7 mins read 27 Jul 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: A/Professor Alice Gorman

Women play a huge role in the Australian space sector, and each week will be sharing the story of an inspiring woman who makes our community so special.

Associate Professor Alice Gorman is an internationally recognised leader in the field of space archaeology and author of the award-winning book Dr Space Junk vs the Universe: Archaeology and the Future (MIT Press, 2019). Credit: Supplied.

In March each year, we not only celebrate International Women’s Day but we also enjoy learning about all the contributions women have made to society during Women’s History Month. Originally started in the US in 1987, it has in recent times, in part due to social media, become more well known across the world. 

As a celebration of all the wonderful work, inspiration and support that women across our region do in the space sector, will be speaking to a new women in the Australian space community weekly, to uncover their stories and find out who inspires them.  

Associate Professor Alice Gorman - College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences,  Flinders University

What is your role?

I'm a space archaeologist. This means I research how humans have engaged with outer space using material culture, after the invention of rockets capable of reaching Earth's orbit in the 1940s. Archaeologists usually look at the stuff that humans discard, to understand human behaviour and evolution in the deep past. I'm just applying the same techniques to the contemporary world. 

Professionally, I'm also an academic (which involves a lot of teaching and administration) and a cultural heritage consultant. I provide expert advice about the heritage and conservation of space and astronomy-related sites.  

How did you end up working in the space sector and what drew you to it?

About 20 years ago I had a revelation that all of the space junk in Earth's orbit was effectively an archaeological record that could be studied in the same way as the Aboriginal stone tools I was investigating at the time. This set me off on a new path. It just seemed like the right fit. 

What advice would you give to people looking to start their career in the Australian space industry, whether they are new graduates or those looking to move their careers over?

I'd say make your interest known. Start going to events like conferences and public lectures. Get to know people and work out where your place is. The Australian space community is, in my experience, wonderfully welcoming - we love talking about our mutual passions, so if you are passionate too, you'll find your way.

What has been your most interesting discovery or been the most interesting space-related project you have worked on or been part of?

Without a doubt, the most fascinating project I've been involved with is the International Space Station (ISS) Archaeological Project. With my collaborator Associate Professor Justin Walsh from Chapman University in California, we're investigating how the ISS crew use everyday objects to adapt to microgravity. 

In early 2022 we conducted the first-ever archaeological fieldwork outside Earth, when we got the crew of the ISS to set up and carry out an archaeological survey for us. Over two months, the crew took photographs of six 1 x 1 metre samples squares every day. For us, each of these images is like the top of an excavation layer when you're digging down from the surface. We've only just started our analysis, but we expect to find out things about human adaptations to space that weren't visible before. It's exciting times!

Kerrie Dougherty OAM is Senior Heritage and Outreach officer with the Australian Space Agency’s Inspire program. She is a space historian, curator, educator and author of Australia in Space. Credit: Supplied.

Who have you met that has had the most impact on your career journey so far?

Meeting Kerrie Dougherty had a big impact. Kerrie was Australia's first space curator and is responsible for the amazing collections of space objects in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. She has the most incredible knowledge of Australian space history.   

Another person who really made a difference was Brett Biddington. Brett has been one of the 'thought leaders' in Australian space for decades - he's had an illustrious career across military and civil space and is also renowned for his support of younger people looking to enter the space industry. I talked about the importance of sponsors above, and he really was that for me - I'm sure a lot of doors opened because people knew he took my work seriously. 

What do you think are some of the issues faced by women in the space sector and how do you think they should be resolved?

I look around the room at various space events I attend and notice how few women there are. It's generally a sea of suits. For the men, this is normal. This is how their world works. But I'm really tired of offering advice to women about how to overcome old prejudices and get a seat at the table. 

We still have to battle being perceived as the secretary or the lackey, ceding physical space to men, being sidelined as 'the help' instead of recognised as people with expertise and experience. Every time you have to prove your credibility, prove that you're worth talking to and not just there to make the coffee, over and over again. 

Your jaw would drop if you realised how often this happens in plain sight - and the men don't even notice it. You still see things like women coming back from maternity leave and getting shunted into lesser roles: their job has not been kept open for them, and they eventually leave. 

I see junior men being promoted over senior women who are then expected to train them. The women leave. These are common problems everywhere, really, but where there are so few women, this can really affect the numbers. 

My friend and colleague Sumen Rai, Director of the Defence Innovation Partnership in South Australia, argues that women don't need more mentoring; what they need is sponsors, more senior people who are willing to promote them. 

This means vocally supporting them by talking about their work, passing on relevant information about events, funding, jobs, etc, and sometimes letting them take your place. 

So here's a few tips for the men and frankly they work across the board. Assume the person you're talking to has equal experience and knowledge to you, even if not in the same area, and respect that. Look at the patterns around you. Resist the individual decisions that have systemic consequences, like whittling away the role of the person on maternity leave. Actively seek women to work with. If you're passive about it, it will be the same kind of people all the time. 

You would not believe, for example, the number of grant applications I review in the space sector with not a single woman involved.   

What has been the highlight of your career so far or what are you looking forward to most in the future?

I frequently quote poetry in my writing and presentations about space. I think sometimes poets say it best: they get right to the heart of things and open up spaces for visions, emotions, and the senses. I wouldn't say poetry was my natural medium but occasionally I'm inspired to create one. 

A few years ago I wrote a poem about Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, using lines from the transcript of her 49 orbits around Earth. The poem has been selected for inclusion in the Cambridge University Press anthology 'Outer Space: 100 Poems' (edited by Midge Goldberg, to be published in November 2022). I never thought I'd be able to say I was a published poet, so this has made me very happy!