International and U.S. Experts Discuss Space Diplomacy

Panelists speaking to Elliott School audience also addressed Russia situation as it pertains to civil, commercial and national security in space.

Space Diplomacy
Seven panelists joined Space Policy Institute Director Scott Pace, top middle, and Elliott School Dean Alyssa Ayres, middle right, for a virtual discussion on space diplomacy.
February 24, 2022

By Nick Erickson

While science and exploration are at the forefront of space activity, Elliott School of International Affairs Space Policy Institute Director Scott Pace also said it encompasses many aspects of life and impacts national interests, diplomacy and relationships with other states. Therefore, it’s important to also think of space through a foreign affairs lens.

Pace moderated a virtual panel Wednesday that included seven experts —including GW Law alumna Emily Pierce, J.D. ’11—to discuss both international and United States perspectives on space diplomacy, challenges and opportunities.

“I think all of us who are interested in space share, and who share common values, need to speak together and work together in international environments to shape the space regime that we are all dependent upon,” Pace said.

State Department representatives Valda Vikmanis-Keller, director of the Office of Space Affairs, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental Scientific Affairs; and Eric Desautels, director of the Office of Emerging Security Challenges and Defense Policy, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, joined Pierce on the U.S. panel. Elle Agnew of the Canadian Space Agency; Koji Aribayashi, Embassy of Japan S&T counsellor; Sylvie Espinasse of the European Space Agency’s Washington office; and Nicholas Maubert, counselor for Space (CNES) at the Embassy of France, all spoke from the international community.

Elliott School Dean Alyssa Ayres delivered opening remarks.

“Science and technology policies that enhance innovation are also crucial to U.S. leadership and to the growth and well-being of our economy,” Ayers said. “To meet the urgency of today's global threats, including a pandemic, the climate crisis and cybersecurity concerns, it's increasingly important that we have international affairs practitioners with strong backgrounds in science and technology.”

Pace noted that borderless space is a shared domain and that the way to best utilize it is to have sovereign states voluntarily align together for an environment that is conducive to shared national interests.

Both panels answered questions about Russia and how the current crisis with Ukraine (Russia executed its military attack on Ukraine about 12 hours after the conclusion of the panel) affected space diplomacy. Vikmanis-Keller said that as far as the United States is concerned, NASA continues to safely conduct research aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Of the seven people currently aboard the ISS, four are U.S. astronauts, one is a German astronaut, and the two others are Russian cosmonauts.

She also said that two U.S. astronauts are currently in Russia, while three Russian cosmonauts are training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Up to five NASA astronauts are scheduled to train in Russia by mid-March, and she sees that continuing.

“This is the one area, despite what is going on geopolitically, that safe and secure operations and cooperation on the ISS continues,” Vikmanis-Keller said.

Espinasse said it’s a similar story from an international perspective regarding Russia and that things are proceeding as scheduled now, including the joint ExoMars 2022 launch between Europe and Russia.

“We are closely monitoring what is happening, but for now ongoing activities are going as planned,” she said. “We are continuing to work with our Russian colleagues on our joint mission. For now, we are on track.”

Maubert also noted that CNES still has French representation in Moscow.

It was an important topic to discuss as much of the two-hour address to the online audience was centered around the importance of having a unified approach so all citizens of the world can benefit from space discovery. From the United States perspective overall, Desautels said there are advantages to focusing on voluntary, non-legally binding norms of responsible behavior with respect to national security matters. Working groups are focused on reducing space threats through these behaviors.

Pierce, who is an attorney in the State Department’s Office of the Legal Advisor, believes that is important to show transparency in sharing information, which is a developing conversation in the space industry as communication technologies continue to grow at a torrid pace.

There are a lot of nuances in space diplomacy, including making it accessible to less developed nations, and Aribayashi noted how important it is to have active dialogue with people across the globe. While news on earth over boundaries is tense and uneasy, the space experts say their community remains harmonious for now.

“We interact with each other on a regular basis in the space community,” Maubert said. “I really think this is the place to be for international cooperation.”

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Dr. Pace is director of the GW Space Policy Institute and has had a long career in space policy.