The greatest museum (almost) on Earth

Flinders University's Dr Alice Gorman, AKA Dr Space Junk.
Flinders University’s Dr Alice Gorman is one of the leading experts on the heritage of space junk.

“So, it’s kind of like a celestial race track on which the original model of every winning sports car ever made is still racing around … forever … totally intact … all at the same time?”

Flinders University archaeologist Dr Alice Gorman, AKA Dr Space Junk, pauses for a moment, building a picture in her mind’s eye of the scenario just proposed to her.

She is sitting in her room at Flinders University, Bedford Park, but her mind is in the Earth’s atmosphere, where she is carefully constructing an image that is almost impossible for the vast majority of humanity to even begin to comprehend, much less create.

The fleet of ‘sports cars’ she is visualising is comprised of almost every spacecraft and satellite ever made. The racetrack is right at the age of space, circumnavigating the entire planet, the environment is brutally hostile, and almost everything is moving very, very fast.

In the racing car equivalent, the actual Panhard & Levassor in which Fernand Charron won the first ever international race series in 1900 is hot on the tail of the actual Benetton B194 in which Michael Schumacher won his first Formula One Grand Prix in 1992.

In the Benetton’s wing mirror, Stirling Moss’s actual 1959 Aston Martin DBR1 can be seen tussling for position with Ayrton Senna’s actual 1988 McLaren MP4/4.

Bringing up the rear, and holding pace … forever, is the actual Red Bull RB9 in which Mark Weber finished his final F1 season in 2013.

It must be an utterly incredible vision; and one that someday could be made accessible to a gob-smacked general public through technological advances.

That is, of course, unless someone decides to ‘clean it all up’.

As one of the world’s leading experts on the heritage of ‘space junk’ – which makes her one of the few people who really knows what is up there, it’s a prospect that fills Dr Gorman with dread.

“I think I would go to the International Court of Justice,” she says. “I would be so furious!

“What we are talking about is an almost intact historical record of human space travel, in its original orbit, and much of it still in excellent condition.

“For future generations looking back, it would be as if we had torn down the Eiffel Tower.”

Dr Gorman is an effervescent character; the kind of person who could hold people in thrall for hours with a treasure trove of facts and anecdotes about her unusual passion.

“At the moment we have an almost complete record of the first 60 years of space flight in the Earth’s orbit,” she says.

“One of my favourite satellites is Palapa A2, which was launched by Indonesia as a symbol of unity for all of its people. That satellite has a lot of social and historical significance.

“Then there is Asterix One, France’s first satellite, which made them the third nation in space, and which was named after the Asterix cartoon character.”

Mostly, Dr Gorman talks about satellites with an energetic and light-hearted enthusiasm, but underlying the jovial banter is a very serious professional concern for their future.

“Something I’ve been thinking about lately is if we can get some kind of cultural heritage guidelines for space junk and do the same kinds of things we do on Earth to protect it.

“There is an authenticity in what is orbiting that can’t be replaced. People have a desire for the real thing. People care about that. They care if something is fake or a replica.

As an archaeologist, I’m also thinking, what can this object, in its location, tell us about space exploration that the documents can’t?

“The objects can tell their own story, which goes far beyond any documentation or the models or replicas that might be stored on Earth.

“In some cases the documents and replicas don’t even exist anymore!”

Dr Gorman does not believe every object must be conserved, and acknowledges that some fall victim to hostile natural conditions (although she does have some interesting thoughts about how space archaeologists like herself might suit up and work in orbit to protect them).

She says she prefers the expression ‘cultural heritage management’ over conservation to describe what needs to happen to protect important space junk.

“There are threats to the survival of these objects from the natural environment but the greatest threat to them is of someone coming along to clean them up,” she says.

“I prefer the term cultural heritage management over conservation because I think that if there is a risk to life or some other strong argument for removing or destroying a spacecraft, then that should be allowed.

“I’m not going to make an argument to save it just because it’s significant, but I do think we should do our best to leave culturally significant spacecraft in orbit if we can.”

And if we do have to remove or destroy some of it?

“Then we have a responsibility to future generations to examine and record everything we can about it first so that we don’t leave gaps in the history of space travel,” she says.

Dr Gorman is a commentator on space junk to national and international media and is a regular contributor to The Conversation, where she has just published an article about how Apollo 11 changed how we felt about the moon, 45 years ago.

If you would like to follow her on social media, her Twitter Handle is @DrSpaceJunk

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