Over the weekend, I read Alice Gorman’s delightful monograph Dr Space Junk vs The Universe (MIT 2019). It’s a rare book that is both an easy read and full of interesting, useful, and provocative ideas. As someone knee-deep in the archaeology of the contemporary world, Gorman’s book (as well as her more formal research articles) offers a well-drawn sketch of the rough edges of this field and will feature in the book that I’m writing (although, to be honest, I’m not sure where!).
As per my usual practice, I won’t offer a thorough review. The book is such a quick and, frankly, fun read that anyone curious about it should just sit down and read it. Instead, I’ll offer for quick observations.
1. The Contemporary World. One of the most useful things that came from reading this book is that Gorman presents a useful corrective that the notion that archaeology of the contemporary world must involves objects, architecture, and situations grounded in everyday life. Most of us will not experience outer space and most of the objects associated with space are exceptional in some way. Not only are the actually in space and far from our ability to observe, manipulated, excavate, or measure, but they also tend to be made of exotic materials and technology, protected from the archaeologist’s gaze by being located at secure or difficult to access sites, and, generally speaking, rather rare.
Gorman understands this tension between the traditional objects of archaeological research and space archaeology and begins her book at her childhood home in the Australian countryside. This simple move grounds (heh, heh) her work in the long tradition of historical archaeology with its major focus on domestic places and rural life. She makes reference to the various middens common to family farms in the US and Australia which have long attracted archaeological attention. More than that, though, she links her experiences growing up in the conservative society of rural Australia to her eventual interest in the archaeology of space.
The message here is unmistakable. If traditional historical archaeology is the family farm, her own journey from the farm to academia represents a departure from her disciplinary (and social roots) in conservative rural life to the archaeology “at the end of the universe” (to evoke Douglas Adams who makes frequent appearances in Gorman’s work).
2. Gender and Sex. One of the long-standing questions posed to NASA is whether any of their astronauts have had sex in space. While NASA has continued to insist that this has not happened and may not be possible, space continues to be, for lack of a better word, a sexy place and space exploration has been inextricably bound up in attitudes toward gender here on earth.
On the one hand, Gorman makes these points plainly. Her own drift toward archaeology came as much because she was discouraged from pursuing a career in STEM despite her aptitude and ability as her own interest in the past. Despite recent work emphasizing the role of women in space exploration, most notably Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures (2016) which documents the role of African American women in the US space program, many of the central fields in the “space race” such as physics, engineering, and maths were dominated by men. More than that, the close ties between the “space race” and military technology and warfare (after all the space race was a surrogate battlefield in the Cold War) likewise privileged men who tended to be the most visible combatants in the modern era.
Gorman complicates things in a subtle, entertaining, and thought provoking way. Into the standard narrative of gender and sex, she alludes to Pynchon’s 1973 novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon makes famously clear the relationship between the phallic shape of the V2 rocket, the distribution of V2 strikes (which follows the Poisson Distributions), and the sexual activities of several of the main characters. Not only are rockets for men, but the entire enterprise of space exploration can be presented as a male sexual fantasy. Gorman returns to this theme, albeit obliquely, later when she discusses the distribution of cable ties at an abandoned Australian site associated with their space program. Cable ties received a patent in 1958 and over the second half of the 20th century became a ubiquitous feature in sites where cabling and digital technologies are prominent. As digital technology spread, so did cable ties. (It’s notable, however, that cable ties received a patent in the US in 1973, the same year that Gravity’s Rainbow appeared). Gorman notes, with a subtle nod toward Pynchon, gender, and sexuality, that cable ties feature in oddly popular erotic thriller Fifty Shades of Grey.
More obvious is her discussion of rocket parks in the US and Australia. These were children’s playgrounds designed around the theme of space travel and exploration that usually featured rocket-shaped climbing features. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon (or even a careful reader of Lacan) to see that the phallic shaped climbing features in rocket parks represent both science and technology as well as the source of the structural father’s power over the mother as the object of his desire. Rocket parks played a key role, then, in reinforcing both the “phallocentric patriarchy” as well as the role of science in the public imagination.
In case the reader missed the interweaving of sexuality, gender, and the space race, Gorman brings the themes together at the moment when she and her mother visit a rocket park in Australia and discover as they leave, a cable tie. I admit that this made me blush.
Gorman also reinforces this in her brief analysis of Elon Musk’s rocket bound Tesla Roadster. This is a conspicuous expression of Musk’s sexuality as the phallic rocket carriers aloft a common symbol of men’s mid-life sexual anxieties (the red convertible). That it plays David Bowie’s 1972 hit “Starman,” offers more than a bit of ambiguity. “Starman” with its obvious sonic reference to “Over the Rainbow” evokes Julie Garland’s status as a gay icon. At the same time, Bowie’s 1970s persona of Ziggy Stardust is not that of conventional male sexuality, but androgyny, queerness, and bisexualty. In this context, Musk’s launching of the Tesla Roadster into space has more to do with more complex sexuality of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow than traditional masculine phallic fantasies.
To be clear, the subtext presented here does not leap from the pages, but it’s not exactly subtle either. Gorman manages through her artful and deliberate prose to create an (archaeological) context for a queer reading of the space. The allusion to “junk” in the title is an unsubtle hint. The book offers a rich potential for more a more inclusive reading of space. I might have wished for it to be more obvious (and perhaps less grounded in early 1970s cultural references), but perhaps part of the book’s appeal is that it makes you work for its critique.
3. Contested Spaces. On more conventional grounds, Gorman’s understanding of the often contested ground where the space race played out here on Earth is useful. she chose to focus on the Australian site of Woomera in the Far North of South Australia and the Woomera test range which saw rocket launches throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Her discussion of Aboriginal land rights as a counterweight to claims that the area was empty provides disturbing similar parallel to the development of large military test ranges in the US at the expense of Native American claims. We justified our occupation of these spaces by viewing them as terra nullius and ignoring groups who see these lands in different way.
Here, Gorman offers a particular salient critique of the culture logic of space exploration. Our desires to travel into space, to visit the Moon and Mars, and to occupy these places relies on the same logic of “terra nullius” that allowed us to overwrite ways of viewing the the Earth that did not conform to our limited understanding of occupation, possession, and territoriality. Gorman allows the reader to consider the ironic proposition that treaties articulated by nations defined by territorial claims could prevent such claims in space while failing utterly to protect alternate notions of space and place on Earth. She remains skeptical, but in this skepticism is the traces of an optimistic view that by looking to space as another terra nullius, we might find ways put this term and its cultural baggage to rest and to replace this concept with new ways of thinking about how we can live together.
The space junk circulating in near Earth orbit, however, provides a chilling reminder that there is work to do.
4. Non-Human Actors. Archaeology remains deeply committed to sewing interest in things as things. From symmetrical archaeology, to object oriented ontologies, the new materialism, and new ways of critiquing the painfully persistent dichotomy of nature and culture. Gorman’s book offers a gentle and theory-free way of thinking about non-human actors, formation processes, and the complexity of taking things as agents seriously.
From the impact of moon dust on the things left behind by the Apollo missions to the possibility of the careening impacts of space junk making near-Earth orbit inhospitable and dangerous for both human space flight and satellites, Gorman unpacks the range of non-human actors that shape space archaeology. In her most compelling example the accumulated space dust on the Voyager and Pioneer deep space probes may offer a better way for a putative extraterrestrial civilization to understand the date and distance that the probes have traveled than any of the more deliberate efforts of human scientists to communicate.
The book is compelling and complex and a careful reading will undoubtedly reveal more than what I’ve presented here. In Gorman’s hands, space archaeology is much more than the study of orbital artifacts, but a broader platform to offer subtle critiques of contemporary society, useful contributions to archaeological theory, and an entertaining way to spend a holiday weekend.