Junk or Heritage?

Vanguard. Photo:Nasa

Following a tip by Dr Space Junk, I bought a copy of this month’s National Geographic US. In the Space sec­tion there’s a page on the prob­lem of space junk. Currently there’s around 13,000 pieces of man-made debris being tracked in orbit. A col­li­sion can have ser­i­ous con­sequences, because even a fleck of paint causes dam­age when it hist you in excess of 17,000 mph. Therefore it’s not sur­pris­ing that sci­ent­ists are try­ing to think of ways to clean up our orbital neigh­bour­hood. The ques­tion is should everything obsol­ete be brought down?

Vanguard was launched in 1958, and has out­las­ted its more fam­ous rival Sputnik. Now it might just be junk, but it’s also a land­mark of a new era. When space tour­ism really becomes viable, will this be a tour­ist des­tin­a­tion? I think so, per­haps not as much as Disneymoon, but I think its her­it­age value will increase with time.

The reason I think so is down to the work of people like Alice Gorman, men­tioned in the art­icle. You can take a rigid view of what archae­ology is, and insist that if you’re not get­ting mucky it’s not proper archae­ology. I think it’s often more inter­est­ing when you have a thought-provoking topic and you use dis­cip­lines like archae­ology to see what you can do with them. Space tech­no­logy is drenched in the kind of polit­ical sym­bol­ism that would nor­mally make archae­olo­gists go giddy. The act of get­ting some­thing into space is a trip into a world of imper­ial power that we like to think has disappeared.

And if you’re inter­ested in read­ing more then Alice Gorman has her own blog, Space Age Archaeology, which is well worth read­ing through — for she is Dr Space Junk.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

4 Responses

  1. DavidD says:

    I vote for Vanguard being junk. The pro­to­type of some­thing may be inter­est­ing to the engin­eer­ing his­tory of some tech­no­logy, but how much of a cul­ture did the actual arti­fact touch? Forget Vanguard and save some rock ‘n’ roll record from the same time.

  2. Alun says:

    But couldn’t you say the same thing about a Palaeolithic hand-axe? It’s not quite Sputnik 1, but it is the product of a cul­ture that was reach­ing out into space. But unlike an anonym­ous hand-axe we cur­rently have bio­graphy to go with it. It’s not merely a prim­it­ive satel­lite, it’s the old­est mater­ial up there. It’s the closest thing you’ll have to the first foot­print in orbit. It’s embod­ies the col­lect­ive foot­print of the American people step­ping out to explore. My ana­logy is break­ing down.

    Music from the 1950s in con­trast — ugh! The ali­ens did us a favour when they abduc­ted Elvis.

  3. DavidD says:

    No mat­ter how old I get, I’m not going to ven­er­ate some­thing just for being old. People talk about know­ing celebrit­ies back when they were nobod­ies, but that’s not what made them great usu­ally. That’s usu­ally when their ordin­ar­i­ness might have kept them from ever being great.

    There is this cur­rent in cul­ture that is fas­cin­ated by the first occurence of some­thing. Sometimes it points to some­thing else. I read an art­icle this morn­ing on the domest­ic­a­tion of horses. With some­thing like that, an arti­fact can put a limit on when and how some­thing happened, but with Vanguard, there’s no mys­tery to solve. Why get excited about Vanguard over the V-2 (not the V-1) or one of Robert Goddard’s rock­ets, his best one, not his first one?

    Maybe it’s pos­sible to save everything, but even as big as hard drives have got­ten, I find I only want to save things I really should look at again. Of course oth­ers are free to be more inclusive.

  4. I like the idea of space archae­ology. There are a lot of archae­olo­gists who look down on his­tor­ical archae­ology in America because some­thing need only be 50 years old or older to qual­ify. Many clas­sify this recent stuff as “junk,” so I can see how space debris as arte­fact would be a leap.

    But I agree that some of these objects are import­ant in their his­tor­ical and tech­no­lo­gical con­texts. Relatively recent sites in the US can be added to the National Register of Historic Places if they meet cer­tain cri­teria such as con­nec­tion to an import­ant per­son or event, or a spe­cial feat of engin­eer­ing. It’s pos­sible sim­ilar cri­teria could be used to eval­u­ate objects in space (as weird as that sounds.) I think there is some poten­tial here.

    I have been amazed at how we can think that we know everything about a fairly recent period in his­tory, but the mater­ial record never fails to sur­prise us.