Dr. Gorman reminds us in the short history of space flight humanity has achieved so many amazing things.
If one is old enough, the term “space junk” immediately invokes memories of Skylab, the NASA space station that was launched in 1973 with great intentions only to come crashing back to earth in 1979 when its orbit decayed. The media made wild speculations about where the station would crash and how much damage it could possibly cause while NASA plotted trajectories, believing South Africa would bear the brunt of any impact. Skylab broke up on reentry, overshot South Africa and scattered debris across Australia. The San Francisco Examiner offered $10,000 for the first piece of the station delivered to their offices. Part of the winning fragment sits on the desk of Alice Gorman, apropos because she is Dr. Space Junk, one of the first space archeologists, and her memoir Dr. Space Junk vs. the Universe is a tribute to the importance of human exploration of outer space.
Space archeology is the examination of the origins of the machines and missions humans have put into orbit or sent to the stars, beyond the scope of success or failure. Every rocket, satellite and manned or unmanned spacecraft says something about the society that made it. The machines are as much artefacts as the tools and cave paintings found in more traditional archeological excavations. Before she discovered the field that would become her life’s work, Dr. Gorman trained as a traditional archeologist in Australia, one with a knack for working harder and getting dirtier than her colleagues. Though she finished college and joined the workforce at nearly the exact moment Indiana Jones entered the public imagination, her work was not so glamorous. Tired of life in academia, she worked as a heritage consultant, assessing the impact of private sector projects like mining on Australia’s aboriginal population and their lands.
A frustrated astrophysicist at heart, it was during this time that she began to consider our neglected heritage in terms of the artefacts we were leaving in space. Space flight felt rather disposable at the time. Most of the rockets were single-use and the crafts were left in orbit or in the cosmos, travelling to the outer planets. History and preservation would require a different kind of archeology, one that records intention and the communities created to achieve these wonders of imagination. Space archeologists would tell the stories of each era of space exploration from Sputnik to SpaceX, from the public sector push for a lunar landing to the private sector investment in space tourism.
One only has to skim recent histories of the Apollo missions or the New Horizons project that sent an unmanned mission to Pluto to see how fertile this field of study really is. From satellite to space shuttle, each launch requires more than just a countdown in Florida, Texas, Kazakhstan or Xichang. Spaceships and satellites are testaments of our cultural heritage and their conception and production tell stories of the societies that made them. A space archeologist is not just preserving the lunar lander but telling the stories of the children that played in the playgrounds around Cape Canaveral while their engineer parents figured out pathways to the stars.
Gorman is a senior lecturer at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and her love for her work fills her memoir. Old enough to have watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, she grew up at a time when women were steered away from math and science and toward English and homemaking. Sexism presents a constant challenge throughout her life, especially in the pivotal decision of what field of science to enter. She was made to believe that her math scores were not sufficient to study astrophysics, so she settled into archeology. Years later she would have her epiphany to combine the two, and her strength as a writer would make her a great communicator of science in her guise as Dr. Space Junk. Hers is a cautionary tale to the patriarchy and mansplainers everywhere: You cannot keep a highly intelligent and talented woman from changing the world no matter how hard you try, so stop trying.
A great photograph exists from 1976 that shows the cast of the Star Trek series and its creator, Gene Roddenberry, standing in front of the space shuttle, Enterprise. It depicts the symbiotic relationship between real human endeavor, the works of fiction it inspires and then the endeavor augmented and inspired again by that fiction. Hope has always been one of the central themes of Star Trek. It is a hope that we can put aside our grievances to achieve the wonders of the universe. That same hope can be found in Dr. Space Junk vs. the Universe. Dr. Gorman reminds us in the short history of space flight humanity has achieved so many amazing things. We have visited planets and moons and the Voyager probes have left our galaxy for interstellar space. Our grievances remain, but our curiosity about our cosmos shows so much of our potential. Dr. Gorman and other space archeologists will preserve that history. It’s exciting to consider what kind of future her work will affect.