere to obscure them:
Pulsating with brightness as with some unbearable pain or pleasure, clustered in pathless and countless multitudes, dreamlike in clarity, blazing in perfect blackness, the stars seized all his attention, troubled him, excited him ....
In Lewis's trilogy, the experience of space is hyperreal, more real than we experience life on earth.

He also describes the noise of the spacecraft:
The room was floored and walled with metal, and was in a state of continuous faint vibration - a silent vibration with a strangely lifelike and unmechanical quality about it. But if the vibration was silent, there was plenty of noise going on - a series of musical raps or percussions at quite irregular intervals which seemed to come from the ceiling. It was if the metal chamber in which he found himself was being bombarded with small tinkling missiles.
And of course it was, a rain of meteroids, as he found out later.