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July 15, 2021

Three ideas you should hear at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas

We spoke to three South Australian academics appearing at this year's Festival of Ideas about how to protect space from corporate interests, how social media has changed our sense of self, and how soon we can expect to be eating pizza in space.

  • Interviews: Johnny von Einem
  • Pictures: Supplied

With the return of the Adelaide Festival of Ideas comes a range of intellectually stimulating conversations between some of the state and country’s best minds, happening on the University of Adelaide’s CBD campus as part of Illuminate Adelaide.


Adelaide Festival of Ideas
15—18 July
University of Adelaide, City Campus
North Terrace, Adelaide 5000
More info

There is a generous bevy of interesting talks you might choose to attend, many of which are free, which you can browse through here.

To whet your interrogative appetite, CityMag reached out to three Adelaide-based academics for a chat about the topics they’ll be bringing to the festival, and the one idea they hope to leave you with.

Read on below for discussions on space and the self with Dr Alice Gorman, Professor Megan Warin, and Professor John Culton.

We need to protect space from Earth’s colonial and capitalist instincts

This picture: Daniel Kukec

Dr Alice Gorman, known in print and the Twitterverse as Dr Space Junk, is a space archaeologist and Associate Professor at Flinders University, and she will be discussing the implications of humankind’s search for a back-up planet at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas session, ‘What if there is a Planet B?’
She will be joined on the panel by Dr Lisa Bailey and Tim Jarvis AM.


CM: What is the one idea you hope people attending this session leave with?
AG: I hope the one idea is that there is no Planet B.

Even though you have space billionaires, like Elon Musk, talking about humans becoming a multi-planetary species, we have to ask the question: why would we want to do that?

And as many, many people have pointed out, it’s a bit hubristic to be talking of settling on other planets when we’ve done such a poor job of managing this one.

What are your concerns amid this new push into space, particularly the involvement of billionaires?
Since 1967, when The Outer Space Treaty was put into place, space has been regarded as something that is for all humanity, and that it should benefit all humanity. So it concerns me, I guess, that we’re seeing this development that private corporations are starting to play a much bigger role.

I’m not against that in itself, that’s fine, but it’s when that becomes the dominant narrative. And we forget that space is meant to be for everybody.

I think it’s fairly important to hold onto that principle that space is meant to be the province of all humanity, and that we should all have equal access to it and be able to benefit from what comes from going out further into space.

Should it be that universities and research organisations are the ones trying to get onto private space flights?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having partnerships with private enterprise, and I think we’ve seen over the last couple of decades, space agencies are finding it harder and harder to keep the level of funding they need for really bold space exploration missions. So I think it’s absolutely fine to work in partnership with private corporations to make that stuff happen. It’s about keeping that in a realistic balance.

Something that’s really important is government agencies are accountable to the public, while private corporations, particularly in space, are not – even though they’re accepting government contracts.

The more space becomes commercialised and privatised, the more difficult it’s going to be for the public to find out what’s going on, and I think that’s something we need to keep an eye on.

Does the Outer Space Treaty protect us from private entities making territorial claims in space?
It does. The treaty is very, very clear that no one can make a territorial claim or own land on another planet, for example, so that’s absolutely impossible, even if you’re a private corporation.

But of course, once you’re on Mars, let’s say, and you’ve said, ‘Ok, I’m going to claim Mars’, who’s going to stop you? There’s no one on the ground to say, ‘Oh, you’ve committed a space crime.’

Sure, there are courts on Earth that might take that matter up, but Elon Musk, I think, has even said, if there were to be some kind of human settlement on Mars, they would likely form their own method of government and govern themselves, rather than be governed from Earth. In that case, that’s a de facto colonisation, and I think that’s also something we should just be wary of.

What are the risks if we don’t get this right?
The European Space Agency and NASA say that they want the benefits shared and they’re keen on collaboration, but realistically you do have this divide between the space-faring and the non-space-faring nations, so I think it is a risk that there could be some future where all the poor nations are left languishing in rising sea levels and terrible climate change.

Is there anything about this current era of space exploration by billionaires that makes you feel optimistic?
There’s the most incredible science being done all the time, including by Australian planetary scientists and space scientists, so we are learning about the rest of the solar system in a way that will help us engage with it respectfully. So that’s very hopeful.

There’s a group called the Global Expert Group on Sustainable Lunar Activity, and I’m actually the vice-chair of this group at the moment, and we’re working on putting together guidelines for how people will operate on the lunar surface. That includes extracting resources like water, possibly living there, any other commercial activities that might take place, like mining for rare-earth elements.

The goal for this group is to make sure that we don’t bugger things up on the moon as we have on Earth. So there’s a lot of incredible minds that are thinking very deeply about the problem of not taking our terrible practices with us when we go into space. So that gives me a lot of optimism and hope as well.

It’s called colonisation of space, but that didn’t work out so great on Earth, so I think we need radically new ways of thinking about how we engage with the space environment.

What if there is a Planet B?
3:45pm Saturday, 17 July
Elder Hall
FREE – register here


Social media has changed the way we see ourselves, for better and worse

Professor Megan Warin is a social anthropologist at the University of Adelaide. Her research focuses on the ways in which socio-cultural values and practices are embodied, particularly around eating, disordered eating and obesity, and the gendered and moral assumptions that similarly inform how we respond to such complex problems.
She will be joined on the ‘True Selfie’ panel by Cambrey Payne, Clementine Ford, Taryn Brumfitt and the event’s MC Tory Shepherd.


What is the one idea you hope people leave your session with?
One of the most important things I’d like the audience to think about is the way in which social media is not just not just good or bad. It is actually far more complex than that. Social media can be a really important way of getting people to connect and to think differently about issues.

This talk is about body image and how we think about ourselves and our relationships with people, and depending on who you are, where you’re at in your life, the relationships you have, social media can be really supportive or it can be really damaging and can trick you into thinking that it is empowering.

What are some of the ways that social media has changed us, positively and negatively?
I have done research with people with eating disorders, where it can be used quite negatively by some people with eating disorders, because they will use images of very thin women, for example, and post that as what they call ‘thinspiration’, and they’ll use that as an achievement, as a mode to actually become ‘better’, for example, at being a ‘better’ anorexic.

Some of the positive things are the body positivity, fat activist and health at every size (HAES) movements, which uses social media in order to push back against this idea that if you’re overweight or obese, that you’re unhealthy.

While these movements are different in their political agendas, they all work towards celebrating the diversity of bodies in much more positive ways.

These are existing challenges social media has exacerbated. Are there any new issues or challenges social media has created?
There’s always been a commentary, certainly in the academic field, and in more popular fields, about magazine images and stuff like this, but with the advent of social media, the accessibility is obviously much greater and also at a much younger age.

In magazines, it was generally pictures of celebrities, so people in the public eye. Now, anyone can be a celebrity. So the ubiquity of these images, and micro-celebrities and influencers, that is absolutely something new, and the ways in which much of the influencing is underpinned by a market economy.

In Norway I’ve seen that they’ve just introduced a new law which is trying to legislate for influencers on social media to disclose if they’ve edited any of their images. This is a really interesting provocation because it’s that editing which people need to be made aware of, so you can understand that what you’re looking at actually is not real and unattainable.

Is that possible in the realm of social media, where images are generated by so many individuals?
It’s a thorny issue, absolutely, because how on Earth would you police that? But I think it just indicates that the images you’re looking at are not representative of the wide range of people’s bodies, the wide range of appearances, that these are all socially constructed and part of consumer society.

If you’re marketing a product, then that’s much easier to trace, so it’ll be interesting to see how they actually do that in Norway. I think it’s a good social justice platform to ask those influencers, if they’re making money out of products, to be up front and declare those interests.

Are there particular groups or demographics that are more susceptible to the impacts of social media?
I don’t do research in terms of demographics, but in relationship to femininity and masculinity, and any gender identification really, that doesn’t matter. It’s so consumer-driven that is doesn’t matter if you’re 12 or 60

Women’s bodies in particular are always positioned as something that is so central to identity and so central to your value in society, so there’ll always be a product that can be marketed, because the underpinning idea is that women’s bodies, and much more so now men’s bodies, are never good enough. The moment you work on one body part, then there’s another product you need to buy in order to address a different ‘flaw’ and improve.

This idea of individuals choosing to self-improve is something which social media really plays upon, because you’re never quite good enough. The fashion will change, the product will change, so it’s this constant self-surveillance and self-improvement mantra which sort of feeds itself.

What should happen in order for these harms to be properly managed?
I would really hope that people develop a questioning understanding of how social media works and the ideas around empowerment.

For example, for women, how you look – your image – is a very superficial way of being in the world. And in fact, it’s a form of trickery in the sense that in order to be empowered you have to work on and curate your bodily experience. It’s highly gendered and very individualistic.

If people can be cognisant of the ways in which we’re using and consuming social media – not to say we shouldn’t use it, it can be great – but more of a nuanced understanding of where and how people want to use social media, and the way it’s positioned in society.

What are the benefits of social media that we should protect?
Connectivity. It can be really important for people to stay connected, particularly during COVID. There’s a lot of fun, there’s a lot of pleasure in social media. I think that connectivity around social relationships is probably the most productive and positive aspect of it.

But we do need to understand how we engage with social media, and if we are comfortable being complicit in reproducing gender norms or prefer to use it to push back and reject them.

True Selfie
3:30pm Saturday, 17 July
Bonython Hall
FREE – register here


We’ll be eating pizza in space within a decade

Professor John Culton is a defence and space professional who joined the university of Adelaide in 2019 and is currently an Associate Professor Off-earth Resources and is Director of the Andy Thomas Centre for Space Resources.
John believes humanity is about to export its service sector beyond low-Earth orbit, meaning beer and pizza in space in the near future.
John will be joined on the ‘Pizza in Space’ panel by Dr Amit Srivastava, Dr Lisa Bailey, Dr Tim Parsons and Rebecca Kuster.


What is the one idea you hope people leave your session with?
The idea behind Pizza in Space is when we start having permanent communities, or semi-permanent communities in space, people don’t want to eat food out of a tube all the time. So once you have a certain-size workforce in space, they’re going to spend time working at their job, but when they’re off-duty, they’re going to do other things.

The next 50 years is going to be very different to the last 50 years when it comes to space, and the next thing that’s going to happen in space is going to include non-STEM people.

Why are people interested in space exploration right now?
We’re talking about the return of humans to deep space. We were there last in 1972 and we’re about to be there again with the Artemis program.

Everybody understands that it’s wholly different to the Apollo program, which people classify as a flags and footprints mission; this time, we’re going back to stay, and we’re actually going to be aggregating infrastructure for the purposes of allowing humans to stay on the surface repeatedly in these facilities for long periods of time.

Just this week, we had arguably one of the first space tourism missions successfully put six people into space and back in the span of 20 minutes. Later this month, Blue Origin will do the same thing. Both of those companies expect to start actual commercial operations this year. You’ve got companies building private space stations. Multiple SpaceX crew capsules are going up to space this year with private customers, who’ll be staying on private accommodations up in the space station being built by Axiom Space.

So you can see the emergence of not having to be a NASA astronaut to go to space in the near-future.

Are these developments welcomed by the organisations already active in space?
Well NASA has been trying to get rid of the space station for decades (laughs). I mean, they want a commercial entity to takeover those kinds of operations.

NASA would still have a presence, but NASA would be a tenant. So they might be one tenant out of many on a commercial venture like this. That’s a much more cost-effective model for a government agency than building, manufacturing, launching and operating an entire facility on their own.

Axiom Space will be attaching several modules to the space station, some of those will be able to be rented or utilised privately, but they’ll also have research laboratories for commercial companies and things like this.

What don’t we know right now that we need to know in order for pizza, or any other foodstuff, to be a reality in space?
We don’t know very much about living on the surface on the moon, or about living on the surface on any other celestial body, other than the Earth. And the Earth is unique in so many ways, so living on the surface of any other celestial body is going to entail lots and lots of unknowns.

We had the Apollo missions; they visited the lunar surface for an aggregate total of seven or eight days. That is just an absolute pittance of the information that is waiting for us up there. If we focus on the moon and Mars, what we do know can fill up an encyclopedia, but it’s just the start.

What is the timeline you see for beer and pizza in space?
When we say pizza in space, we’re using that as a euphemism for other jobs – the expansion of the service sector to space.

There were two pilots on board Virgin Galactic’s ship, and they weren’t the focus of the experience because they’re company personnel who will be providing this service on a regular basis.

When you look at who went to space, there were four passengers, but then there were these two pilots who are normal employees working in a space job. And that’s going to grow by leaps and bounds. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin hope to start routine commercial flights this year, and then you have Axiom Space already constructing the components that they’re going to put up on the space station. They have grand designs to have a free-flying station of their own within probably the next decade.

A 10-year timeline is probably something that is realistic, because you actually have to start doing things to meet that timeline now. So I would say pizza in space is within 10 years.

If you have people paying to go on vacations to a space station, one of the principal things that people like to do on vacation is eat, so you’re going to have restaurants and you’re going to have recreational activities, and you’ll have to have people there that can facilitate these things who are experienced at living and doing these things in space to teach the visitors how to do this in a safe manner. So those kinds of jobs are going to explode exponentially over the next five to 20 years.

What are the benefits to our society of the service sector extending into space?
There’s no waste, essentially, in space. It sounds a little bit off-putting, but 80 per cent of the water they drink on the space station is recycled urine. And that might sound, like I said, a little bit off-putting, but the point is, in space, the engineers attempt to design in such a way that there is no waste product, and if there is a waste product it serves as an input for the production of something useful. You can see the obvious benefits to Earth in a resource-constrained environment when we take those same kinds of engineering solutions and we apply them terrestrially.

In the longer-term, especially if someone is interested in green technology, when my centre talks about using space resources, we’re talking about finding water and using that for the benefit of the astronauts that are there doing exploration work, but there’s basically three phases involved in space resource use, and one of those eventually could be – and this is an idea that Jeff Bezos has mentioned – the Earth is the only garden that we know of in the universe, so instead of having to conduct mining activities here on the Earth to find all the rare-earth elements and platinum-group metals that are required to operate wind turbines and things, we can get those from space.

The Earth can be zoned for park and residential, and heavy industry can exist off-planet.

Does the politics of our existence in space get complicated when we start to mine resources?
It depends on who you talk to. You can talk to attorneys, and this is really in their lap at this point. We have fantastic space lawyers all over the world, and we’ve got some really fantastic ones here in Adelaide and at the university here, who are looking at these kinds of thorny problems.

You can’t claim the moon, or you can’t claim an asteroid on behalf of any sovereign nation. And there is actually, even in the most restrictive of the outer space legal regime treaties, which would be the Moon Agreement, to which Australia is a signatory, even that allows you to use space resources in support of astronauts and exploration activities.

People often translate the bad behaviours of mining companies in the past on Earth into a space context, but it probably isn’t very accurate, because anybody who’s operating in space has to be extremely, extremely efficient in the use of resources.

Those more challenging conversations will finally have an opportunity to occur and reach a resolution because we’re on the cusp of conducting these activities.

Are you excited by the incidental discoveries that might occur as our service economy expands beyond Earth?
You raise a really good point, because this is the blind spot, right? Because these really, really revolutionary things are what you can’t predict beforehand. Right now, space is such a short-duration experience for us that that’s probably inhibiting some of that from happening.

To me, the thing that’s most exciting is all the things we don’t know, and all the things we’re going to discover, and all of the technologies and ideas that are going to come out of that.

And some of that is not necessarily going to be an engineering thing, a new widget that we can use, it’s going to be art. It’ll be a whole new way of moving. And you can think about all of the things that could come out of that, whether it’s a new sport or a new kind of dance – whatever.

Humans are good engineers, but humans are also intensely creative, and so we can think of all the different things that are going to open up once we have people living for longer periods of time in different sorts of environments.

Pizza in Space
1:45pm Friday, 16 July
Bonython Hall
FREE – register here


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