Monday, December 26, 2011

Valley of the Cable Ties: the material culture of the contemporary past

Back in November, me and my intrepid group of graduate students paid a visit to the former Orroral Valley Tracking Station in the ACT.

In the 1990s, what remained of the above-ground structures was demolished, leaving only the concrete footings of numerous buildings and antennas. Near the entrance to the facility, now used by tourists, hikers and other visitors, the grass is cut and the gardens sort of maintained. Deeper into the site, tall weeds and grasses are more prevalent and are invading the antenna footprints. 

In general, surface visibility is on the low side, and as you walk about, there's not much evidence of past human activities apart from the big stuff. No obvious artefact scatters; no personal objects; no bits of antenna support lying discarded.  Occasionally there's a bit of recent rubbish near the picnic/parking area. The Maralinga nuclear test sites are littered with lovely radioactive garbage, despite three remediation campaigns; by comparison, Orroral has been cleaned up and maintained in a well-ordered fashion.

But I wasn't so sure this tidy surface would yield nothing to the eagle eye of the archaeologist. On my last visit, we found an old scrubbing brush lying outside the canteen building, the sturdy bristly kind with a wooden back, as used in a million domestic and industrial kitchens across the land.  I was very keen to do a pedestrian transect survey of the entire site to see what else we could find relating to the tracking station period, and what its spatial distribution might tell us. I imagined we might be able to knock the whole site over in a day with 10 people.

You'll already have guessed that my expectations were confounded.

We started at what I thought would be the easiest part of the site, below the main 26 m antenna, which is fairly thickly grassed with few weeds. This was possibly the narrowest section of the main site, defined by fences, and with no buildings to confuse things. I really didn't think there would be much there; I thought it would be a nice, quick demonstration of the principles of surface survey.

The team walked 5 m apart, slowly observing the ground within their swath of vision, and placed a pin flag at every location where they saw human material or animal scratchings/burrows. The latter was so that I could get an idea of how disturbed the surface was. We had 100 pin flags (these are spikes of metal with a coloured plastic tag on top) and I thought these would last us a good while.  The line would move from one boundary fence to the next in formation, flagging everything of interest, and then we would look back and see how material was distributed by the density of the flags. Then, in small groups, the team would fully record each artefact or trace, including its coordinates, material, dimensions, shape, colour, likely function if known, etc etc, removing the flag as each location was completed (and leaving the artefact in situ). We'd then move on to the next 50 m traverse.

From L to R: Joan, Rob and Susan in their 5 m transects. (Author's photograph)
Well. Once you start looking ...... the 100 pin flags were running dangerously low before we had even reached the opposite fence. There was stuff everywhere, despite the low visibility as you see in the image above. I was amazed, and so were the students. There were bits of concrete, star pickets, bricks, lead, tin cans, insulation, wire, nails, leather, cable trenches (some of the rabbit scratches turned out not to be, once you examined them closely), metal steps, pipes, and much more. When we made a list of all the observed artefact materials or types, there were over 30. 

Southwest from the antenna footing, showing the location of pin flags. (Author's photograph)
This was all great, obviously, although now it was clear that we would be lucky to get through half of this small area in a day, let alone the whole site. But the best was yet to come. 

In the picture below, you see an erosion scar with a high density of artefacts, as evidenced by the density of pin flags.
Artefact density in the erosion scar (with Lance, Tom and Steve). (Author's photograph)
Obviously visibility was highest in this exposed area, and so we would expect a higher density of artefacts than the surrounding grassed areas. Some, at least, were being washed down or out of the slope; the presence of a small culvert under a path nearby attested to the movement of water through this area. But it was the content of this artefact scatter which was the biggest eye-opener.

Pretty soon, as the teams moved systematically through recording the artefacts, we became aware that there were quite a few cable ties present; so many that some people suggested that there was no need to individually photograph and measure every one. Tempting though that thought was .... I stuck to my guns. This was the methodology and we were going to follow it to the letter.! There was a little grumbling. Why record the same features on so many of them, when they were all identical? What would we learn?

Again, once you start looking...... the first thing to note was that these were used cable ties, not new ones. They had been removed from something. One team observed a tie that had been torn apart, as the edges were jagged. I then instructed everyone to pay attention to the ends and record their state. Three variations then became evident: some had been torn, some cut, and some melted. This tiny observation on a discarded piece of plastic translated into a decision and an action taken by a real person in carrying out a task.

From this starting point, as we compared the cable ties that occurred across the erosion scar, other variations emerged. There were different colours: black, white, translucent. There were different lengths and different widths, from the very skinny and short to the very long and thick. The length, and thickness could be an indication of the diameter and load that the tie was used for. Some had had the loose ends trimmed off. Some had patent numbers on them, or manufacturer's labels. Some were lying flat on the surface; others were actively eroding out, standing upright in a layer of silt.

I was delighted. This ubiquitous, seemingly simple object was raising all kinds of questions about how and why the cable ties had been used. How did they get there? Were they associated with the tracking station? What date were they? When, exactly, had cable ties been invented? None of us knew. We all knew what they were, but we knew absolutely nothing else about this very modern artefact type.

By this time someone had decided to start substituting cable ties in film names - such a shame that we had no mobile coverage or there would have been a great Twitter hashtag in it - #cabletiemovies - such gems as The Texas Cable Tie Massacre (Jonathan) and The Valley of the Cable Ties (Susan) raised much hilarity. (My own effort:  The Cable Tie, being a film starring Jim Carrey). But I could tell that despite their ostensible skepticism, everyone was getting caught up in the cable tie story.  I decided to have a brainstorm session.

First we considered when cable ties were invented. (We couldn't just look this up; out here our phones didn't have reception. The whole point of locating a satellite tracking station in this valley was its radio quietness). Like many things that people assume are very modern, I thought perhaps cable ties were quite old, 1850s or something like that. Others thought they might be 1950s or 1960s. Rob pointed out that an omega-shaped clip used to be used to secure pipes and cables to structures. Another question was mass production. While the technology may be old, their accessibility may be recent. Early cable ties, he proposed, may have been expensive, and those at Orroral may have all been imported from the US.  Perhaps they were not throw-away technology in the early days.

What were so many cable ties doing near the main antenna? Were they associated with the dismantling of the antenna? Steve imagined a bunch of blokes climbing all over the structure cutting the ties off, as they took it apart to be transported to Tasmania (where it became part of the Mt Pleasant Observatory). The prevailing wind over the last couple of days had been from the north east; if it had been so in the 1980s, then perhaps the cable ties were just whisked off to the ground, scattering over the grass to the south west of the antenna. It was a plausible theory.

Joan, however, drew our attention to the huge numbers of kangaroos throughout the area (they were all over the site - and of course Canberra is renowned for being the one city in Australia where you can actually see a mob of roos hopping through the streets!). What if the national park had culling programs? The cable ties might be used to tie the feet of the corpse together so it could be transported. (Sorry to raise this gruesome topic).

It was Tom who had first noticed the melted ends of some cable ties, and he told us that cable ties were commonly used by hikers and backpackers to secure their baggage.  They would then burn them off with cigarette lighters. Just to the right of us was a path that already we had seen several groups of outward bounders travel down to the other end of the valley. These groups of high school students were camping up near the old canteen, and every day two different groups would walk right past our erosion site. However, as someone else pointed out, they were just walking through: you would expect to see old cable ties more at camping locations.

So we had some reasonable hypotheses here, and would need to do some research to discriminate between them. It was no good making assumptions that antenna cables = cable ties. We had also to consider that many may have washed down from further upslope, and may not have blown down from the main antenna at all. A key piece of evidence was clearly going to be the distribution of cable ties over the whole site. What features were they most associated with?

We didn't get a chance to do any more transects, but we did investigate the 9 m antenna footing with a group of home school children who came out to visit us. Around the footing, we found a sparse scatter of cable ties. So clearly they were present elsewhere at the site, although the association with the actual antennas was not certain since we had only looked at two of them.

Later, we had a wonderful morning out at the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex with Glen Nagle. Towards the end of his talk to us, he asked if anyone had any questions. I saw a few significant glances exchanged between the students. Hello, I thought. I was pretty sure they wanted someone to ask about cable ties - but no-one wanted to be the patsy! Joan, though, was made of sterner stuff. The glances coalesced into consensus and Joan gave a wry smile before asking Glen how common cable ties were in the construction and operation of the antennas at Tidbinbilla.

Glen Nagle tells us about the history of the Tidbinbilla tracking station. (Author's photograph)
Now, I thought, my moment of vindication. I was a little disconcerted when Glen roared with laughter! But when he recovered, he had some interesting insights. On the main 70 m dish at Tid, he said, there would be 1000s of cable ties. They were in fact an OH & S issue, and one of their engineers was meticulous about enforcing this - if the ends are not cut off, then they can easily take an eye out, as had happened to one unfortunate employee. So we had another factor to consider in our assessment of the cable ties from Orroral. Then he sent his off-sider to the office to get us all a genuine Tidbinbilla cable tie! I was in seventh heaven.

It wasn't until Susan got to the airport and logged in that we found out when the plastic mass-produced cable tie was invented - 1958, as it happens, by the US company Thomas & Betts, to use for securing wire harnesses in aircraft.

Of all the things I expected to get out of using a very 'traditional' archaeological technique on a space site, the discovery of cable ties was certainly not amongst them. My initial field seasons to Orroral had led to me realise the importance of cables, as opposed to the fancy, obvious stuff like antennas (and don't get me wrong, I'm still completely in love with antennas), but it took the application of the archaeological eye and a systematic approach to recording to tease out the implications. It's so obvious when you think about it. Glen, once he had recovered from his hilarity, agreed: there is another story to be told about technology through cable ties, and part of that story is their dissemination throughout contemporary culture, their adaptation to all kinds of uses, leading to their virtual invisibility.

As far as I'm concerned, cable ties are the quintessential artefact representing the potential of the archaeology of the contemporary past.

I will make them visible again.

A few weeks later, I'm having dinner with the president of the Australian Archaeological Association, my esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis, in a regional Queensland town on a Sunday night. There's not many places open and we have to settle for a cafe which is also hosting a Christian a capella group.  'Lynley', I say, 'I have to tell you about my recent discovery concerning cable ties!'  'Keep your voice down', she replies.  'There's a lot of elderly Christians about who may not be comfortable overhearing such a conversation'. I'm nonplussed. Why would anyone care?  Then I realise: she assumes I am about to impart some revelation concerning kinky sex. And this, sadly, is the immediate association that many people have with cable ties:  restraint, whether in the boudoir, down at the police station, or in a hostage situation.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Happy Christmas from Dr Space Junk

I'm organised this year!  This collage is from my Facebook status updates, those (mostly) with a space theme, of course.

If the text is too small to read click on the picture to get a larger version.  That's if you really want to know my innermost thoughts.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Communicating the archaeology of the contemporary past: an experiment in methodology

Recently, I took some graduate students out to one of my favourite places, the former Orroral Valley Tracking Station in Namadgi National Park, Australian Capital Territory. We did some normal archaeological things (pedestrian transect survey, mapping with DGPS, RTK-DPGS and baseline-offset), but I also wanted to do something different, to see if methodologies touted as being distinctive to the contemporary past had anything to offer us as archaeologists.

This is what I asked the students to do:

All that remains of a once vibrant facility, where over 100 people worked in shifts around the clock, is now concrete footings: the spikes and sky-gazing arcs of numerous antennas are represented by flat surfaces over which a person can walk without really registering what they are - as we observed with numerous Outward Bound hikers, who filed over the main antenna footing as if it were only a changing texture underfoot.  They seem to barely notice the interpretive signs. There are two generations of interpretive signs at Orroral; most people agree that the older ones are not very effective, but the more recent ones, which are far more informative, are only present at a few places near the most accessible parts of the site.  There's a lot of scope to do more, and this was also something I wanted the students to think about too.

So what happened?  Was this experiment worth it?  Most definitely, but not necessarily in the ways I was expecting.  And I wasn't really sure what I was expecting!

A few students took a little while to feel comfortable with the fact that it was THEIR instincts that were important here, and what appeared to be stupid to them was really exactly what I was looking for. Some were initially cautious, but no-one refused to do it or made too much of a fuss about it, despite the fact that it wasn't being assessed.

The first result was that approaching the site in this way caused the students to be very observant, paying attention to the meaning of ephemeral traces and relationships between structures.  They saw things that I had never paid any particular attention to, even though I was far more familiar with the site than they. Helen wrote an evocative piece about the fading white paint outlining parking places outside buildings such as the Minitrack Operations Building, a presence implying the absence of cars and workers. She noted that while these lines were "Ephemera appearing on no plan or map or survey, they have yet outlasted the buildings and hardware and people". Tom used photographs, from the interpretation panels, of the tracking station in operation and located the same perspectives now, juxtaposing the vibrancy of the peopled landscape with the silence of the concrete footings, and the decades of tree growth since the original photographs were taken. Steve put the people back in: on the flat floors without walls, he posed his fellow students carrying out activities that would once have happened in that building:  serving food in the canteen, sitting on a toilet, processing data in the operations building while looking at the view out to the 26 m antenna, sweeping the concrete curtain around the dish's base.

Cultural significance is not just about historic events and people; it's also about the senses, or what the Burra Charter (1999) defines as aesthetic significance (NOT to be confused with aesthetics).  Some students chose to engage senses other than sight, using both the real and imagined sounds of the site to evoke Orroral as it was in the past and in the present. Joan put a schematic engineering drawing of the 26 m antenna together with a broadcast from space: the voices of the astronauts communicating with ground control as the dish provided comms for a space shuttle mission, thus giving life and rapid movement to this monolithic structure. Jon showed a picture of the almost desolate, windswept northern end of the site, the valley enclosed by a bowl of alpine ranges that isolate it from radio interference, and played a recording of the wind and solitary bird calls: the loneliness of the abandoned tracking station that once spoke to the stars.

Poetry featured too. Lance asked us to close our eyes while he recited his words, removing us from the large common room and into his private vision; Susan used a whiteboard to draw the features of the site as she wove the outline of a yet-to-be-written poem together from fragments of the past and the present, a work in progress.

Susan, Liam and the poem taking shape on the whiteboard

John, our intrepid technical officer, emerged in his fluoro vest, set up the dumpy level tripod, tipped a bag of rubbish on to the floor, and lay down with his hat over his face: the postprandial nap amidst the wreckage of lunch. The rubbish had been collected from the site: he had very carefully picked up drink and food containers on which the use-by date was after 2011, reasoning that they were actually rubbish and not artefacts as they half-existed in the future. In this careful act he has captured all the paradoxes of the archaeology of the contemporary past, and I think he was a little taken aback when I insisted that we keep his collection for analysis .......

John naps amidst the artefacts of the future

Another principle of contemporary archaeology is 'making the familiar unfamiliar'. When you're looking at recent material culture, we are so used to it that we don't necessarily perceive its role in our lives. But, as Colleen Beck has pointed out, much of the technology of the recent past is anything but familiar. We all know of nuclear testing and the terrible deployments of these weapons, but could any of us identify the components of a test site and figure out what went on there? We all use satellite technology, but could we identify Orroral Valley as a tracking station by the layout and antenna footings alone? These kinds of places, which define the global technologies of the recent past, are frequently inaccessible and mysterious. They need interpreting; they're places that help us make sense of the world we live in.

Jonathan showed a photo of the 9 m antenna footing: much more intimate in scale than the big dish. He talked about popular quizzes where people have to guess what an object is. Asking us to place ourselves in the role of a 'lay' listener/viewer, he asked 'What is it?'.  Indeed. What, actually, is this circle of concrete with a sloped half-amphitheatrical wall behind it? How do we describe this structure?

The students connected a place, trace or structure with imagined human actions - and hence stories - creating new avenues for approaching the interpretation of the site and making it real. But the most stunning outcome was when the students presented their pieces before the small audience of ourselves and four visitors, Johnn, Geoff, Adam and Liam, who had joined us for dinner that night. I wasn't sure if our guests would want to stay for this part of the evening, but they were riveted. Afterwards, Johnn said 'You should do this for the ABC'. He made an interesting argument: because there were nine small snapshots of the site, all highlighting completely different things in different ways, there was something to appeal to the most diverse of audiences. If one approach didn't do it for you, then one of the others was bound to. So in terms of communicating with non-archaeologists, he saw this as a way of engaging the public effectively. The very personal choices the students made about what appealed to them, what caught their attention and how they expressed it, mirrored the diversity of the broader community, creating points of entree into what otherwise might be opaque technology. I was very struck by this insight, that reaffirmed a position outlined in Harrison and Schofield's recent textbook on the archaeology of the contemporary past: that we are the best authorities on the archaeology of us; that the process of autoanthropology or autoethnography is revealing of our own approaches to the material world.

And of course the question you're all asking - was there an interpretive dance?  Yes there was, but Chantal was too shy to perform it!

Thursday, November 03, 2011

That was then, this is now: contemporary archaeology in Australia

In this workshop, we're going to explore what makes the practice of contemporary archaeology in Australia distinctive.  Naturally, I'll be doing the space thing.  If you'd like to be in my session, give me a hoy and we can have a chat about it!

That was then, This is now: Contemporary Archaeology in Australia
February 16-17, 2012   University of Sydney

This two-day workshop explores the role of contemporary archaeology and the state of research in Australia. It is aimed at exploring the methods, theories and subjects currently informing this nascent field of study. What role might Australian scholars play in advancing this area of research?

This workshop is intended to be a platform for open conversation and discussion of ideas. Students, scholars and professionals are welcome to offer presentations of 15 or 30 minutes.

Topics may include but are not limited to: auto-ethnography, late twentieth and twenty-first century technologies, space archaeology, contemporary graffiti, urban landscapes, mobilities, new methods of archaeological practice (social media, art, performance, re-enactment), the post-human, archaeologies of protest, anarchy, internment, migration and the cold war, the body, affect and the narrative turn, the materialities of contemporary life.

Please send 100 word abstracts to the convenors. Deadline: 31 January, 2012.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

In praise of ComRadSat and community broadcasting from space

For many years, I was a broadcaster in the community radio sector. I loved it. I started out with 2ARM in Armidale, NSW, Australia's oldest community radio station, which began in 1976. I won't bore you with the details of the shows I worked on, but suffice it to say that I met people I consider among my dearest friends in the world (even if we rarely communicate - I still completely love you), acquired a rather massive CD library, and had an absolute ball. I also worked with the University of New England on their distance education radio shows through 2SER in Sydney.  This was one of the few times I did talkback, and let me tell you, it's hard, hard work (fancy talking evolution to a born-again Christian student live on air with no preparation?  Well, never again, thanks very much). Then there was a hiatus of a couple of years, and I found myself on Radio NAG in Yeppoon, Central Queensland, with my first solo show, The World According to Alice. (I made my first website for that show too!) Again, I had the most fantastic time working with such wonderful people (ditto as above. I do love you even though I am a terrible emailer sometimes).

And I threw it all away to pursue space archaeology.  This happened maybe a year after the beer/verandah/satellite episode described in this post on How I Became A Space Archaeologist (so you see there is a bit more of the story to tell yet).

In my early wanderings through the vasty halls of space history, I became interested in amateur and public space, particularly the AMSAT programme, and even more particularly the Australis Oscar V satellite. But strange to say, in all of this it never occurred to me to put my radio days together with my current research interests and wonder how the community broadcasting satellite ComRadSat fitted into all of this.

The - what is the word I want here? - zenith of community broadcasting was to have your show sent out to all the community stations across Australia via satellite - in other words being syndicated on a voluntary basis. I aspired to it, and I like to think I was maybe not as far from that goal when I left Radio NAG as I had been previously. I'll never know now. And broadcasting has changed so much. No need to cue vinyl, or edit on reel-to-reel (and it wasn't THAT long ago, just so we're clear about that).

Changed so much, that in this google age I do a quick search and find in some small print somewhere that ComRadSat is not a stand-alone satellite launched by a bunch of hippies from Bellingen, as it might have been in the true history of community broadcasting in Australia, but actually Optus B1. And I have written about the Optus and Aussat satellites, particularly about the impact of satellite television on Aboriginal communities in northern Australia (Gorman 2009), and I didn't think to explore this avenue.

In this FoxNewsedUp world, community broadcasting is more important than ever. So many passionate people are out there sharing their visions with the world, and I want them to continue. They are, as I once was myself, part of the story of space that I want to tell.

 Gorman, A.C.  2009  Beyond the Space Race:  the significance of space sites in a new global context.  In Angela Piccini and Cornelius Holthorf (eds)  Contemporary Archaeologies:  Excavating Now.  Bern:  Peter Lang

For more information, go to the website of the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Re-entry frenzy: Australian Skylab documentary

An interview with Stan Thornton, who claimed the $10 000 reward for the first piece of Skylab to make it back to the states, and much more ......

Monday, October 17, 2011

Theory, atheory or anti-theory? The state of play in Australian archaeology

I wasn't planning to go to the annual Australian Archaeological Association conference this year (it's in Toowoomba from 1-3 December), but pressure from my esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis (president of the Association) who wants company in the presidential penthouse, plus an enticing suggestion from my new partner-in-crime Tom Sapienza to run a session on theory, has put an end to that.

Here is our session abstract. It's actually nearly too late to submit a paper if you were feeling so inclined, but we will consider anything, however briefly. 

Theory, atheory or anti-theory?  Issues in Australian archaeology
From students to professionals, many archaeologists in Australia today deny that they are operating in a theoretical framework, or question the usefulness of theoretical approaches to their practice. With ever greater numbers of archaeologists in academia and cultural heritage management, what are the implications of this retreat from archaeological theory for the discipline? Since all data are theory-laden, what does Australian archaeology's particular interaction with theoretical matters say about our data?

Because of Australia’s history, location and unique archaeological record, archaeologists here have the potential to offer new theoretical insights into such questions as the origins of behavioural modernity, the relationship between lithics and social behaviour, cultural responses to climate change and the role of communities in creating heritage, to name a few.  Despite the existence of outstanding scholarship in many of these areas, we suggest that an a- or anti-theoretical culture, perhaps related to a broader Australian anti-intellectual tradition and the “cultural cringe”, has limited the realisation of this potential. Moreover, disciplines such as history and geography are currently engaging with a “material turn” (eg Bennett and Joyce 2010), acknowledging that material culture is a legitimate and indeed necessary component of their enquiries. As they look to archaeology to understand how this works, we find ourselves in an awkward position. The question of whether archaeology has developed its own theories, as opposed to borrowing in bower-bird fashion from other disciplines, remains contentious. In this session, we want to examine the nature of theory in Australian archaeology today, both in the academic and private sectors.  We invite contributions which address, but are not limited to, the following themes: 
• Teaching archaeological theory• Theory and communities; theory and students• Contemporary theoretical developments in Australia• Case studies in the application of theory• Historical analyses• The use of theory in cultural heritage management

Bennett, Tony and Patrick Joyce (eds) 2010  Material Powers:  Cultural Studies, History and the Material Turn.  London and New York: Routledge

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Orroral Valley NASA Tracking Station in action

Orroral Valley was a NASA tracking station in the STADAN network, designed for telemetry, tracking and command, from 1965-1985.  Orroral veteran Philip Clark has put together this short film of original footage.  You can see the fabulous SATAN antenna, the operations room, and the whole tracking station under snow (it's in the Australian Alps).  There's also the Wresat 1 satellite, which was sent to Orroral prior to launch at Woomera to check that all the systems would work. And - guess what - there's a rocket cake!  Well, a space shuttle cake to be precise.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Australian Space Science Conference 2011: are we really all "nerds, carpetbaggers, enthusiasts and nutters"?

The week before last I was at the Australian Space Science Conference in Canberra, the annual gathering for space scientists of all kinds: astrophysics, astronomy, planetary science, astrobiology, robotics, satellite development, propulsion systems, education, policy, history, heritage and a whole heap more. (I gave a paper about why Skylab is remembered while Wresat 1 is forgotten, and what this means for the kinds of stories we want to tell about Australian space). A highlight of the conference was the opening address by Senator Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. Among many other things, he said that:
Combined, the Australian space industry involves around 630 organisations employing 8,400 people and generating revenues of up to $1.6 billion.  I cannot overstate the importance of the products and services these businesses provide. Today in Australia, there are some 30 separate federal government programs that depend on space industry infrastructure  ....
We need to secure our future in space, to ensure our prosperity in Australia. We have made significant progress towards that goal over the past four years. I have every faith in the exceptional talent represented here today.
Thanks, Kim! After this vote of confidence, it might seem a little surprising that Brett Biddington (Chair of the Space Industry Association of Australia and member of the Space Industry Innovation Council) should give a presentation where he said politicians viewed us as
 ... a very odd mix of people: nerds, carpetbaggers, enthusiasts and nutters .... typically long on assertion and exceptionally thin on evidence ....
An account of his talk was was written up by SBS World News Australia. Now, Brett is one of us, of course; and I interpreted his conference presentation as a bit of a pep talk, delivered with a measure of affection to his community, but aimed, perhaps, at jolting us out of our silos and thinking a bit more about the importance of good communication with both the public and politicians. (I have to confess that I don't know what a carpetbagger is, apart from the title of a trashy novel by Harold Robbins, which I hasten to add I have never read). When I saw the special coverage on the SBS website, I was actually a little shocked at how harsh the printed words seemed in comparison to his delivery. With so many things happening in Australian space, it's not a good time to feel undermined by one of our own!

To me, it was clear that his talk was not intended as a public statement, although there is of course no reason why it should not be reported. And he's right too: clear communication is a key factor, especially at this critical time when political attitudes towards space are on the upturn. However, reflecting about this characterisation of the space community (and wondering which one of the four I might be - I can see I'm going to have to google carpetbagger before I finish writing this; if it involves snakes, which I feel it might, I'll take it), it occurs to me that it probably required a level of nuttiness and enthusiasm to keep dreams, and more importantly, specialist knowledge, alive through lean times when there was no support, funding or recognition of how space underpins late industrial states and all the things that we now take for granted, like global navigation and telecommunications. So while politicians may see these as bad things, we don't have to feel ashamed of our own nerdiness. It can be a good thing, too (leading, possibly, even to Nobel prizes!)

Brett's point is simply that times have changed, and we need to learn some new skills, to be more politically savvy. I like to think I do my bit for science communication in the space realm. 

OK: now for the denouement.

(Wait while I look up carpetbagger)

Lordy!  It turns out to be a very complex term with lots of history, generally meaning a bit dodgy, and no snake involvement at all. I'll stick with nerdiness for the time being.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Skylab: fear and loathing on Saturday Night Live

A couple of weekends ago I was glued to the computer, waiting to hear when and where the UARS re-entered.  The blogosphere and the twitterverse were in a frenzy.  One of the gems that emerged, via @cosmos4u and @spacearcheology, was this video of John Belushi in a sketch from Saturday Night Live in 1979.  I'd not come across it in my search for the cultural footprint of Skylab.  (Actually that's quite a good concept, I think!).

There's a creepy World Trade Centre reference, and talk of probabilities - just the very stuff that psychologist Talma Kushnir identified as an issue feeding public fears.  In general the sketch betrays a lack of faith in official information: of course they're going to tell us there's nothing to worry about!  Skylab ends up not as passive technology, but a vicious world-destroying monster, paid for by John Belushi's hard-earned taxes.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Shades of Skylab: the re-entry of the UARS satellite, and the psychological effects of orbital debris

This Friday, debris from NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) is predicted to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Twenty six components are expected to survive, with a 1-in-3200 chance of hitting someone or something. Where it will re-enter is not precisely known. 

Artist's impression of UARS. Image courtesy of NASA

When Skylab was about to re-enter, there was a great deal of speculation and fear across the world. In the early days, NASA did not give much thought to managing public expectations, only establishing an information centre towards the end. Some thought that it was best not to give the public the impression that NASA was in control (only partially true) as it would reduce the blame if anything went wrong! People thought the world might blow up, or that the spacecraft would descend upon them in vengeance for their misdemeanours (see also my previous post here). Psychologist Talma Kushnir investigated how people in Israel perceived the risk.  This is how she summed up the situation:
The anticipation of the fall of Skylab was a worldwide event. Several features of that situation might have caused confusion and emotional arousal in at least part of the population. For example, catastrophes usually occur without prior notice, but in this case the whole world was alerted for weeks beforehand. While the fall was inevitable, its exact timing, location and consequences were unpredictable. For many people it represented a risk of unknown magnitude. The public was constantly bombarded by the mass media with bulletins of confusing information. Moreover, the information provided at the time was mainly probabilistic and varied from moment to moment, within and between available sources. On the whole, many individuals might have perceived the situation as stressful. (Kushnir 1982:85)
Among her conclusions were that 
1. The media played a role in exaggerating the risks; and presented statistics about the risk that were not very accessible;
2. Stress was higher among women, youth and uneducated people - the less education the person had, the more unrealistic their expectations;
3. Fear of science and technology may have contributed to higher levels of stress.

The gendered dimension is interesting here. Kushnir noted that:
in almost any sample, females are more likely to have less years of formal education and less knowledge of scientific and technological matters. These reasons may contribute to their stronger feelings of helplessness. (Kushnir 1982: 92) 
Moreover, they may also be more likely to express their anxiety than men (Kushnir 1981:112), thus skewing the results.

What was the ultimate result of Skylab's fall on public attitudes?  Back in the 1980s, Kushnir felt that Glass's gloomy prediction of 1970 had only been reinforced by Skylab. Glass argued that there would be:
more and more massive resistance to technological change. I predict in equal measure a growing hostility to science .... Hence the fifth .... limiting factor in the growth of science - the psychological resistance of and the restricted support by a population inadequately educated in the understanding of science and militantly opposed to it because of its identification with the technological annihilation of the human environment. (Glass 1970:75)
Sure, it's very Cold War, but one could argue that at least part of this prediction has been played out in subsequent decades. How will re-entries like the UARS, which are highly publicised across forms of media that didn't exist back in the 1980s, in an environment where the public are increasingly aware of the problems created by orbital debris, affect attitudes towards space industry, exploration and science?

You can watch the UARS tumbling in its decaying orbit in the video below, shot by Thierry Legault with a 14 inch telescope in France on September 15th.

Glass, B.  1970  The timely and the timelessness. New York: Basic Books 
Gorman, A.C. 2011 The sky is falling: how Skylab became an Australian icon.  Journal of Australian Studies 35(4): 529-546
Kushnir, Talma 1981 Anticipating Skylab: subjective probability of injury in relation to birth order, anxiety and affiliation.  European Journal of Social Psychology 11:109-113
Kushnir, Talma 1982  Skylab effects:  psychological reactions to a human-made environmental hazard. Environment and Behaviour 14:84-93

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Space junk floating around the Moon

The picture below is a computer image made by Zoe Star Wardlaw, aged 7.  She is the daughter of my friend Alice Wardlaw. She explains it in her own words:

My  picture  is  of  a  moon,  a  star  and  some  space  junk  floating  in  space. The space junk is floating around the moon. Around  the  moon  there  is  stars  and  space junk. The  moon  is  a  different  colour  to  the  others. I  did  the  stars  and  the  space junk  because  I  wanted  to  and  I  felt  like  it  and  I  just  wanted  to  because  I  felt  like  it.

The moon is VERY BIG in my picture BECAUSE I want it that way and I like it that way.

There are many things I like about this picture. The space junk is clearly in orbit around the Moon, and varies in size.  For some pieces, it appears as if we are viewing them on an angle, so there is a nice three-dimensionality to the picture.

I also like the fact that, for Zoe, space automatically contains junk.  She chose the Moon, not the Earth: she assumes that because the Earth is surrounded by space junk, so are all other celestial bodies in the solar system. This resonates with the way I conceive the space environment, not as a vacuum into which human material is interposed, but rather as a holistic entity.

It also seems a little odd to call orbital debris around the Moon 'junk', something I hadn't thought about until Zoe's picture. There's vastly less of it, of course, and it doesn't pose a threat to terrestrial commercial or military enterprises at present. I'd have to look up what is in lunar orbit, but I think of this space hardware, unconsciously, more as artefacts than junk, precious evidence of a past phase of lunar exploration.  This makes me think about how attitudes to space junk and space hardware change according to circumstances. When exactly did we come to think of stuff in Earth orbit as junk?  In my forthcoming Skylab paper, I talk about how Skylab's descent over Western Australia was co-opted into the application of the new Litter Act, introduced that very year as a result of a decade of the 'Keep Australia Beautiful' campaign. While concerns about orbital debris were certainly raised very early on, it would be very interesting to track how attitudes changed as the environmental movement gained momentum: a change from a colonialist, instrumental view of the world to one on which we have certain responsibilities.

So thank you, Zoe, for giving me food for thought! When Zoe is a famous artist (I won't insist that she stick to space themes), remember that you saw her work first on Space Age Archaeology.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The heritage uncertainty principle: excavating air raid shelters from the Second World War

Hot off the press! Heather and I wrote this a couple of years ago, and finally it is out. Not particularly spacey, but there is some thematic overlap in the idea of bombardment and bunkers, which continue into the Cold War.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Dr Space Junk throws down the gauntlet to the Australian space community on orbital debris

Well, I exaggerate a little.

Last week the National Council of Research in the US released a report calling on NASA to get serious about orbital debris.

Ashley Hall, a journalist from ABC's PM current affairs programme, called me for comment.  You can listen to the interview here.  He also talks to orbital debris guru Donald Kessler.

At the end of the interview, I make a case that Australia should become more than a passive observer to the efforts of the space agencies and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee.

There are a number of reasons why this makes perfect sense:

1.  Australia has a number of non-operational and functioning assets in space:  FedSat, Australis Oscar V, and the Aussat/Optus telecommunications satellites.  We rely very heavily on satellite services.  Orbital debris is a problem for us as much as anyone.

2.  Orbital debris often re-enters over Australia - a function of our large landmass and location.

3.  Because of both the above factors, not to mention plenty of radio-quiet space and political stability, Australia is ideally suited to host tracking and surveillance facilities (which we have done, and still do, a lot of).

4. We have a great track record in tracking expertise, and have local industries developing innovative capabilities in this field (eg EOS).

5. Recently we have signed a couple of agreements with the USA to increase collaboration on Space Situational Awareness.

6.  We are located in a global navigation satellite systems "hotspot" - in a decade we will have access to over 40 such systems (apparently).

7.  In the past (ie before the Howard era), Australia had a good reputation in middle power diplomacy.

8. Now that we are starting to take space seriously, with the Space Policy Unit and a new space policy on the way, and funding for space research, it is important to build our credibility.

9. Australia has a (rarely used) place on the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

You see my drift?  If I hadn't managed to fill up my sabbatical with other writing obligations, I would write a paper about this for the Monthly or something like that.  Perhaps I still will.  Anyone want to collaborate on it with me?

Friday, September 02, 2011

What does the Moon mean to you? International Observe the Moon Night - 8th October 2011

International Observe the Moon Night (InOMN) will take place on October 8, 2011! Last year's InOMN included over 500 events in over 50 countries.  The theme for InOMN 2011 is "What does the Moon mean to you?" We hope to celebrate cultural and artistic connections to the Moon in addition to current lunar science research.

The InOMN Website has all you need to get started, including tips on hosting an event, tips for getting connected with astronomy clubs in your local area, free downloads, and more. Please consider joining us on October 8, 2011 as people all over the world stop to look up and ponder our closest neighbor!

The International Observe the Moon Night Team consists of scientists, educators, and Moon enthusiasts from government, non-profit organizations, and businesses throughout the United States and across the globe. We believe in the inspirational power of the Moon — a celestial body that has influenced human lives since the dawn of time. International Observe the Moon Night has created the opportunity to for people to take notice of the Moon’s beauty and share that experience with one another. Through International Observe the Moon Night, we hope instil in the public a sense of wonderment and curiosity about our Moon. Our partnerships enable us to stay up to date with the latest and greatest scientific discoveries about Earth’s nearest neighbor, and we strive to bring those discoveries to the public.

Feel free to contact Lora Bleacher, Education and Public Outreach Lead for the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, with any questions.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Uganda in space

My erudite archaeoastronomical colleague Alun Salt sent me this article on a bunch of space enthusiasts in Uganda who are building a space shuttle in their backyard: African space research: Dreaming of a manned shuttle.

There's lots to love about this: the general craziness of Uganda (some young thing on the television the other day had never heard of Idi Amin), the sheer guts and determination of the volunteers and their leader Chris Nsamba, the openly nationalist agenda, the jackfruit tree in the backyard, and the almost-tenderness of the journalist, Anne Cavell, towards these dreamers.

I've long been interested in Africa's role in space. Nigeria, for example, had one of the very earliest generations of USA tracking station (a Microlock system, I think); in Mozambique, a crazy Portuguese dude built his own tracking station back in the 1950s. A few years ago I had one of my students do a project on Nigeria's space heritage, to explore the kinds of values that might be appropriate for space places outside of the Cold War western industrial complexes. I love the ambition of Uganda's attempts to participate in space, and why shouldn't they be ambitious? The big spacefaring states have had it all their way for too long.

And of course this fits very nicely into one of the often-overlooked themes of space travel, the role of amateurs and enthusiasts.  The historical importance of rocket societies in the earlier part of the 20th century, and their contribution to space exploration as we know it today, has been well-researched; but people tend to forget that amateurs and the public continue to be involved in making their own kinds of space.  My favourite example of this is Australis Oscar V, the satellite designed and built by Melbourne University students in the 1960s, and still in orbit.

Maybe Uganda won't have their own space shuttle or astronauts in the next decade, but I don't think that's the point. It's what they'll learn and accomplish along the way that makes this a significant project to watch.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Space junk and its affinity for water: Columbia's fuel tank

Drought reveals Columbia shuttle debris
Analysis by Irene Klotz
Thu Aug 4, 2011

One of 18 fuel tanks that flew aboard the U.S. space shuttle Columbia, which broke apart as it re-entered the atmosphere for landing on Feb. 1, 2003, has been found in a lake in drought-stricken Texas. "This is one of the bigger pieces," says NASA's Lisa Malone, head of public affairs at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the Columbia debris is stored.

The space center got a call late last week from police officers in Texas who were asking for help identifying a large spherical tank newly exposed in the receding water of Lake Nacogdoches. It was a match to gas tanks on a pallet in Columbia, enabling its seven member crew, which included Israel's Ilan Ramon, to stay in space conducting research for 16 days. As Columbia flew through the atmosphere for landing, its left wing, which had been damaged by a debris strike during launch, broke off, triggering the ship's destruction over East Texas and Louisiana and killing the crew.

Malone said NASA will retrieve the tank and add it to the rest of the recovered wreckage, which is stored inside the shuttle's Vehicle Assembly Building.  Unlike the Challenger debris, which was buried in an abandoned missile silo at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, NASA wanted to make pieces recovered from Columbia available to researchers, in the hopes that more can be learned to benefit future space travelers.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The bizarre world of philately and space exploration

You don't have to hang around the space world for long to realise that there is a strange space-stamp connection going on. Stamps, first day covers, rocket mail, stamp-funded space research programmes, it's all there. My erudite Highland friend Fraser MacDonald is into it too, specialising in space stamps from 1933 to 1937 or something equally obscure.  Often when I'm looking for pictures of particular spacecraft, the only ones I can find are those on stamps.

And OK, I'm not entirely immune from this obsession myself - one of my most prized possessions is a large framed montage of space stamps in the shape of a rocket, made for me by one of my former students.

Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden this week released his autobiography, Falling to Earth. He and his fellow astronauts in this mission were given the boot by NASA because they made a secret deal with a German stamp collector to sell 100 of the 400 hundred first day covers they smuggled aboard (they were going to use the proceeds to set up trust funds for their children). It was not the first time that astronauts had taken such things into space, but for some reason NASA decided not to let them get away with it on this occasion.

The other interesting aspect of this is the special status accorded to objects that have been flown in space, whether they are human bodies, spacecraft debris, or souvenirs. Something that has been in space acquires a value that its unflown counterparts can never partake of. I'm quite interested in why this should be - I mean it's perfectly comprehensible at an instinctual level, but I think it takes the idea of the souvenir much further into the realms of fetish and talisman. First day covers are of course very light; and verifiable too, as they are linked to date, so perhaps this one reason why they (and coins) seem to feature frequently in this sort of collecting endeavour.

Just to illustrate, here's a lovely Europa first day cover, commemorating one of the the launches of the British-French-German rocket from Woomera in South Australia in 1966:

Fraser has written a fascinating piece about rocket mail in Brisbane in the 1930s, which you can read here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Space research in Australia - the successes and challenges

Space Industry Forum
Tuesday 16 August 2011 from 5.30-7.00pm
followed by refreshments

Council Room,
Level 4, Hawke Building
City West Campus
University of South Australia
North Terrace

Space Research in Australia -
the Successes and the Challenges
Chaired by Brett Biddington, Chair of the Space Industry Association of Australia

Bob Buxton (Flinders University) - Place and Space: Perspective in Earth Observations
Andrew Clark (Vipac) - Greenhouse Gas Monitor Project
Michael Davis (Adelta Legal) - Southern Hemisphere Summer Space Program
Jeff Kasparian (ITR, UniSA) - Space-based National Wireless Sensor Network

*RSVP by 12 August 2011
By email:

* Entry is free but places are limited so booking is essential

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What should Dr Space Junk do on the Day of Archaeology?

Help, everyone.  Next Friday, I will be writing about my day as a space archaeologist for the Day of Archaeology.

Have you ever wondered what archaeologists really get up to? Is it all just digging or is there a lot more to it? The Day of Archaeology 2011 aims to give a window into the daily lives of archaeologists. Written by them, it will chronicle what they do on one day, July 29th 2011, from those in the field through to specialists working in laboratories and behind computers. This date coincides with the Festival of British Archaeology, which runs from 16th – 31st July 2011.

So what shall I do on that day?  In the way these things work, I actually have many interesting things to do in the week before, and even the day before (of that more later); but unless I want to sit at my computer and write, I haven't got anything particularly riveting apart from farewell drinks for our former Dean of Humanities later in the afternoon on Friday 29th July. OK, so maybe they want an ordinary day, but believe me, no-one wants to read about me visiting the finance officer to see about our budget for the field school or going through the class lists to chase down outstanding assessment, or reading my way through PhD students' chapters. That might characterise an academic's life, but not necessarily an archaeologist's.

Here's my preliminary ideas: I could:

1. Visit the Aviation Museum in Port Adelaide to have a serious look at their collections
2. Go out to the University of South Australia at Mawson Lakes and have a look at their FedSat materials (actually I'm liking this option!)
3. Do one of my favourite activities, op-shopping in the hope of locating rare Woomera or other space souvenirs, and vintage items from the 1950s-1970s related to space (I'm liking this one even more!)
4. Make a second version of DrSpaceJunkSat (my cardboard satellite) as a sort of experiment in performance art. (This might be especially appropriate as the day before I am giving a joint seminar on Theatre/Archaeology with a drama person).
5.  Write something.  Well they do say "behind a computer" is acceptable.  Perhaps documenting my thought processes would be interesting enough.

So these are the options I've thought of so far, but perhaps I am completely forgetting some marvellous space thing in Adelaide that I should really pursue, or perhaps there is some lead that I should follow up.

Please, if you have any outstanding ideas for my day, do share them.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The psychological effects of Skylab: divine retribution

It is 1979 in Punjab, India. The U.S. space station - SKYLAB - hurtles toward the Indian sub-continent. A young Punjabi boy, six-year-old Puneet, just stomped on a frog during play. Now, as he listens to a radio broadcast about the imminent crash, he fills with dread that SKYLAB will strike his home and kill him and his family. This charming story, inspired by true events, draws us into Puneet's exotic world and with his struggle as a boy growing up.
Written & Co-Directed by - Arshdeep S Jawandha
Directed by - Pat Pecorella

This short film was made in 2006. I find it interesting for the way it depicts a particular response to Skylab - the idea that an event in the heavens is caused by an action on Earth (The pre-enlightenment view that heaven and earth are interconnected - as above, so below......).  In the little boy's eyes, the disparity in scale does not seem odd at all: he is convinced that the fall of Skylab is caused by his naughtiness in squashing a live frog. Skylab is used as a way to illuminate the boy's understanding of how the world works.

He's terrified that the small world we see in the film - the house, the kitchen where his mother prepares meals, the garden, his father reading the newspaper in the sitting room - will be destroyed when the space station falls on it. Skylab is a metaphor for his awareness of the instability of all that seems solid around him. He's like the frog, for whom the violence of his stomp comes without warning and from above.

The director, Pat Pecorella, commented that:
Scientists attempted to guide it [Skylab] into the Indian Ocean, but its crashing somewhere in India was a possibility. Indian people remember this event and how frightened they were as children.  

Arshdeep  S. Jawandha, who wrote it and also co-directed (I guess he was basing it on his own experiences as a boy), seems to be a psychiatrist who specialises in children, if my internet sleuthing is correct. (On the other hand, they could be two completely different people).

The film starts, as you will see, with the text:
NASA launched the Skylab space station in 1973.  It sustained severe damage during liftoff. It was expected to fall somewhere in the Indian subcontinent, where exactly was unknown.

It's true, of course, that the space station was damaged during launch.  But this text implies that the damage was the cause of its de-orbit, which is not the case.  All the same it's a quick and simple way to explain to a general audience how a spacecraft falls out of the sky. Perhaps Jawandha was conscious of not making people believe that this sort of thing could happen at any old time (which it can, and does) - he has to make a plausible, predictable reason to prevent the same panic shown by little Puneet.

Puneet is concerned about some sorts of scale. He asks his mother,  "Can it [Skylab] be bigger than our house?";  "Is space bigger than Earth?"  The next morning, he finds the body of the frog and buries it.  Then he hears on the radio that Skylab fell into the Indian Ocean, as if his penitence has averted the disaster.

So, in my reading, it's all about causality and scale in the mind of a child.