Thursday, June 30, 2011

How I became a space archaeologist

It's getting on for 2 am and I have no business being awake. At least, if I had any business being awake, it should be finishing my end-of-semester marking, commenting on thesis drafts, and working on my talk for Friday night ....

So all of that is obviously not happening. Instead, I have been reflecting on how I became a space archaeologist. Previously, I had specialised in Aboriginal archaeology, particularly flaked stone tools, contact-era flaked bottle glass, and usewear and residue analysis. (I still do some of those things).  I was also a professional cultural heritage manager, working outside the university sector as a consultant.

Space archaeology came about in a particular moment, back in 2002. This was the setting:  my lovely old Queenslander house in the central Queensland town of Gladstone, where I was employed as the project archaeologist on the raising of the Awoonga Dam. The house had the characteristic broad verandahs of that architectural style and a back garden with guavas, mangos, poincianas, and other marvellous semi-tropical trees. It also had an excellent bath, fabulous for soaking off the dirt after a hard day in the field.

I was frequently in the field with my team, all of them young women from the three Native Title claim groups in the area. Surveying, monitoring earthworks, excavating, a whole bunch of stuff.  In the height of summer it could be very hot and sweaty work indeed. On one such day I came home, exhausted, clumped up the stairs in my steel-capped, acid-resistant boots, flung off my fluoro vest and hard hat as I entered the door, and went straight to the fridge for a delicious cold beer.

Now I have to confess I am slightly on the old-fashioned side in adhering to the principle of changing for dinner, whether one is by oneself at home, or in the field with only a flimsy dress suffering from the effects of being rolled into a ball and squeezed into some corner of the suitcase not occupied by explorer socks. But sometimes it is just all too much of an effort, and this was one of those days. I think I may have paused briefly to pull my heavy boots off, but the next stop after the fridge was the verandah where I collapsed into a chair with my beer and sat, thinking of nothing much, looking up at the stars.

Now Queensland, you recollect, doesn't have daylight saving, so it gets dark far more quickly on summer evenings that the rest of us are used to.  So the stars were already out, even though I wasn't long home. I was contemplating them idly, perhaps thinking about my childhood ambition to be an astrophysicist, the little telescope my parents gave me for Christmas one year, the circular constellation charts that were stored in the bottom shelf of the glass-fronted cabinet in the sitting room. I thought to myself:  I think I'm looking at the stars, but actually, the sky is full of satellites and space junk too.

It was the second part of the thought that was critical, very much related to my then-task of managing the heritage values of the more than 300 recorded Aboriginal and European sites within the inundation area of the Awoonga Dam. If there is human material culture in space, does it have heritage value?  Does the Burra Charter apply to things that aren't even on the Earth?

I thought about this for a while.  And then I decided I was going to find out.

The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance (1999)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dr Space Junk talks to Radio SETI

Earlier in the month I did an interview with the charming Dr Seth Shostak from Radio SETI, on his programme Are We Alone. (I'm going to admit that I have a teeny tiny crush on him now). The theme of this episode was space archaeology, as described below:

Indiana Jones meets Star Trek in the field of space archaeology. Satellites scan ancient ruins so that scientists can map them without disturbing one grain of sand. Discover how some archaeologists forsake their spades and brushes in favor of examining historic sites from hundreds of miles high.

Also, if you were to hunt for alien artifacts – what would you look for? Why ET might choose to send snail mail rather than a radio signal.

Plus, the culture of the hardware we send into space, and roaming the Earth, the moon, and Mars the Google way.


If you'd like to listen, you can find it here:

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Skylab: the conspiracy theories

I do love a good conspiracy theory. And I'm working in two fields where they abound, archaeology and space exploration.  

Today, having completed the final revisions to my Skylab paper for the Journal of Australian Studies (and can I just add how nice it is that the Australian government have scrapped the stupid journal ranking system they recently introduced), I am thinking about everything I had to leave out, and everything I could explore in the next thing I write on this topic.  The following newspaper article, from the Lewiston Evening Journal (on July 12, 1979, p 19) is full of themes that would be great to explore further:  authenticity, US-Australian Cold War relations, feelings of neglect and abandonment, and the Aussie larrikin.

Skylab piece just a hoax
Melbourne, Australia (AP)
An Australian golf course groundskeeper told reporters he found what he thought was a pretzeled piece of Skylab, and he packed a bag for America. Then a metalworker came forward and said it was just a hoax.
The motive: practical joking, but also spite against American space officials. 
The groundskeeper, John Rowe of the southwestern Australian town of Albany, told his story to a local newspaper, a local radio station, and a Perth television station and was hoping to get to the United States in time to collect $10 000 from a San Francisco newspaper.
Then William Hall, 54, told reporters that he had planted the piece of twisted metal on the golf course earlier this morning. 
"I wasn't the only one involved, and we did it partly in retaliation against the American space scientists as we didn't appreciate them deliberately deciding to put Skylab down in Australia," said Hall. "After talking about Skylab on Wednesday night and finding that no-one had been hurt we decided to plant the metal as a joke".

Many thought that the US decided to save their own citizens and sacrifice Australians; there was a sense of indignation at our supposed allies undervaluing Australia.  Feeling deceived, William Hall and his mates decided to deceive in their turn; but it wasn't a member of the NASA recovery team who found the piece, it was the groundskeeper who got all excited thinking about the reward offered.  So they came clean.

I wonder how they decided to make the twisted metal look authentic?  Did they look at other bits of Skylab? Did they just imagine what would happen to metal under that heat and acceleration?  Were they relying on the fact that no-one really knew what space junk looked like?

My esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis comes from Albany ....... perhaps I can send her out to do some oral history interviews for me .......

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Space junk poetry: Kinsella's Skylab and the Theory of Forms

Today, I am making final revisions to my Skylab paper for a special issue of the Journal of Australian Studies, edited by Ursula Frederick and Kylie Message, on the theme of media and materiality. This poem is the star guest. I'd quite like to write an exegesis of it, as there are so many finely nuanced metaphors in it, but that will have to wait for another day .....

Skylab and The Theory of Forms
John Kinsella

For Jeremy Prynne

We didn’t make it but we ended up getting it,
or parts of it at least.  I’ve seen chunks
and my wife’s father brought some home
for them as kids.  In the tradition
of those splinters of the True Cross
held in reliquaries around the world,
if you added all the chunks
together there’d have been an entire
city in space. There’s a novel simmering
in its iconic resonance, the charred black
remains the talisman that starts
or in the very least attracts a cult.
Like the Aum Supreme Truth Cult,
that had a place out there, somewhere
where the land is less fertile and not so
closely scrutinised. Members may
not have known about Skylab
but the prospect of the world
crashing down on their neighbours
would have spurred them on.
But Skylab’s not like them,
nor like the couple from the Subcontinent
who names their newborn in its honour,
being American it’s as good as having
Elvis or Marilyn paraphernalia dropped
in your backyard. People pay
good money for stuff like this.
Kids of my generation remember
the diagrams in magazines
and newspapers. The neat bodies
of astronauts suspended in the neat
compartments. Small had great potential.
And it looked much more modern
than anything the Ruskies
put up there. But maybe now
we can see that such assumptions
were merely a matter of taste.
Soviet Space Trash is also
worth a fortune, and promises
the exotic in the subtext
of THE modern novel.  A kind of
accidental empire building,
an occupation of the vacant spaces.
Like Woomera. A roar that fills
the void of Terra Nullius.

From Kinsella, John 2003 Peripheral Light. Selected and New Poems.  Fremantle:  Fremantle Arts Centre Press pp 73-74