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.