The Science Behind “America Declassified” – White Sands

6 12 2013

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Unintended Consequences

My adventures as a scientist-host with the Travel Channel television series, “America Declassified” took me across the blinding flats of the White Sands Missile Range, which had unintended consequences.  Unnervingly, it deposited a sliver in my mind that I simply cannot ignore.

In forging outward across the staggeringly-immense, derelict runways we now know as White Sands Space Harbor, witnessing firsthand the contrast between what had until so recently been a fully-functional spaceport and today’s blatantly inhospitable reality, I was left with a persistent awareness of a haunting, obscure truth:

Ours is a civilization that is mature (and immature?) enough to have developed space travel technology… and then completely let it go.

Space Shuttle Columbia's landing at White Sands concluding STS-3 in March, 1982.

Space Shuttle Columbia’s landing at White Sands concluding STS-3 in March, 1982.

Sifting the Future Past

This disturbing truth, revealed to me as we barreled across the slow-motion avalanche of selenite crystals relentlessly erasing the spaceport from existence, is that from this moment onward the science of studying humanity’s artifacts – archaeology – will include not just arrowheads and pottery, but also advanced spaceflight technology.

Could it be that we have reached an era where we – due to social, political, or economic difficulties – actually regress technologically?  A time where what we currently achieve is less advanced than what we achieved in the past?

It is here that we venture headlong into the little-known, frontier science of Space Archaeology.

Close-up, showing the intense degradation of the runway markings.

Close-up, showing the intense degradation of the runway markings.

Archaeology at the Final Frontier

Beyond the obvious, the study of historical space technology also includes places like White Sands Space Harbor.  The facility boasted several features unique to human history, like runways that were flat, long, and wide enough to be used to train people to land vehicles returning from space, or the fact that they were marked in such a way that they could be seen by human pilots reentering the Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 18,000 miles-per-hour, or speeds greater than Mach 23(!).

Admittedly, this concept of archaeology runs contrary to our popular view of archaeologists.  It seems difficult, for instance, to envision Indiana Jones racing against the clock to retrieve a turbo-cryo-pump from an abandoned rocket testing facility before it is demolished, or diving to the bottom of the ocean to rescue a historic rocket engine before it rusts to pieces… Yet, that’s exactly what a select few scientists are attempting as I type.

Travel Channel’s Citizen Science-Explorers

In the final analysis, it could very well be that viewers who share in this segment’s exploration of modern lore, tromping off the beaten path with me onto restricted territory at White Sands, were themselves briefly transformed into citizen space archaeologists.

-And in this light, we might all unwittingly serve a very important role through the lens of history – to help ensure that while spaceflight technology might indeed be lost to the sands of time, it will never be completely forgotten.

Semper Exploro – Always Explore!

Ben McGee

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Resurrecting Astro-paleontology

24 11 2010

Archaeologists excavating an alien artifact in 1928 Egypt from the movie "Stargate." According to the Armitage scheme, such an item would be classified as "Advanced Intelligent (non-indigenous) remains." (Credit: MGM)

A quick note today pointing to an interview with astro-paleontology pioneer John Armitage that was recently published on the Space Archaeology blog.

In short, Armitage pioneered research (see: Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, vol. 30, pp. 466-9, 1976) that was quite nearly lost to the sands of time until rescued by Steve Wilson and posted on his blog.  The research included a breakdown of hypothetical astro-paleontology considerations that admittedly overlap xenoarchaeology and were decades ahead of their time, (directly overlapping research I’m currently pursuing.)

Be sure the check out both the Space Archaeology posts.

(Simply being able to rebroadcast information like this is proof to me of the infinite utility of our global information superstructure!  One person can now make a discovery, which can trickle outward through the internet as post/page/tweet dominos…)

Amongst the more interesting contents of the 1976 paper is Armitage’s proposition of a discretized “remains” continuum.  With it, he essentially breaks down what planetary and interstellar explorers could expect to find and what consequent mode of study or detection the remains would require.  Specifically, I suggest that his proposed differences between “metazoan grade (non-intelligent)” and “metazoan grade (intelligent)” are deserving of the greatest renewed investigation or development, as our concept of intelligence is quite arbitrary here on Earth where the differences between “archaeology,” “anthropology,” “biology,” and, “paleontology” are concerned.

Food for thought.








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