How does one go about becoming a space archaeologist?

The more one becomes familiar with space, the more one realizes what a varied subject it is. There are space lawyers, space artists, space social activists, and space journalists. A particularly unique profile is space archaeologist. Alice Gorman, who is a professor of archaeology at Flinders University in Adelaide, has devoted herself to advancing the niche field of space archaeology. She recently wrote a book on the subject called Dr Space Junk vs the Universe: Archaeology and the FutureWe spoke with Dr. Gorman to learn more about the field and how she came to be a space archaeologist.

What is space archeologyand how did you end up specializing in it?

Space archaeology is the study of human space exploration through material culture. I’m interested in how humans use objects and technology to engage with the space environment. This does not just mean space junk in Earth orbit and planetary landing sites like Apollo 11. If you think about it, the modern world is dependent on satellite-delivered services like navigation (the GPS in your smart phone), timing (ATMs rely on satellite signals), telecommunications, and weather prediction. How satellite services have changed human behavior on Earth is also part of space archaeology. 

I should probably be clear and say what space archaeology is not. It’s not the use of Earth observation to study terrestrial archaeological sites, the study of alien cultures, or galactic history. Just because something is old doesn’t make it archaeology! Archaeology is by definition about human cultures.

I started out as a regular terrestrial archaeologist. My PhD research microscopically analyzed stone tools used for body modifications, such as tattooing and scarification. As a professional, I was a heritage consultant in Australia. A large part of my work was the Aboriginal heritage component of Environmental Impact Assessments for mining industry. This all changed one evening about 20 years ago. I was looking up at the stars and started thinking about space junk. I abandoned everything I had been doing, packed up my house, and started on my own personal odyssey to become a space archaeologist.

What were some of the more surprising issues you identified when researching and writing your book?

One of the things I really wanted to do in my book was find alternative ways for people to connect to space if they’re not aerospace engineers or already inside space industry. I was looking for a way to visualize space junk in Earth orbit. It occurred to me that space junk was a bit like cane toads, which were introduced to Australia in the 1930s to control pests in sugar cane crops in Queensland. They turned out not to be a solution, but a new problem. They are toxic, have no natural predators, and are fearsome predators themselves. Now they’re invading other states and wreaking environmental havoc as they go. This seemed like the perfect metaphor for space junk. With the help of some Twitter colleagues, I calculated that the weight of space junk is equivalent to 8.4 million cane toads. 

The Voyagers, particularly Voyager 2, have long been favorite spacecraft. I wanted to describe what space was like around them: what, as spacecraft, they were experiencing and measuring. I read large numbers of scientific papers to try and work out basic things like the temperature and the composition and density of particles and gasses in their immediate environment. This seemed like such a simple idea, but in reality, it was very hard to do. Everything was at such a broad scale or described some region of space a long distance away. I wasn’t expecting this, and it made me think about the value of asking questions from different perspectives.

What advice do you have for individuals interested in becoming space archeologists?

Space archaeology is a weird transdisciplinary field. As well as understanding the methods and theories of archaeology, you also have to be familiar with astrodynamics, planetary science, satellite systems, and the space legal environment. If you’re starting out as a student, my best advice is to do a joint or double degree in archaeology and science or engineering. You don’t have to become an astronaut, which is a good thing since NASA explicitly rules out archaeology and anthropology as qualifying disciplines. Big mistake in my opinion!

People often say to me, “You have the best job.” However, it’s not that someone advertised a space archaeologist position and I was just lucky enough to win it. My actual job is as an academic and space archaeology is my research area. I had to work hard, with my colleagues, to establish space archaeology as a legitimate field of study. The day when someone employs me to do heritage assessments in orbit or on the Moon or Mars hasn’t arrived yet, but hopefully it will (I’m open to offers). Employment prospects for space archaeologists are still mostly universities and museums. 

There is, however, an increased interest in what we call the archaeology of contemporary past, including industrial and astronomical heritage. I’ve applied my expertise in space heritage to radio telescopes here on Earth. So, if you’re not in a hurry to get off-Earth, there is plenty of scope and there is so much to be done!