Sunday, June 30, 2013

Aloha avatar: space archaeology in Hawai'i

The last few months have brought many things, some anticipated, and some entirely unexpected.

In early April I went to the Society for American Archaeology conference in Honolulu, where my excellent colleagues Dr Beth Laura O'Leary and Lisa Westwood had organised a space archaeology session. Unfortunately, it was on at 8.30 am on the first day of the conference .... but we still had a reasonable turn-out, and a great array of papers, including one from the very dynamic Ann Garrison Darrin, co-editor of the Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology and Heritage. I was very pleased to meet new space colleagues Joe Reynolds and Justin Walsh. reporter Leonard David, always a big supporter of space archaeology, wrote about the session here.

My contribution was, no surprise, on orbital debris (see abstract below).

Gorman, Alice (Australian Cultural Heritage Management)


Robot Avatars: The Material Culture of Human Activity in Earth Orbit

Since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, more than 7000 rocket launches have delivered payloads into space that now are a critical part of the infrastructure of modern life, particularly in telecommunications and navigation. This paper discusses the broad research questions that can be addressed by investigation of the thousands of satellites, rocket bodies, and pieces of junk currently in Earth orbit. Their materials and design reflect the nature of our social and political interactions with space and adaptations to a new environment, a robotic colonial frontier. Factors that contribute to the character of this material record include microgravity, extreme temperature and radiation conditions, national political and scientific agendas, and technological styles through time and across terrestrial cultures. In other words, what can space junk tell us about contemporary life on Earth? However, unlike terrestrial artifacts, satellites in orbit are barely visible to us and are not designed to interact with human bodies in any way. They may represent the beginnings of a technological trajectory that will transform how human cultures relate to time and space.

The slightly cryptic last sentence alludes to Dyson spheres/swarms and Matrioshka brains - not my usual territory, but it seemed to fit, so I went there.

I loved Honolulu. (Someone said to me before leaving, 'But it's just like the Gold Coast', as if that were a bad thing! I love the Gold Coast too. Tacky has its own aesthetic). Mai Tais and Pina Coladas were $4.00 - what's not to love about that?  In the spirit (ha ha) of this blog, I offer a Mai Tai recipe to drive away the winter blues. Fittingly, Mai Tai is said to be based on the expression 'Maita'i roa ae', which has been translated by some as 'out of this world'.

The ingredients are in imperial measurements 'cos that's how those kooky Americans do things.

1 oz light rum
1 oz dark rum
1/2 oz lime juice
1/2 oz orange curacao
1/2 oz orgeat syrup (I think you can use Amaretto or other almond liqueurs here)
Maraschino cherry for garnish

Put all the ingredients except the dark rum into a cocktail shaker with ice cubes and shake well. Strain into glass with lots of ice and top with the dark rum. Makes 1.

On the last day of the idyll, I went on a road trip around the island of Oa'hu with Jo Smith and Jordan Ralph, in a Mustang convertible. Does it get any better than that? And - joy oh joy - on the edge of the island, we came across a satellite tracking station.

Of course it was a military one, so I knew I'd never get inside, but I did want to take some photos. This was where things started to go awry. I went up to the guard house to ask permission, and upon leaving it, I missed a concrete step and tore my Achilles tendon at both ends. I didn't fall, as there were two bollards that I grabbed for support, but perhaps it would have been better if I had: more bruises and sprains no doubt, but my calf would not have taken the full brunt of it.

Here's the photo, taken by Jordan Ralph. I could barely walk but was determined not to give in.

It's only just occurred to me that I look a little like I'm attempting the hula here. It's more magician's assistant stance really - ta da! Or: here's one I made earlier!
And so began six weeks of crutches, ice, ultrasounds, physio, visits to the surgeon and lots of lying down. I may yet avoid surgery, but two and a bit months later I still can't walk properly and have a way to go yet.

And when I got back to Oz, in mid-April, I had only two weeks left to prepare for my next big adventure: TEDxSydney. Of that, more in another post.


  1. Ow! That's the worst way to finish a trip to Hawaii.

    Thanks for the link to the Handbook, I'll add it to my wish list. I'm impressed that they wrote a space book even more expensive than most of the rocket engineering texts I have.

  2. I know .... but it's REALLY thick! Would be interested to know what you think when you get hold of a copy.

    So want to go back to Hawai'i. Didn't make it to the main island, and as I later learnt, they're doing a lot of space junk stuff at the observatory there. Some off-world mining people also at Uni of Hawai'i in Honolulu.

  3. Thanks for amazin blog.. :)