Space oddities: Dr Alice Gorman and the future of space junk

In the space race, the question of ‘who was first’ was central. As one of the world’s leading space archaeologists, Dr Alice Gorman is more interested in what they left behind.

Instead of turning our eyes to the ground and looking for stuff that’s become buried and incorporated into archaeologic sites, we look up at the skies,” Gorman tells The Adelaide Review.

The Earth’s orbit and beyond, Gorman explains, is populated by an eclectic assortment of objects dating from the Cold War to today. These aren’t just big-ticket items like International Space Stations, telescopes and Voyager probes, of course. “We tend to think of the really exciting, big projects – and of course anything to do with human space flight captures people’s imaginations. But the bulk of stuff that’s in Earth’s orbit tends to be routine telecommunications satellites, meteorological satellites, navigational satellites.

“But when you start to compare them with each other, look at the development of satellite technology over time and the things that are actually in the mix up there, you find there’s all these crazy looking satellites. They’re striped, they’ve got Dalek-like things sticking out of them at all angles. There are all these interesting objects that have got stories to tell, and the stories are in the physical body of the space craft.”

Through her Dr Space Junk blog, academic work at Flinders University and now a book Dr Space Junk vs. The Universe, Gorman’s pursuit of these stories has drawn global attention to this fascinating clutter. But as Gorman surveys the orbiting flotsam and looks towards our future in space, she has found that many of the challenges on the horizon are distinctly earthly.

Dr Alice Gorman (Photo: Ashton Claridge/Flinders University)

“It’s a classic problem they call the Tragedy of the Commons,” she says. “It’s a problem that affects everybody that uses space assets: the high cost of getting rid of junk, and no one’s prepared to equally share the burden.

“The tricky part is making people accountable; everybody in the space world acknowledges that space junk is a problem. It’s moving at incredibly high speed, and we’ve got millions, billions of dollars in satellites providing services to Earth. If a bit collides with some space junk and explodes, that’s billions of dollars down the drain… and then there’s more space junk!”

But even as companies around the world explore new technologies to solve the problem (“There was a recent story from the UK about Surrey Satellites successfully testing little space harpoon!” Gorman says), the issue of who decides what is knocked out of orbit and what is preserved is another tricky proposition.

“It’s a classic problem they call the Tragedy of the Commons. It’s a problem that affects everybody that uses space assets: the high cost of getting rid of junk, and no one’s prepared to equally share the burden.”

“I fully support all the efforts to clearing space junk up – but I just want to add a little step in there,” she says. “There’s all these satellites out there that are dead, technically junk, and they’re telling the story of the space age and all have these incredibly unique stories. If we’re going to get rid of this stuff, all I want is for people to just ask the question: is this spacecraft culturally significant, is it high risk, and who is it significant for?” Having spent years working in Indigenous heritage management, Gorman knows all too well that such questions remain hotly contested in a terrestrial setting, let alone the heavens.

“Once you start asking those questions, space isn’t this distant far off place. There are people all over the world who were part of the satellite project or use the services they provide – they’re all connected.”

Gorman’s book Dr Space Junk vs The Universe (New South Books)

While the initial space race was dominated by Cold War politics, capitalism vs. communism, today we are seeing private sector increasingly take the lead in the cosmos. It’s something that Gorman, a science fiction fan whose book is peppered with pop culture references, poetry and Ursula K Le Guin quotes, has seen and read before. “I think the big challenge is inequality,” she says of our future in the stars. “We’ve got this idea of the ‘Space Age’, but the year 2000 has come and gone, and the future we imagined – that space would provide wealth and riches, no one would be starving or suffering and technology would solve all our problems – we don’t have that world.

“But people still think in that old-fashioned way. That when we get to other planets we’ll try to build a harmonious society. There’s this really strong belief that off-Earth, we’ll make better lives for people. But that’s not going to happen unless it’s done very consciously and very explicitly, and at the moment there’s still this incredibly strong narrative about colonisation and capitalism.”

Figuring out a better way to look after our junk is probably a good start.

Alice Gorman will launch Dr Space Junk vs the Universe in Adelaide on Tuesday, April 23 at MOD. at Uni SA, details here

Dr. Space Junk vs. The Universe by Alice Gorman is out now via New South Books

Header image:
Alice Gorman with Sputnik 1 (Photo: Ashton Claridge)

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