Image by Ashley Goodall and Sia Duff

The Space Archaeologist Studying the Junk Humans Leave Throughout the Cosmos

Aimee  Knight

Aimee Knight

"People think of space as this empty place, but there's all this human material in it."

Image by Ashley Goodall and Sia Duff

"This will sound stupid, but I've got an origin story," says Dr. Alice Gorman. "I'm sick of telling it. Well, I'll tell it to you, but I'm becoming my own cliché."

As a kid growing up in rural Australia, Alice wanted to be an astrophysicist. For various reasons, that didn't pan out, so she became an archaeologist instead. Until one balmy Queensland evening in 2004...

"I was sitting on my veranda with a beer, looking at the stars. I thought, 'Gosh, some of these aren't stars. They're satellites. Some of them are junk, they're not working anymore. I wonder if one can do an archaeology of these satellites?"

Alice began investigating, and soon swapped dig sites for deep space, going on to pioneer the field of "space archaeology"—the practice of assessing outer space as a cultural landscape.

To be curious as a woman is to invite disaster, to invite punishment for asking questions.

In other words, the study of human-made objects bobbing about in space. Including rockets, satellites and artefacts humans have left on other celestial bodies.

Alice is anything but a cliché. "I'm really proud that I can look at pretty much any spacecraft and tell you what it is and where it comes from," says the first woman ever elected to the board of the Space Industry Association of Australia. "When you go into the history, they're never just bits of technology: metal, ceramics, circuits. Each one has an interesting story."

It's Alice's job to uncover that story, using historical records, tracking data, photographs taken prior to launch, accounts of materials and manufacturing, scientific studies of returned spacecraft, and other data collected by telescopes. "Not just as a historian [might], with documents, but by analyzing material things, which tell quite a different story".

Alice's office wall. Photo by Sia Duff

Alice looks out into the void and sees a thriving "cultural landscape. People think of space as this empty place, [but] there's all this human material in it." By applying what she calls a "cultural landscape framing", she aims to show that humans and space are not separate. "They're part of the same thing."

She is especially keen on what she calls "space junk"—anything in space that is manmade but "currently or in the foreseeable future doesn't have a use"—like old satellites and multi-tiered rocket ships. But it's not all junk: Among the half a million bits of orbital debris circling Earth right now, there are a few old satellites with some fuel and battery power left.

"Their mission was over, so they were abandoned. People then woke them up and repurposed them, and suddenly it's not junk anymore," Alice says, referring to NASA's giving the green light to a group of scientists attempting to "breathe new scientific life" into a four-decade old agency spacecraft.

Some interstellar items seen by others as mere scrap metal are historically significant. Launched in 1958, Vanguard 1 is the oldest human object in orbit and one of only a few satellites left from that early era. "Is heritage junk?" Alice asks. "I would say it's not, because it gives humans a vision of their place in space."

Alice's work helps humans understand their relationship to space. The "junk" isn't always visible to the naked eye, but it quietly watches over us, year after year. Humans have moral and ethical obligations "not to destroy environments we barely understand," she says. "We can't assume we're lords and masters of the universe."

One of my mottos in life is, If I had a penis, what would I do?

She subscribes to the heritage management notion of "stewardship"—humans as "custodians" of outer space. "It's just a matter of thinking, 'Here's a unique geological formation on Mars. Let's not build a settlement right on top of it.'" This school of thought isn't always embraced by engineers, physicists and space industry stakeholders, whose views are more "19th Century".

"They've never studied philosophy or archaeology or anthropology. This is not stuff that comes naturally to them. That's not their fault, but fortunately there are a bunch of people who do know that stuff."

Some of the books that feature Alice's work. Photo by Sia Duff

Presently, Alice's side project is research into curiosity as a human characteristic. "To be curious as a woman is to invite disaster, to invite punishment for asking questions and not knowing your place," she says. "Astronauts are [predominantly] white men from industrial nations, [but] that's changing a bit now."

Read more: Remembering Soviet Russia's Fleet of Female Dog Cosmonauts

A specialist in stone tool analysis and Indigenous Australian heritage, Alice is also a senior lecturer in archaeology, a field with a gender split of almost 50/50, "because it straddles science, art, humanities and social sciences." The number of actual female archaeology professors is around 13 percent, she says, but at conferences the balance of industry professionals is almost even.

What about space industry events? "Absolutely not."

Among a few hundred attendees, "at the average space event in Australia, there'll be seven or eight women, only half of whom are aerospace engineers. People have a whole range of assumptions about who you are and what you do," says Alice, who an eminent space scientist once mistook for admin staff at a public lecture. "Because I was a faceless, interchangeable, middle-aged woman, it couldn't have been possible that I was coming up to speak to him about science."

But attitudes toward women in STEM fields are changing, slowly, and people like Alice are part of that shift. For National Science Week, she gave some talks in Tasmania, after which "A little girl came up and asked to have her photograph taken with me. There were some way famous people at this thing, and I thought, Wow, just by being here and talking, she's got excited about this. So there really is value in just being visible."

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In October 2016, Alice took a platform at the UN's Office of Outer Space Affairs. Meeting with The Chief of Space Applications, they chatted about her special subject: space archaeology. The discussion was "a triumph", and she may soon present her work to the UN's Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).

"One of my mottos in life is, If I had a penis, what would I do? I'd be like, I'm so important and famous," she says, laughing. "So I'm gonna bloody make something of this, because if I was a bloke, I'd be damn well doing that."