Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mormon space sites - fundamentalism and high technology

I've long been fascinated by Mormons. It's not that they're necessarily weirder than any other Christian sects or denominations, but they are relatively recent, and New World, and their origins have been played out in the full glare of media such as newspapers and telegraphs (not something your other major prophets have had to deal with). There is also a rich tradition of Mormon archaeology (by serious archaeologists like Mark Leone [for example, 1973, 1977, 1979], not just people trying to prove the Book of Mormon, although they exist too).

But the fundamental polygamist sects are freaky (for a whole range of reasons that are not relevant here). The reason I am contemplating this at all is because on a recent train journey I took Jon Krakauer's fine book Under the Banner of Heaven, an analysis of fundamental polygamist Mormon sects and the nature of belief, to read on the way. Would you be surprised to learn that there was a space connection? And as I read those pages with excitement, little pieces of paper fell out of the book, indicating that I had bookmarked them on an earlier reading.  This is why:
At the moment, DeLoy is driving his thirdhand Chevy van on a dirt road on the outskirts of town.  One of his two wives and eight of his seventeen children are riding in the back.  Suddenly he hits the brakes, and the van lurches to a stop on the shoulder.  "Now there's an interesting sight", DeLoy declares, sizing up the wreckage of a television satellite dish behind some sagebrush off the side of the road.  "Looks like someone had to get rid of their television.  Hauled it out of town and dumped it".
Members of the religion, he explains, are forbidden to watch television or read magazines or newspapers.  The temptations of the outside world loom large, however, and some members of the faith inevitably succumb.  "As soon as you ban something", DeLoy observes, "you make it incredibly attractive.  People will sneak into St George or Cedar City and buy themselves the dish, put it up where it can't easily be seen, and secretly watch TV during every free moment.  Then one Sunday Uncle Rulon will give one of his sermons about the evils of television. He'll announce he knows exactly who has one, and warn that everyone who does is putting their eternal souls in serious jeopardy.
Every time he does that, a bunch of satellite dishes immediately get dumped in the desert, like this one here.  For two or three years afterward there won't be any televisions in town, but then, gradually, the dishes start secretly going up again, until the next crackdown. People try to do the right thing, but they're only human". (Krakauer 2003:11)

What interests me about this is firstly the satellite dishes, which I have argued (Gorman 2009) are as much space archaeology as anything else, and second of all the domination/resistance theme. So we have accumulations of satellite dishes out in the desert, deposited periodically, representing the impact of telecommunications technology. They are archaeological sites of the space age on Earth.  With a turnover of three years or so, this landscape would make a nice study in change in satellite design .....

Domination and resistance have been studied extensively by historical archaeologists, in terms of the ways that people find to assert their identities using material culture and space in controlled situations such as plantations, prisons, asylums, utopias etc.  In this case, the discarded satellite dish observed by DeLoy Bateman and Jon Krakauer is visible from the road out of town - on the outskirts - so despite the secrecy involved in accessing satellite television in Colorado City, its disposal is barely concealed. That in itself speaks volumes about the efficacy of, and responses to, strict control of behaviour in the fundamental communities of the city. 

And all this makes me think of similar social pressures in places like Woomera - of a very different kind, such as keeping out the contagion of communism, and of course a completely different relationship to technology - but both are desert enclaves where information must be tightly controlled. Apparently the desert outside the township of Woomera bears the evidence of social activities unacceptable in the family atmosphere of the town.

This isn't quite where I thought I was going when I started writing this, but now I'm here, I don't mind it.  Perhaps I shall have to explore this similarity a little further.  Permeable boundaries of technology and the role of space material culture in mediating identity?  Something like that.

Gorman, A.C.  2009  Beyond the Space Race:  the significance of space sites in a new global context.  In Angela Piccini and Cornelius Holtorf (eds)  Contemporary Archaeologies:  Excavating Now.  pp 161 - 180  Bern:  Peter Lang
Krakauer, Jon  2003  Under the banner of heaven.  A story of violent faith. London:  Doubleday
Leone, Mark P. 1977 The New Mormon Temple in Washington, D. C. In Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things. Historical Archaeology. Special Publication Series 2:43-61.
Leone, Mark P. 1973 Archaeology as the Science of Technology: Mormon Town Plans and Fences. In Charles L. Redman (ed) Research and Theory in Current Archaeology, pp 125–150. John Wiley and Sons.
Leone, Mark P.  1979  Roots of Modern Mormonism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A space debris-tracking satellite

 WASHINGTON — NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is gathering information for the possible development of a demonstration satellite to track pieces of orbital debris that are too small to be seen by current systems but still pose a threat to operating spacecraft. Spurred by the new U.S. National Space Policy that emphasizes tracking and mitigating orbital debris, Huntsville, Ala.-based Marshall may partner with industry and academia to field a low Earth orbiting satellite as soon as 2014, said Bruce Wiegmann, an engineer in Marshall’s Advanced Concepts Office (full story at

This is an interesting concept, as, in my opinion, there isn't enough of this going on at the moment.  Debris in GEO is not as well modeled as lower orbits because of the difficulties of tracking stuff that far away; but there are only a few satellites being used to obtain data on GEO (at least as I understand the situation).

This demo satellite is aimed at tracking debris from 1-10 cm in diameter, what's known as the medium-sized class.  The stuff above 10 cm is well tracked from Earth. The problem with the medium debris size class is that collision with a piece can cause a lot of damage to a functioning spacecraft, and even mission failure. And there's far more of it than the big stuff, so collision is far more likely.

I will have to keep an eye on this development to see if there are implications for space heritage.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Vostok space beer: from prehistory to space tourism. An interview with Dr Jason Held.

You might wonder why Dr Space Junk is interested in space beer? (A. She's an archaeologist.  Beer comes with the territory).  But seriously, what has beer got to do with space archaeology?

My interest in this was piqued for a number of reasons.  Firstly, nationalist symbols, and the achievement and claiming of "firsts" has been a major feature of space exploration from the start.  Australia did quite well in this sphere once, being the fourth nation to launch a satellite (WRESAT 1).  Since then our space industry has languished, although we may be heading for a renaissance, fingers crossed!  Producing the first space beer reflects the national obsession with this beverage, and so has some symbolic overtones, I believe. Secondly, as you will see,  Held contextualises the beer in a trajectory of social culture that I think is quite interesting as I am thinking along the same lines myself.

I think it also raises questions about the future complexion of existence in space.  What kinds of artefacts will distinguish the era of space tourism from the era of exploration?  I am reminded of a site I saw at Maralinga in outback South Australia, where legendary surveyor Len Beadell and his team left behind a scatter of beer cans (as they were in those days) with tins of spam and tobacco as evidence of their survey in the desert.  I don't think we are going to see beer bottles littering orbital space, as they won't be in glass, which is too heavy for a start.  (Damn!  I forgot to ask Jason how it would be packaged).  But I wonder how the material culture will differ, and how the terrestrial accoutrements of tourism will be transformed in the space context.

Anyway, here is Jason to tell the story.

DrSJ: Where did the inspiration for the project to develop a space beer come from?

JH:  Several of us are avid homebrewers at Saber Astronautics, both in the US and in Australia, so this is also a chance for us to combine two arenas we love very much.  But the original idea for space beer came out of an internal discussion on space logistics needs for tourism.  Tourism by its nature is geared towards commerce and entertainment, rather than exploration, so the demands emerge from the people who go up, rather than decided top-down by a government body.  

For the beer itself, the usual approach was to study brewing in space, with the goal of bringing beer down to Earth, but logistically this isn't cost effective.  At least, not if you wish to be mass market.  It makes more sense to brew on Earth, and send the beer up, as the largest market is here.  Since there are physical issues with drinking beer in space (carbonation, flavor, etc), we realized that there was an opportunity not just to support the space tourism industry, but fellow beer lovers as well.  Consider the history of the India Pale Ale, the thought of making the world's first space beer is really exciting for us-- it's a real contribution to making people happy for a long long time.

DrSJ: Cosmonauts are already known to have consumed vodka in space.  Why do you think future space tourists will demand beer? Is this worth pursuing, given the difficulties in dealing with carbonation and taste?

JH: Vodka certainly makes sense as a space alcohol-- with a few tweaks it's usable as a rocket fuel, so there's some fun thought experiments there.  But at the end of the day, people on Earth love beer, therefore people in space will also want beer.  Also we felt that beer is a bit safer, less flammable, less toxic to the astronauts/cosmonauts/tourists who simply may wish for a bit of taste of home.  

DrSJ: You were quoted as saying "Wherever humanity goes, beer is sure to follow".  Did you do much research into the history of beer as part of this project, and if so, what was the most relevant fact you discovered?  Are there past methods of beer manufacture that can inform this project?

JH: We did run into academic debates over the effects that alcohol has had on human society.  Some argue that beer is one of the key causes of human society, but I feel it's more of a correlation.  There's some evidence that we've evolved with beer as well, especially considering the genetic differences between people in metabolizing alcohol.  

Initially we took inspiration from the history of the India Pale Ale, but the quote comes from a personal desire to try beer recipes from ancient Egyptian and Sumerian cultures.  Unfortunately, my homebrewing skills aren't quite up to snuff there, but I'm hoping to convince our friends at the 4-Pines to give it a go.  

The 4-Pines Brewing Company follows German purity laws, and that's as far back in history as we're willing to go with the actual manufacturing.  Old brewers had very different problems to solve than we do-- astronauts can take vitamin supplements instead of drinking beer to help stave off scurvy. Beer might be good to help morale in long duration trips (i.e., Mars).  But for the recipe we're really looking at a unique class of problems which have no historical baseline. 

DrSJ: The new beer is called Vostok.  Why choose a Russian name for an Australian beer? Were there other names that you considered?

JH: This was in honor of Yuri Gagarin as the first person in space onboard the Vostok 1.  It's a name everyone in humanity should know.

DrSJ: What are the possible physiological risks of consuming beer in space, as opposed to other alcoholic drinks?

JH: Aside from issues of carbonation, I doubt there's much difference.  Formal studies in alcohol absorption in microgravity and other possible effects have not been done.  There are known issues of cabin pressure effects on alcohol absorption which we account for in the study.  There also may be interaction effects between medications and alcohol.  Part of the point of this study is to learn as much as we can before people start flying to space in larger numbers in 2012.

One difference might be in long duration storage.  Since beer contains live organisms ("yeast samples in solution"), there may be changes in shelf life in microgravity. 

DrSJ:  You've already done some tests on the beer in the Queensland University of Technology drop tower, which creates microgravity for a few seconds.  What were the results?  Would you have been able to initiate the project without the drop tower, which was only completed recently? 

JH: I'll be able to answer more about the QUT Drop Tower in a week or two.

DrSJ: In the recent media coverage, was there anything omitted that you would like to talk about now?

JH: We often think of astronauts/cosmonauts as being examples of human perfection, and are quick to judge at the suggestion of them having a tipple.  After all - think of what these fine people had to do just to get in to a space program in the first place...  They are subjected to harsh conditions and workloads and still must meet the expectations we place on them.  What we have to realize is that they are at a base level very human, and having a beer is very much a part of that.  

And here's the point - NASA is right to be conservative, since alcohol can be abused, and the body's limits in space are not known.  So this research is not just to make a beer to enjoy, but also to learn how people's drinking limits change in microgravity.  Knowing these limits is the only responsible way to allow explorers to drink under any condition.  Because if anyone deserves a good beer, it's them.

DrSJ: When you have mastered the principles of gaseous drinks in space, is there any chance you will move on to champagne? 

JH:  Champagne is a tough one because everybody wants those big, distinctive bubbles.  Beer has a bit more "wiggle-room" on the recipe.  

You don't have to be a space tourist;  Vostok beer (it's a stout) is already available on Earth!  Many thanks to Jason for his insightful answers.

Dr Space Junk's Heritage Tour of the Solar System

A  lovely poster for my recent seminar, created by the talented Lisa Bennett (Flinders University).

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Australia contributes beer to international space culture

Australia doesn't even have a space program but a partnership between space engineers and a Sydney brewery aims to make damn sure we won't be beaten to the first space-certified beer (Moses 2010).

Now it's not quite true that we don't have a space programme - we had a ripper one some time ago, and with the new Space Policy Unit, and funding for space research in Australia, we might be able to do something in this line again.  Still, point taken.  Now for the beer.

I have heard, and I believe there are some studies which show this, that altitude affects the sense of taste.  This is why airline food is always so uniformly awful.  A problem, you might imagine, exacerbated a thousandfold in space.  Fine for astronauts who are trained for space conditions, but not so much for your affluent space tourist expecting a bit of luxury.  Or even something a bit normal.

So Saber Astronautics Australia and the Manly-based 4 Pines Brewing Company have formed a joint venture, Vostok, to develop a microgravity beer.

"Humanity has had beer longer than we've had writing so, wherever humanity goes, beer is going to follow," Saber director Jason Held said.  "So if we're to go into space we need to understand how the human body responds to alcohol. It's very difficult to drink beer in zero gravity because you have a reduced sense of flavour and anything carbonated is going to have a hard time because gases respond differently in space than they do on Earth." (Quoted in Moses 2010)

He's right about the antiquity of beer.  It's not really my area, but I do know that beer was consumed like water by the ancient Egyptians, and also by the Tudors.  This was extremely weak beer, and there are some arguments that it prevented people from catching diseases from contaminated water.  However, apart from the ostensible goal of producing a microgravity beer which tastes nice, there may be many other spinoffs in terms of understanding physiology and food in space that could be quite interesting.  If only they weren't starting with a stout - not my favourite at the best of times.

Moses, Asher  2010  Beam me up Shhhcotty ..... the Aussie space beer with zero gravity.  Sydney Morning Herald October 1  Viewed October 1 2010