Interview with a Space Archaeologist

Alice and Futuro 4

Boldly going where no man, woman, child or dog has gone before, Dr Alice Gorman has been involved in the establishment of Space Archaeology as a sub-discipline. She’s also an out-of-this world authority on space junk and the applications of archaeology in space.

Alice also earned my everlasting admiration by one of the few archaeologists that I know of who has done a TEDx talk – bravo, Alice! I’ve been following her on twitter (@drspacejunk) for a while now, and decided it was finally time to ask… what exactly is Space Archaeology? Enjoy!

Hi Alice. Can you tell us a little bit how you first became interested in Space Archaeology?

I grew up on a sheep farm in Australia, in the traditional country of the Yorta Yorta people. Like many archaeologists, I devoured encyclopedias and was really into sci-fi. I had two ambitions when I was at primary school: to do archaeology or astrophysics.

When it came to university, I finally chose to study archaeology in Melbourne. I went on to work in Indigenous heritage management and then came back and did a PhD on flaked stone tools used for body modification. This all came after I spent a year in the UK in 1990. At the time I was interested in the Aboriginal knapping of bottle glass and came across several assemblages in the Pitt Rivers Museum. I had a wonderful year studying them in the lab at the Donald Baden-Powell Quaternary Research Institute in Oxford.

So there was nothing about space for the most part of my career. In 2000, I was working in Queensland. Like most Australian heritage professionals, I used the Burra Charter to guide my significance assessment and decision-making. One night I was gazing up at the stars, and a little thought popped into my head: actually some of those bright spots are probably satellites. The next thought was, how would I assess the cultural significance of historic satellites? Does the Burra Charter even apply in space? It was the beginning of a train of thought that led me to space archaeology.

What exactly is Space Archaeology?

It doesn’t involve aliens! Space archaeology is the study of the material culture of human space exploration from 1945 onwards. It includes places on Earth, objects in Earth orbit, on the surface of other planets, and throughout the solar system.

It will be the first time the World Heritage Convention has been applied outside the Earth

It’s actually quite a practical field: I’ve been working on how best to do cultural heritage management of space junk in Earth orbit when we get to the stage of cleaning it up, and also looking at lunar mining impacts on the cultural values of the moon.

In the US, Beth Laura O’Leary and Lisa Westwood have been working on a transnational World Heritage listing for the Apollo sites– if successful, it will be the first time the World Heritage Convention has been applied outside the Earth.

When did Space Archaeology take off (sorrynotsorry)?

There are a few precursors to space archaeology. James Deetz noted that archaeology would one day be done on spaceships in Invitation to Archaeology (1967), and then Ben Finney placed space exploration within a deep history of voyaging and colonisation.

Things really starting to coalesce around 2000: Greg Fewer gave a paper about heritage management on the moon; NASA gave Beth Laura O’Leary a grant to catalogue the artefacts at Tranquility Base, and in Australia, Dirk Spennemann was thinking about the ethics of treading on Neil Armstrong’s footprints. Meanwhile, I was occupied with satellites and space junk.

The ethics of treading on Neil Armstrong’s footprints

By the World Archaeological Congress in 2003, it was becoming obvious that space exploration had a distinct type of material culture which would, in the long-run, need conserving. We had a session on space archaeology, and formed the Space Heritage Task Force. We started talking to each other and raising the awareness of space exploration as a distinct type of material culture. Some people did think it was a bit marginal, but with the growth of archaeology of the contemporary past, space archaeology now has a broader community to support it.

After 10 years, I think we have established space archaeology as credible and productive. In 2013, I wrote an entry for space archaeology in the Oxford Companion to Archaeology, and it has been included in other encyclopaedias and handbooks. So I think we have really arrived.

What are the discipline’s priorities?

One priority is simply getting people to recognise space places as heritage. It’s the same problem for all contemporary heritage really – it’s too recent, too ugly, too industrial. Of course material culture off-world is ‘out of sight, out of mind’, so that doesn’t help either.

A big priority is mapping the extent of the record. While there are the really exciting places like the Apollo sites on the Moon, and the Voyager spacecraft at the edge of the solar system, the bulk of space sites are in Earth orbit or actually on Earth.

Every nation has, at the very least, antennas to hook into satellite television, telephone, internet and GPS. There are launch sites, R & D sites, manufacturing sites, ground stations, residential areas, and museum collections all across the world. We need as a start to have surveys or audits done of each nation’s space heritage, and how it connects to assets in orbit and beyond.

We also have to demonstrate what exactly it is that an archaeological approach offers the study of contemporary technology. Despite some really exciting research, I’m not convinced that we’ve really shown this yet.

Is there a body of theory for Space Archaeology, or international conventions that govern this work?

People are using a number of different theoretical approaches. I’ve been thinking about how human material culture interacts with space through cultural landscapes, and this leads on to thinking about ‘flat’ ontologies where human elements are not privileged.

I’ve also proposed that topological models of non-Euclidean space might be better for conceptualising places in space, including both earth and interplanetary space. Space technology can be thought of as part of late industrial modernity and naturally we look to a lot of the theories of technology and society. Michael Schiffer’s recent book, The Archaeology of Science (2013), has a lot of really useful conceptual frameworks for thinking about technological change.

There aren’t any international conventions or agreements that govern space heritage, and this is another of the priorities that we’ve identified. Terrestrial heritage legislation can’t be applied in space, as it risks upsetting the core principle of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty – that space is the common heritage of humanity.

If a nation were to assert that the assets it owned in space could be covered by national heritage legislation, that could be considered an illegal territorial claim. However, there are precedents for creating heritage lists or registers where there is no national jurisdiction.

For example, Australia has a List of Overseas Places with Historic Significance to Australians, which includes Anzac Cove in Turkey. This only has moral, not legal weight, but it does provide an alert system if something were to threaten Anzac Cove. This is a good precedent for space, as enforcing legislation or agreements is always going to be a problem!

How many Space Archaeologists are there right now?

There’s probably about ten or twelve people who have trained as archaeologists and would identify as space archaeologists because that’s their main area of research. Many of us have chapters in a new book, Archaeology and Heritage of the Human Movement into Space, which is a good place to start reading if you want to find out more.

What skills and training does a person need for Space Archaeology?

A normal archaeology degree is the start – you still really need all those skills. But you really can’t get away without some hard science, to identify and interpret the material culture that you’re looking at.

On top of that, an understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum, astrodynamics, propulsion, planetary environments, space weather, materials and electronics is essential. Take physics at school!

You also need to know your space history. It took me a few years of reading and researching before I was really on top of this. Fortunately there are some fabulous online resources that make it easy to find out what you don’t know.

What is a normal day like in your work as a Space Archaeologist?

Well I’d like to be able to say that I get to work on space archaeology every day, but most of the time I’m a university lecturer teaching things like cultural heritage management, and laboratory methods.

It’s very abrasive and sticky

Naturally I use space examples in my teaching wherever I can! Every day, though, I’m engaging with the space world. I look out for news on space junk re-entries. (Sometimes I get contacted by media to comment on space junk events). In Low Earth Orbit, bits of junk are falling back to Earth all the time, and sometimes early historic spacecraft are among them.

Usually I’m working on some piece of research. Most recently this has been investigating the effects of lunar soil on human materials… It’s very abrasive and sticky.

The data comes from observations astronauts made during the Apollo missions, bits of the Surveyor III lander that were collected by the Apollo 12 astronauts in late 1969, and experiments done with simulated lunar soils and environments. Researchers in this area are looking at how dust can be managed on the future lunar missions, but I’m interested in how these future missions might increase the rate of abrasion on historic space sites like Apollo 17. So I’ll do a bit reading or chasing up resources for whatever I’m writing.

Where do you see Space Archaeology heading in the future (a galaxy far, far away…)?

In the near future, space archaeology will be taught alongside other undergraduate archaeology sub disciplines like historical, contemporary, indigenous, and maritime. In fact, this is already starting to happen.

Perhaps a bit further off, the space industry is going to have to accept that they’ll have to deal with heritage issues in space. After decades of small-scale scientific exploration, we’re on the cusp of an industrial boom which will include lunar and asteroid mining, and orbital manufacturing – in the next twenty or thirty years.

This also means major changes in the international regulation and legal regime. Archaeologists will have to be part of these dialogues, or our heritage will get overlooked.

It’s more than a matter of just tacking heritage on at the end; understanding how humans are engaging with space, and the associated technology and culture, will be fundamental to developing an ethical system of space exploration. We’re starting to lay the groundwork for this now.


Alice Gorman is an Australian heritage consultant and lecturer best known for pioneering the field of space archaeology and her Dr Space Junk blog. Based in the Department of Archaeology at Flinders University, she is an expert in Indigenous stone tool analysis, but better known for her research into the archaeology of orbital debris, terrestrial launch sites, and satellite tracking stations. She teaches modern material culture studies, cultural heritage management, Australian stone tools, and archaeological laboratory methods, as well as supervising a number of Masters and PhD students.

Want to learn more about Alice, and space archaeology? You can find her on twitter @drspacejunk, read her blog (Space Age Archaeology), and also catch her tweeting semi-officially for the Space Industry Association of Australia (@spaceindustryoz).

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