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How New Zealand is winning the trans-Tasman race to space billions

It’s not (officially) a race but it still feels a victory when respected Australian space archaeologist Alice Gorman (aka Dr Space Junk) says they are “very envious” of what’s happening in New Zealand.

“The Australian government, unlike the New Zealand government, has failed to support space industry and space science in any coherent way, for quite some decades now,” says Gorman, the first woman ever elected to the Executive Council of the Space Industry Association of Australia.

An academic based at Flinders University and regular lecturer of the International Space University based in France (the Chancellor is Buzz Aldrin), Gorman is currently actively campaigning for Australia to create a space agency to further increase its capability to be a part of the Global Space Economy – which the Space Foundation valued at $323 billion in 2016. 

This is in contrast with the New Zealand Government which announced it was joining the global space economy in 2016. It established the Centre for Space Science and Technology – an agency to support the realisation of the benefits associated with the use of space.  New Zealand’s Rocket Lab successfully launched a rocket into space in May.

Gorman is an advocate for Australian space exploration and a pioneer in the field of space archaeology. She was brought to New Zealand by the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to teach a master class to archaeology students and consult with staff at the University’s Auckland Programme for Space Systems, which takes students from all faculties and gives them the opportunity to design a cube satellite with the winning design chosen to launch into space.  The Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has supported these initiatives as part of their University outreach programme – to show students of all disciplines the value of an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset.

Gorman also delivered a talk for the Centre’s Unleash Your Potential Speaker Series where she shared what sparked her originality of career.

An archaeologist by training, her story on becoming a pioneer of the discipline that explores the 29,000 pieces of space debris, junk, waste, trash, or litter starts with her childhood.

“When I was a little kid, growing up on a farm in southern New South Wales in Australia, we had the most amazing view of the night sky,” she says.

“I was just fascinated with the stars, and I felt that all of the secrets of life would be revealed by learning about how stars were made. I wanted desperately to go into space.”

Not having the means to physically go to space, Gorman says it was access to books about archaeology and space and various television programmes which were very influential: “A little kid on a farm doesn’t get to meet many archaeologists or astrophysicists.”

Developing a passion for both archaeology and astrophysics, she decided to become an archaeologist and fell into heritage consulting. Here she worked on various development projects generally centred around the area of Indigenous archaeology.

“I was managing a large heritage project in Queensland, and came home from being in the field all day at the height of summer, I was very hot and tired and sweaty. I kicked off my boots and got a beer, and went and sat on my veranda, and just gazed up at the stars with my beer, just sort of thinking of nothing much.

“An idea just popped into my head, I thought here’s all of these stars, there’s a few planets among them, there’s probably a few satellites among them, among those satellites is probably a few old satellites.

“Could you do an archaeology of those satellites? Do these satellites have heritage value? How would you go about finding this out?

“Suddenly, it was as if these two parts of my childhood ambitions had suddenly coalesced and I just had that feeling that this is how it was meant to happen.”

This story was first published by the University of Auckland's Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.