The far reaches of space exploration don’t usually gel with the annals of archaeology – but for Alice Gorman, it’s a match made in heaven.
The 52-year-old space archaeologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, is living her childhood dream, weighing up spacecraft, landing sites and debris flying around Earth and deciding if a relic should be preserved or simply remain junk based on its cultural and heritage value.
“Every now and then I have to pinch myself,” she says.
She grew up on a farm in the southern New South Wales Riverina area, just a stone’s throw from the Victoria border, far from big city lights. “I had the most amazing view of the night sky,” she says. “I wanted to do both [astrophysics and archaeology] if I could.”
But getting there was not a quick journey, nor an easy one.
While Gorman was at school in the 1970s and 80s, women were typically prodded towards humanitarian studies rather than technical fields such as astrophysics.
She says the pressure was never overt, but it was enough to smother her astronomical ambitions.
“You got the really strong impression that if you weren’t brilliant as a girl in maths or physics, then you were edged towards more literary fields,” she says.
“If you were just average at those things as a boy, it wasn’t seen to be an impediment to continuing in [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields.”
So she began as an expert in stone tools. But while working as an archaeologist, combing through Indigenous Australian heritage sites, she studied astrophysics.
This brought her to examine the cultural value of a rocket launch site at the Royal Australian Air Force’s Woomera test range in the South Australian desert in 2002. And in 2007, it was bestowed the status of Historic Aerospace Site by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
By expanding her archaeological turf into the outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, Gorman notes that while a nomadic curiosity is deeply ingrained in humanity’s makeup, we must be careful that space exploration doesn’t mirror 19th-century colonisation, excluding or not giving a voice to entire groups of people.
This means not putting privileged people in power, but instead promoting equal representation in the space conversation, particularly those who would otherwise be marginalised.
Not just women, she says, but local communities such as Indigenous Australians too: “Space technology doesn’t exist in isolation, but often against a backdrop of colonisation and indigenous alienation from their country.”
Shaping how we’ll explore space down the track also keeps Gorman busy. With asteroid mining around the corner – NASA plans to send a sample return mission to asteroid Bennu next month and private companies are not far behind – she worked with fellow executive members of the Space Industry Association of Australia to put together a submission in April for the federal government’s review of the nation’s space activity legislation.
So while still part of a minority of women in space research, she says “it’s possible, just by perseverance, to be taken seriously”.