The rich archaeological records of human space exploration can tell us much about human behavior, geopolitics, and the history of science and technology. In this episode we’re joined by Alice Gorman of Flinders University in South Australia. Alice tells us about her research that explores archaeological perspectives derived from the artifacts left by humans on the Moon from 1969 to 1972. She shares stories behind her article “Culture on the Moon: Bodies in Time and Space,” published in the April 2016 issue of Archaeologies: the Journal of the World Archaeological Congress.
- Alice’s Twitter page
- “A colonial space: women spacefarers of the Antipodes” (slides from address to the 16th United Nations Expert Meeting on Space for Women)
- Upcoming citizen science research project: Archaeology of the International Space Station
- Lunar Legacy Project
- Information on V. Gordon Childe
- 40th Anniversary of the Voyager missions
- Mars One Project
- “Trash or Treasure” by Alice Gorman
- Space Age Archaeology blog
- Articles by Alice on The Conversation
- Alice’s talk at TEDxSydney
- On The Space Show with Dr David Livingston
- Haunted houses in hypervelocity (presentation)
- Colleagues Justin Walsh and PJ Capelotti
- Modern Material Culture: The Archaeology of Us (book)
- “Australian science on Apollo missions – dust detectors” (article)
- The Farthest (PBS special on NASA’s Voyager missions)
Patrons of Parsing Science gain exclusive access to bonus clips from all our episodes and can also download mp3s of every individual episode.
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Hosts / Producers
Doug Leigh & Ryan Watkins
How to Cite
Leigh, D., Watkins, R., & Gorman, A.. (2017, October 3). Parsing Science – Archaeology of Space Culture. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.5907727
What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers
Alice Gorman: The idea that we could actually contribute to making better space societies of the future is really an exciting one to me.
Doug Leigh: This is Parsing Science. The unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Doug Leigh…
Ryan Watkins: And I’m Ryan Watkins. Agatha Christie once wrote: “archaeologists only look at what lies beneath their feet. The sky and the heavens don’t exist for them.” Today, we are visited by Dr. Alice Gorman of Flinders University in South Australia and she is proving Agatha Christie wrong. In this episode, Alice shares stories from her archaeological research that explores the meaning of artifact left on the moon during the Apollo missions.Read More
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Watkins: Here’s Alice Gorman…
Gorman: Though my name is Alice Gorman, I was born in the southern part of New South Wales, in a country region, and grew up on a farm. My first degree was a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne in which I focused on archaeology, but I also did astronomy. And at a certain point — and I actually cannot remember how old I was — I decided I was going to do a
PhD, and I did this at the University of New England which is in northern New South Wales. And following that, I was a broke student who needed a job desperately. So, I started working as a
heritage consultant in Queensland quite a distance from where I grew up, and it was in the course of this work that I had an inspiration about doing an archaeology of things in space. One day, I resigned from the job I had and tried to work my way back into academia ending up at Flinders University where I currently have a tenured position.
Leigh: We spoke with Alice on the exact anniversary of Voyager first launch forty years prior. She talked with us about what it is that she thinks makes the spacecraft such a lasting cultural icon.
Gorman: There’s really so many things that Voyager — both Voyagers — hit in terms of space missions of space craft that just speak to people in different ways. I think they’re quite extraordinary in that regard. So, the aspects of the story I think that really resonate with people
I mean the really obvious one is the golden records which have 116 photographs greetings in languages from across the globe and of course the 90 minutes of music. So people really engage with the records. I mean first of all they’re golden so there’s something kind of it’s a bit like the mask of Agamemnon or Celtic gold talks says: there’s sort of an air of a treasure and the idea that there are time capsules. So in a sense, there is a very archaeological sort of analog there, they’re like a time capsule buried deep in the earth except these ones are buried too far out in space. So, there’s something about the golden record that people really relate to quite independently of its content. I think people also relate just to that isolation and loneliness and being far away and having all of their systems gradually shut down until one day they fall silent. It’s kind of like the spacecraft has a life cycle or a life that we can relate to. So, as objects that people imbue with meanings they’re among the most powerful that we have in the solar system, and you could argue that now they’re like a talisman against our own mortality; the fact that they will pass beyond the regions where we can communicate with them, they will become silent, and they will just head out towards the stars and we will have no idea where they are or how they’re faring. They’re, in some sense, they’re immortal and they might outlast, you know, life on this planet for all we know. So, they’re like that they protect us, their immortality is something that reflects our own mortality back to us.
Watkins: For her foundational work in establishing the field of space archaeology, Alice is known as Dr. Space Junk. But what just is space archaeology? Alice explains…
Gorman: Well, the way I and my colleagues use the term to mean it’s looking at the material culture of space exploration, it’s looking at the objects and artifacts, and places, and landscapes, and social meanings, and cultures around all of the stuff to do a space exploration. After the Second World War in order to study space exploration, in the way that I’m doing of course, I’m looking at the documentary record and the archives and of course I’m also talking to people, I am listening to people who were involved in the space industry like in the past or in the present and going to the future. But as an archaeologist it’s that material stuff that I’m really interested in, and the thing that is the key point about that is that documents can misrepresent what happened or they represent a particular version of what happened. The material stuff isn’t subject to the same gaps or the same problems of interpretation and memory. It doesn’t mean that the material stuff automatically tells you what it’s about; you have to understand it, and interpret it, and analyze it as well, and what you learn from that can change depending on what questions you ask and depending on your own perspectives or biases. But you can ground truth theories arising from other places against that material culture, and material culture often reveals what people aren’t aware that they’re doing. Looking at the material stuff can help you work out what people actually did as opposed to the accounts of what they did, and that’s where the interesting questions about human behavior and human engagement with their environment arise.
Leigh: Now having a better sense of what space archaeology is, we were interested in learning what some of the origins of the discipline have been.
Gorman: So everything actually starts to take off, you could say, around 1999-2000. So William Rathje — who is most famous for his Tucson garbage Project — wrote a magazine article looking at space junkers’ archaeology — and sadly I didn’t even know this article existed until some years after I started my own research on it. So this is in 1999, then my colleague Beth Laura O’Leary — who is at New Mexico State University may be a year or a couple of years prior to 1999 — was teaching a class one day and one of her students, Ralph Gibson, put his hand up and said: what about places on the moon as an archaeology and a heritage? And this set off a process which ended up with Beth’s getting funding from NASA in 1999, for the lunar Legacy Project, and she used the documentary records to make an inventory of the objects that were left on tranquility base when the astronauts left in July 1969. So that you could say it was possibly the first true space archaeological project.
Watkins: After hearing from Alice about the origins of the field — more of which is available as bonus clips on: www.parsingscience.org — Doug and I wondered: might the atmospheric and gravitational barriers that prevent everyday people from being able to make it to space, contribute to our collective fascination with it?
Gorman: Well, we have a real separation of life on Earth. In this thin little rind of the right temperature, atmospheric pressure, amount of water, all of those things and then beyond the barrier of the atmosphere, the end of the atmosphere, this extremely different environment filled with huge amounts of radiation geomagnetic storms and atomic elements. All of these things which don’t make life for us very easy. But still we’ve got generally six people living up there over our heads every day and have for the last 16 years. And we’re connected to space in a whole range of different ways as well. And we, you know, the voyagers send their little signals back to three tracking stations in the Deep Space Network including the Canberra deep space tracking station, so we are connected to them. It’s a really interesting opposition I think, because yes there are all those things that make space so different and make it feel so far away, even though in actual distance it’s not that far away. Four hundred kilometers to the International Space Station, that’s like driving from Sydney to Brisbane, in fact it’s less than driving from Sydney to Brisbane, but we are connected to be connected by signals telecommunications images. There’s a whole web of links between us and things in space. We’re connected to the places on the moon by the laser beams shot every day, to the retroreflector on the Apollo 11 tranquility site, and the lunar coat Rovers, and I think there’s a couple of others as well. So we are very connected, we just don’t feel like it a lot of the time.
Leigh: If archaeology can be carried out on the moon, then there must be quite a few artifacts there to study. So we were curious to know: just what’s been left behind on the moon, anyway?
Gorman: There are the scientific experiments, there’s things like one of my favorites is the dust collector experiment that was actually devised by an Australian space scientist Brian O’Brien, and of course there’s the the laser retroreflector. So and the all Sep experiment package, I think the dust collector is actually part of it all set experiment package. So these were all set up in the sort of initial minutes of the Apollo 11 expedition sitting down. You have the television cameras, and the flags of course which are of great interest and the source of much discussion. You have the the landing module itself some of the most substantial artifact that’s left there. Then you have the things that were ditched from inside the ascent module in order to make it light enough to to go. So there’s like seats and arm rests and tethers and a whole bunch of stuff that was just chucked out. This is the tossed stone that Beth Laura O’Leary talks about. There’s when they were collecting samples they took cause. So I think there’s actually some core tubes there were aluminum tubes that they used to take these cores, so they’re there as well. There’s some of the apparatus for collecting dirt and soil there’s also according to the Legacy Project there are a Mises bags which contain human waste. So I think that’s pretty interesting actually. And as well as all of this material stuff there’s the actual collection places so the places where they dug there’s a bulk sample Pete where they had they dug out a whole bunch of dust and regolith. And there’s the places where the cores were taken from, and various other little pits and furrows dug in order to extract material to take back to the earth. And we also have the footprints and the tracks that they walked around.
Watkins: Whether on the earth or above it, Doug and I were interested to hear what Alice believes is the value of archaeology to society.
Gorman: There’s an element of mystery. It’s the wanting to know, it’s like the mysterious lives of people who could have been so different to us but also so similar to us, trying to understand how we came to be what we are in the present. So for me it’s impossible to understand who you are in the present without understanding who we are in the past, and the critical thing about that as well is that we can’t construct different futures if all we know is the present. If we think our current technologies, and social values, and kinship structures, and gender structures are rooted in deep evolutionary prehistory. And I’m going to come quite clear here and say I hate evolutionary psychology passionately because all it does is justify present power inequalities and this archeology tells us not only how people were similar but also how they were different. And if they were different in the past, then our lives can be different in the future. We are not constrained by present culture.
Leigh: Archaeologists have been known to investigate everything from excavated latrines and trash piles to field surveys of ancient structures. So we wondered what is archaeology’s interest in other people’s junk.
Gorman: Junk is frequently the only key we have to understanding what was going on in people’s minds and what was going on in different societies that lived in worlds so different to ours. It’s about imagining other worlds, and okay we’re imagining them through discarded and broken things, and decaying bodies and bones that have been thrown down rubbish pits and all of those things that get left over. This is why we just want to pry into other people’s business and find out what they were thinking. But I think at the end of the day, a lot of archaeologists would say the importance of what we do by picking over other people’s garbage is finding ways to represent the voices of those who didn’t write the histories, and supporting reductions of inequality in the world, and imagining those into the future. I think a lot of my colleagues would agree with that rationale for archeology.
Watkins: In her article, “Culture on the Moon,” Alice makes the case that the remains left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts constitute a culture. So we were curious to learn: just how archaeologists go about defining and studying culture.
Gorman: A lot of people when they think of culture, they think of the arts, the performing arts, and visual arts, and all of those things, and it certainly encompasses that. But there’s a particular archaeological meaning and that’s kind of more focused around the material culture. So constructing an idea of culture as a web of interconnected concepts and ideas, the result of which is the artifacts, and buildings, and the environments that people create that archaeologists then come to find. One of the classic definitions of culture comes from the Gordon Childe — who’s very interesting Australian archaeologist who moved to the UK for most of his career working in the early 30s — and his definition of culture was: a consistently occurring suite of material things. So there’s an idea here that a group of people will create a consistent expression of culture that you can see in the material record. So this has been a really powerful idea in archaeology. So one of the things that was problematic about using the term culture to work on archaeological sites in the deeper past is that you know there’s all kinds of critiques of, you know, once you associated it’s sweep of material trays with an ethnic group you often ended up a centralizing that group. So and we know that ethnicity just does not map on to material things in the easy way that we’d like it to do. So there’s there’s ample evidence of this but the thing with the Apollo staff is we have the documentary record, we have the the video record like we can see it, we know who these people were so that level of uncertainty that exists for the past, or the deeper past, doesn’t exist here. So we know that Apollo culture, as left on the moon, is created by a set of white American men. So they are a distinct group, and the material stuff they use to adapt to this landscape is similarly created in a particular nation within a particular technological system for use by this, you know, very tiny group of men. So it does kind of fit the definition of culture as put forward by Childe.
Leigh: Alice next talks with us about how Apollo culture can be investigated as what was what she and her colleagues have found so far about how the culture there worked.
Gorman: So P.J. Capelotti first proposed that there was a distinct Apollo culture in his 2010 book. Capelotti’s basic idea is that Apollo culture on the moon — so we’re not talking necessarily about Apollo culture on the earth but on the moon — it starts on 21st of July 1969 and it ends in 1972, and the stuff is all still there and it forms a coherent suite of material. And compared to a lot of places on earth, where we know that culture concept doesn’t work as well as you might hope here, it does actually work. So it goes two ways, what we learn about Apollo culture by calling it a culture, and investigating Apollo culture reflect back on the way we apply this term on the earth. And I think for this paper I wanted to kind of dig deeper into that concept and see where it would take us if we started to consider it as a culture. If we analyze just what they left behind, then my prediction is we would say a progression in which each successive Apollo site is building on the experiences of the previous one, and extending that there’s sort of territory each time if you want to say it like that. So in the later missions I had longer on the surface, they had Rovers, they had different scientific experiments that obviously were related to what was learned from the prior ones.
Watkins: Given what’s been left on the moon as well as what space archaeologists aim to accomplish, we wanted to know what an example of lunar culture might include.
Gorman: This is an example that P.J. Capelotti drew attention to in his 2010 book. So there’s some I think it was an image he was referring to, and the a lunar rover has, you know, made a path or you know you can see the tire tracks in the regolith and the astronauts are walking beside it as if it’s a road on earth. So his point is that you don’t need to do that like, there’s no other vehicles coming down that road. So their behavior is not constrained by the fact that it is a vehicle path and yet they walk beside it. And so they’re kind of creating for them that’s a social meaning they’re imbuing those rover tracks with the social meaning of road. So they’re demarcating space into places where you can do some things here and not other things here. Obviously for each astronaut it’s a unique experience when they come out of their landing module and go onto the surface, but how much is that experience shaped by what they learn and see of the behavior of the previous astronauts as well. So we’re kind of looking at a little, very short but little, evolutionary trajectory, you know, highly speeded up perhaps if you like.
Leigh: Due to our separation in time and distance from the artifacts left by the Apollo missions, we were curious to learn what the challenges are of carrying out archeology of the moon.
Gorman: One of the interesting things is that Outer Space Treaty — which came into effect in 1967 and governs behavior in space — states that material in space remains the property of the launching state. However, it’s impossible to make a territorial claim on space. So what this means in effect for archaeological sites on the moon is that the way that objects are considered is different to the way the site is considered. So we have a really interesting situation where the way we look at an archeological site or a heritage place on earth — which very much includes the environment or the natural setting if you want to call it that — kind of gets split up when you look at it on the moon because you have to consider the artifacts sort of separately in that legislative or international regulatory way from their actual environmental setting. So ultimately in terms of heritage management for the lunar apollo sites, that may become a bit of an issue.
Watkins: Doug and I were interested to hear what the applications of space archaeology are, both to future space exploration as well as future research.
Gorman: I think one of the things that we can learn from this stuff is why sometimes things don’t work the way they should, they may be, not always on earth; sort of like you know something’s not working out on earth you move to a different place, or you try a different strategy. People in space aren’t gonna have that option. One of my good friends is a candidate for the Mars One program, but things like that it’s like all you need is one tiny material or mechanical failure and everybody dies, and it’s kind of failure that on earth. It isn’t going to be a big deal; if you’re not aware of the real role an object plays within a society then you’re not going to be aware of the consequences when you don’t have it or when it fails.
Leigh: Next, Alice talked with us about the International Space Station archaeological project as well as her work on it.
Gorman: Well, just very briefly, the International Space Station project was initiated by my colleague, Justin Walsh, in Chapman University. And the idea that we want to pursue is related to this concept of culture; it’s the idea that on the International Space Station because astronauts and cosmonauts have to work together in this microgravity environment, and they have to work out ways to adapt to it, and make the affordances of the modules and the artifacts that have access to work for them, it effectively creates a micro society, and we’re interested in looking at those interactions with the material culture of the space station. Our ultimate hope is that we will learn something that was not previously known or many things that were not previously known about how a society or a culture is created within an enclosed space environment. So our plan is to use the very extensive image archive that NASA holds to work out who’s doing what, where, and with what, and to look for consistent patterns of behavior coming back to that culture idea. There’s a lot to do drawing on the idea of some very successful citizen science projects where people are asked to through a particular online platform or asked to come in and do some of the work of identifying, and cataloging, and analyzing particular types of data. We’re hoping that we will be able to get something similar set up, so because there’s just so much of it, and it would be amazing to recruit the help of International Space Station enthusiasts out there.
Watkins: Lastly, Doug and I asked Alice about her hopes for the future of space archaeology.
Gorman: Something we’re really interested in is how artifacts are not just functional or practical, they actually, you know, have social meanings as well. For example, you know, making people feel that an enclosed space habitat is more like a home environment, it might be absolutely vital. So looking at how objects and artifacts sort of travel between these different sort of social symbolic functional registers is something that’s, you know, very much at the heart of what archaeologists do. So we often try to work out what’s inside people’s heads from, you know, a fragment of pottery or a stone tool. So I think these are the kinds of insights that we can bring to future space exploration. This is like, you know, we want to know we’re still the stickybeak archaeologists we want to how people work, we want to know how material stuff works, but the idea that we could actually contribute to making better space societies of the future is a really exciting one to me.
Watkins: That was Alice Gorman. Her article — “Culture on the Moon: Bodies in Time and Space” — was published in the April 2016 issue of archaeology’s the journal of the world archaeological Congress. You’ll find a link to our paper on: www.parsingscience.org along with other materials she discussed during the show.
Leigh: Parsing Science now has its own hotline. Whether you have a recommendation for a future guest or a tip for other shows that listeners might enjoy, you can ask Ryan and I to explore it. Just call us toll-free at: 1-844-XPLORIT, that’s 1-844-XPLORIT. Let us know what’s on your mind, and we might feature your voice in a future show.
Watkins: Next time on Parsing Science, we’re visited by Drs. Brian Nosek and Tim Arrington from the Center for Open Science. They’ll discuss open science and the importance of replication studies to scientific progress.
Brian Nosek: … and I’m thinking: wait a second, we’ve known about this for 30 years? And what have we done about it?
Watkins: We hope that you’ll join us again.