A tea break with Professor Alice Gorman, By Martin Sarret

The_Sounds_of_Earth_Record_Cover_-_GPN-2000-001978.jpgVoyager 1, Golden Record, NASA (c)

Alice Gorman is an Australian Space Archaeologist known for being one of the pioneers of her field. Her areas of interest cover a wide range of topics including Indigenous heritage management, Aboriginal  culture, archaeoastronomy, orbital debris and the cultural heritage of space exploration. She works currently as a heritage consultant and a lecturer at Flinders University. Here is the transcript of our interview :

M.S. : Could you define Space Archaeology in a few words ?

A.G. : Space Archaeology is the study of the material culture of space exploration in 20th and 21st century.

M.S. : Can you explain how space archaeology emerged as an area of research per se ? What are the roots of the discipline ?

A.G. : There are two main stages : in the 80’s and 90’s there was a handful of American archaeologists interested in that area. One of them, William Rathje , highlighted the archaeological potential of orbital debris. But at the time, space archaeology was seen as a quirky thing. The turning point was around 2003 when Beth Laura O’Leary  of New Mexico State University, John Campbell of James Cook University and I put the cultural value of space artefacts back on the table. Beth Laura O’Leary got a small grant from NASA to do a catalogue of all the Apollo 11  artefacts. During the 2003 World Archaeological Congress, John proposed for the first time a session on space archaeology situated within a broader theme of archaeoastronomy – the study of astronomical knowledge of past cultures. The three of us proposed the idea of dedicating a taskforce to space heritage and its applications. The ‘Space Heritage’ taskforce was controversial and this working group ended up not doing much but it gave legitimacy to the concept. From 2007 onwards the dedicated literature reached a critical mass and  started to attract the interest of media, hard scientists and engineers. In 2009 Beth Laura O’Leary coedited the ‘Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology and Heritage’. From that point, space archaeology was commonly accepted as a subdiscipline of archaeology.

M.S. : Would you say that space archaeology and exobiology share some common ground ?

A.G. : I would say yes. The search for life on other planets is sometimes called space archaeology, exoarchaeology or xenoarchaeology . Both sciences emphasize the fact that we’re situating ourselves as not as unique species, but possibly one among many. There is the idea that we know fairly well what the archaeological traces of intentional human activity are. But how do you define those when there might be a different life form in a completely different gravitational – depositional regime ? In this context, how is it even possible to recognize archaeological artefacts ? Archeologists, like exobiologists, look at what’s human and what’s not and differentiate what’s natural from what’s cultural.

M.S. : Do you think the importance of social science is generally underestimated in the space sector ?

A.G. : Yes, I do. The space sector is dominated by engineers and scientists. Most of them are unaware of the methods of social science and the main philosophical and social questions around science. There is a growing number of people in the space sector who agree that there is a lot of value in broadening the debate. In recent years the study of space from a humanities or social science perspective has become more popular and science communication has become such a huge thing that social aspects of space are finally being taken into consideration. The thing that really annoys me is the narrative around the human urge to explore. From an archeological perspective, I just find this to be nonsense and a bit irritating because the importance of how things get historically and socially determined is blatantly overlooked. The question of what constitutes modern human behaviour at all is a whole question in itself. What is interesting is that this urge to explore somehow doesn’t seem to apply to countries such as Nigeria as much as to the United States. The instrumentalisation of human behaviour is used to justify contemporary space exploration and military development as they piggy-back on that narrative by referencing to a deep human past of which they know little. It is such an ingrained narrative that people get annoyed with you if you say you don’t buy it. I think one of the reasons why social science and humanities are important is that people from other disciplines can bring new insights and make narratives of space more nuanced and more appealing to the general public.

M.S. : What’s the difference between studying a space artefact in pictures and in real life ?

A.G. : A photograph is a cultural artefact and framed from a particular perspective. There is not a one-to-one mapping of reality. One might argue that 3D modelling could solve the problem. If a picture could stand in for an artefact, you wouldn’t need a museum, you just would just have a book. A picture doesn’t give you the opportunity of being in the presence of the object and interacting with it. And you can’t rely on somebody else’s account to fully understand your artefact. There are divergences between what people record and what they say they do. Another important issue is that change in research questions means that those static representations don’t always catch what we want to know.

M.S. : What is the most interesting part of your job ?

A.G. : What makes Archaeology exciting is building a story out of all kinds of disparate bits of information. Finding a reference to something and thinking ‘what is this about’ and following it to its logical extent, which might take you to talking to a person or the archives nobody looked at since their deposition. It is telling stories that have never been told before.

M.S. : Isn’t a bit frustrating for a space archaeologist to know that most of the artefacts you study might end up being destroyed re-entering the atmosphere ?

A.G. : Orbital debris re-entering by normal atmospheric drag is a natural process so it is kind of okay. What I would mind, however, is the deliberate destruction of valuable orbital debris.

M.S. : What can bring the study of space debris from a cultural perspective to the ongoing political debate on the issue ?

A.G. : There are a few things worth mentioning. The first one is to recognize that space artefacts are not simply chunks of metal that are all the same. There is an incredible diversity of space junk out there. And it does have cultural and social value. People engaged with them. If you worked at a facility which tested or manufactured a certain kind of satellite, you have a special connexion to it and space archaoology validates these feelings. There are some other aspects to this as well. In a period when the existing space treaties are coming under question and being criticized for hampering development, a lot of incremental changes have been drafted to fix them. I believe the protection of cultural heritage in space could help implement a fairer use of outer space among nations. Hypothetically, if a country can’t prove its presence in the past in a particular orbit, its access to this particular orbit might be denied. It brings us to the point that preserving your own cultural heritage might then actually have very serious political implications. This was used in courts on Earth before. If you cannot demonstrate that you were ever in that particularly valuable orbit, it could be used against you to say you don’t have any present right to use it.

M.S. : The Point ‘Nemo’ is the location in the ocean that is farthest from land. It is also a notorious satellite graveyard : Could you estimate the cultural value of these artefacts and do you think it’s worth bringing them back on land ?

A.G. : I have some colleagues who are maritime archaeologists and we talked about doing a joint project on this. Although it is hard to estimate the cultural value of Point Nemo, for which a whole study would be needed, an interesting aspect of it is that the artefacts are together – in archaeological terms, an assemblage. They come from different places, they were used for different reasons, they have very different histories. But they all ended up in this one place. It is like an archaeological deposit. It’s been structured by particular events such as this low energy point in the Ocean, where satellites re-enter… They represent an accumulation of history. As a result I wouldn’t want to separate them, we know where they are, but it is interesting to work out what they mean Also, it is not very accessible.

M.S. : There is an odd paradox in the space sector : a strong sense of patriotism but also universalism. Space technology has been instrumentalized by politicans to intimidate since the beginning of the Space Era but also used in science diplomacy to bridge gaps between countries. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this discrepancy.

A.G. : I cannot think of any other industry that is quite like this. Even during the Cold War, there was a huge amount of cooperation going on and a wide range of complex interactions that do not necessarily get acknowledged in accounts of the Space Race. Something that I find interesting which relates to that phenomenon is the Overview Effect : this idea that when the first astronauts came back, they were found to have had these profound responses to seeing the Earth from the outside and felt connected to all humankind. Some people believe anybody sent into space will automatically experience the same thing. However some critics see that this way of looking at the Earth from the outside and seeing it as a whole is a capitalist, white, industrial perspective of the Earth and think there are huge cultural differences in the way people perceive the Earth. It goes back to this idea of dominant narratives that people don’t find any reason to question ; and if you start to unpack them a lot more, you find that there is a lot more diversity and a lot less consensus.

M.S. : The 1967 Outerspace Treaty prohibits parties to the treaty from asserting sovereignty over celestial bodies, including of course the Moon. The US can’t enact regulations to protect Apollo artefacts in Tranquility Base. Do you believe a legal regulation on cultural heritage will emerge before private companies take over the Moon ?

A.G. : The United States put together a set of guidelines for lunar heritage in 2011, but they are not legally binding. The guidelines are quite interesting as they set up no-go zones of 2 kilometres around each site. I think it is probably unlikely that a legal instrument will protect these artefacts. Beth Laura O’Leary is proposing to nominate the Apollo 11 landing site to the World Heritage List. However the World Heritage Convention has never been applied to anywhere off the Earth before. But there are a couple of places on the WHL that cross borders. For instance, there is one nomination under way on the Cornish mining landscape of South Australia, Brazil and Cornwall as one WH property. The idea is that Apollo 11 will be included in one of these ; it will be included along with the Cape Canaveral launching site and some of the tracking stations. Everything on the ground is unproblematic. But the WH convention requires countries’ national legislation to protect their assets and this is when it becomes interesting from an archaeological perspective. Under the terms of the Outer Space Treaty, the United States does own the space artefacts. But an archaeological site is not just composed of the objects, but also of the soil, what is underneath the soil, the tracks and marks in the soil, the environment is part of it as well. So that treaty does not actually work very well. What I think is more likely to happen is that if any industry gets set up on the Moon, they will create their own cultural heritage protocols. For instance, the Social Licence to Operate is asking what communities are interested in and how to support them before engaging with mining activities. That could be a path towards regulating mining activities on the Moon as well.

M.S. : Bacteria was found multiple times on Mars and the Moon. They were brought by our own space technology from Earth.  Do you think manned missions announced by space authorities in the near future could jeopardize the cultural heritage but also the landscape of the Moon and Mars for further study ?

A.G. : I guess I do. At the moment, direct interaction with Mars is rather low. But it will change, we are looking at some kind of industrial development and frequent visitation of the planet. But how do you define an excessive exploitation of Mars ? With the participation of satellites orbiting the Red Planet, we could work out how to minimize environmental damage by defining which parts of Mars are culturally and scientifically valuable. It pretty much comes back to the intrinsic value of that environment. There is a lot of interesting thinking around that such as cosmic preservationism, the idea of planetary parks but I don’t think we really worked out where to draw the lines yet.

M.S. : Would you say that Voyager 1 is the most valuable cultural artefact in Outer space ?

A.G. : Let’s do a significance assessment. It has high historical significance as the first object that left the Solar System. Its aesthetic significance is possibly not that interesting as it is not that dissimilar to other kinds of satellites and deep space probes sent at the time. However, for an alien that finds it, everything about it is going to be fascinating ! Its social value is very high as many people are interested in Voyager 1. It really is considered, unlike the Apollo 11 site, to be an envoy of all humanity. The further away it is, the more it represents of all humanity because no one can co-opt its values for their own agendas. The scientific value rests on its rarity, the golden records and their changing meaning over time.  Another aspect is that we still know where it is. When its batteries run out in 2025, we won’t think about it in the same way. For instance, we lost touch with the Pioneers and they are not as present in people’s consciousness. In short Voyager 1 has high heritage value but we can only say if it is the most valuable cultural artefact if we do a current survey of cultural significance for all the other major spacecraft in the Solar System.

Highly recommended for anyone wanting to dive deeper into this topic :

TEDxSydney : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5fn-iycWBs

Gorman, Alice (2005), The Cultural Landscape of Interplanetary space, Journal of Social Archaology, 85-107

Gorman, Alice (2005), The Archeology of Orbital Space. In : Australian Space Science Conference 2005, 338-357, Melbourne : RMIT University, 2005

Gorman, Alice (2009), Cultural Landscape of Space, Handbook of Space Engineering, Archeology, and Heritage, CRC Press

 

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