Most of us have a vested interest in what happens in space – whether we know it or not. Listen in as we chat with Cassandra Steer, Deputy Director of the Australian National University Institute for Space – or ANU InSpace, for short – about space law, diversity and inclusivity in the space sector, and why having diverse perspectives contribute to Australia’s future in space is important for us all.
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Guest: Cassandra Steer
Hosts: Zena Assaad and Liz Williams
Producers: Zena Assaad, Liz Williams and Martin Franklin (East Coast Studio)
Theme music: Coma-Media
Notes on the content:
Our choice to list this episode as explicit is because of some discussion of sexism and racism in the episode, some mention of warfare, and a brief story about discussing terrorism in a classroom setting.
Hi everyone, I’m Liz Williams.
And I’m Zena Assaad.
Welcome to episode two of our second season of Algorithmic Futures.
Join us as we talk to technology creators, regulators and dreamers from around the world to learn how complex technologies may shape our environment and societies in the years to come.
In our third episode for this season, we are very lucky to have Cassandra Steer join us for a chat. Cassandra is the Deputy Director of InSpace at the Australian National University, and has an impressive track record in space law and space security.
Cassandra was formerly Acting Executive Director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Ethics and Rule of Law, and has also served as Executive Director for both Women in International Security – Canada, and the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law. She has also held a position as Senior Lecturer at the University of Amsterdam, and has been a consultant to the Australian and US Departments of Defence and the Canadian Judge Advocate General’s Office on space law and space security.
Cassandra is also very clearly a passionate advocate for inclusion and diversity in the space sector. In our conversation, Cassandra articulates why space matters for all of us – no matter what our backgrounds are – and explores some of the many ways people with diverse backgrounds and disciplinary expertise can and are contributing to our future in space.
Thank you so much, Cassandra, for joining us today. We’re really, really pleased to have you on The Algorithmic Futures Podcast.
It’s my absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Cassandra, let’s start at the beginning: where are you from, what were your early influences and what led you to the path you’re currently on?
I guess I kind of see my life as having three main parts to it thus far. I grew up into my early ’20s in Australia and was terrible at maths and STEM and those kind of things, like appalling at it. I was so glad when I never had to do maths again when I finished my final math course in year 11. I’m much more a humanities focused person, although I did have a bit of an epiphany when I was doing that final maths exam and I felt like I realized Pythagoras was a philosopher and he was just trying to explain the world through numbers. That was just his way of trying to explain reality and I was like, “I get you Pythagoras. I never have to think about numbers again.”
In my early ’20s, I was very involved also in a lot of activism — political and environmental activism. In particular, I spent a lot of time, I even took some time off my university studies and my law degree to become very involved in the Jabiluka campaign, which was about stopping uranium mining on indigenous country in Kakadu National Park. So very driven by environmental commitment. When I was 22, I moved to the Netherlands to follow love. I had a Dutch boyfriend at the time and I did an exchange program so that I could continue my studies. I felt like the light went on for me there because I had been quite unhappy with my studies in Australia.
I finally found that I always thought I wanted to do law, but then studying law was really dry and then I found international law, which in the Netherlands, the way that that’s taught by the people who are writing the books, who are arguing the cases in the International Court of Justice and in a country which actually puts international law above its own constitutional law — so it was quite a unique perspective. It was also a great being in Europe in the early 2000s when the European Union was really coming into its strengths. The Euro first came in while I was living there and I really got a European perspective on the globe and my studies were very informed by European history. So I often critique that a little bit from, you know, it’s quite a colonialist history, but it was a very different history and perspective than I had in my youth in Australia.
And then in my mid 30s, so I was very specialized in international criminal law looking at how we can hold individuals responsible for war crimes and genocide, and mass atrocity, these kinds of things. In my mid 30s, I met my current partner who — we’ve been together for over 10 years and is the father of my child – and I followed love again and I moved to Canada, spent some time working in Canada and in the US and that was when I began to specialize in space law.
So my shift from international criminal law to space law came with another continental and geographical shift and a North American perspective on geopolitics, on what technology is doing to the world. Social media by this stage had become its own beast. It was the Trump era, or I was there when the Trump era began, and that shift that I made from international criminal law, which was really trying to look at how can we use the law to respond to the worst things that humans do in warfare to something that seems quite different — space law and space governance. But actually that shift came from looking at what technology was doing to warfare, so how drones meant that people, pilots were quite geographically removed from the war site and from the targets, the people that they were killing. Remote communications and satellite communications and very much what cyber was doing to warfare and what those remote technologies and what space was doing to warfare. It was military lawyers who pointed me to start looking at space law.
So my move into that was very much focused on space security laws of armed conflict applied to space and to cyber. And then, so, for the last 10 years or so, space law and space governance have very much become my expertise and my field of specialization and a huge passion that I have. All of the things that I’ve always been committed to around environmentalism, around international justice, international relations and what we do about warfare — for me, space is where all of those issues are at today.
So it’s not at all where I thought I would end up, but it’s a really, really exciting area to be in. I moved back to Australia just before the pandemic shut the world down in 2020. So I’ve only been back here three years at another quite tumultuous time in our 21st century history. To come back to Australia and get an Australian perspective again on what’s going on in the world has been very interesting. But my biggest concern in the space sector is that Australians don’t understand how important space is and our Australian government really doesn’t understand it. So we’re in a very risky situation right now. But again, it provides a lot of opportunity for me to bring what I do to the space sector in Australia.
You’ve spoken about the different geographical perspectives that you discovered, I guess when you traveled across different countries and continents. And theoretically space doesn’t really have the same geographical boundaries that we have here. So can you reflect a little bit on the differences between the work that you did when you were working in international law in different countries versus the space law that you currently work in?
Yeah. So you’re absolutely right. Space from a legal perspective is beyond any national jurisdiction. So international space law says no country can appropriate in space or claim sovereignty. And so much like parts of Antarctic or the high seas, it’s beyond national jurisdiction. But anything in international law, including governance of space, is entirely dependent on how different countries or regions understand their place in the world and understand international law.
So when I said the light went on for me in the Netherlands because they really give enormous value to international law, that’s — international law and treaties will in fact trump their constitution if there’s a clash of obligations and they’ll have to adjust their constitution and their domestic laws to meet their international obligations. That’s how they view international law.
A lot of European nations have that… The Netherlands is quite unique, but they have that view because they’re part of — the post Second World War politics put Europe at the center of what was happening and put international treaties and trade agreements and monetary exchange and having … The euro for instance, all of that was about trying to set up interdependency that would prevent another war as horrific as World War II. And so international law is really valued in Europe.
The way that they approach space law and space governance is absolutely with that perspective. In the US, international law is literally seen as foreign law. It’s this thing that’s out there. The US was very influential in post-World War II. It drove the establishment of the UN. It drove the establishment of the Nuremberg tribunal, for instance, to prosecute Nazi criminals, but in the late 20th century and early 21st century, especially under George W. Bush, and what happened from then on, the US started to withdraw from institutionalism.
So it’s not very active in the UN or it refuses to sign any new treaties. I mean, that got worse under Trump, but that was already the trajectory that it was on, and if you go to universities and law schools in the US, they were teach international law as foreign law. They don’t really see — treaties are contracts, but they see their own system as superior in terms of it values and content and therefore international law can’t tell it what to do. And that is very much how American policy and strategy looks at international space law. It’s a nice to have. Of course, we’ll talk about principles and values and peaceful uses of space, which is another core principle of the Outer Space Treaty. But we’re still just going to do our own thing.
And when you come back to Australia, which I think sits in the middle in terms of how it looks at international law. We take our international obligations quite seriously. We like to think of ourselves as being good international citizens, but we cherry-pick a little bit. I mean, we have a terrible human rights record with refugees, for instance. We have a terrible human rights record with our Indigenous Australians and our mining industry has a terrible record environmentally. But generally, we like to think of ourselves as good international citizens and that you can copy-paste that into how we look at space law and governance across our government. I think even from our Space Agency, there are some who take it seriously. There are others who are like, “Well, we just need to grow an industry.”
But most people I interact with in the space sector, including those who are incredibly savvy about what’s happening globally in the space sector, kind of think regulation is — “We don’t really want regulation; that’s going to hamper innovation”. And they don’t understand the importance of having international agreements, international principles. And particularly with where we’re going right now, there’s so many tensions around space congestion and space traffic management, around who’s going to have access to extracting lunar resources and asteroids, what happens with the commercialization of space as a whole and the militarization of space and the risks we have of the ways in which space technologies are so integrated into warfare and what that’s going to mean in the next several years. That’s why we need regulation and governance. It’s not about restricting innovation, it’s about dealing with our interactions.
As a practitioner in this space, as somebody who is actively working in this area, what does that mean in terms of how you even work with people on this topic, particularly depending on where they are geographically and what kind of mindset they’re bringing to the discussion?
Yeah. It is really different geographically. I mean if I have conversations with people in defense or in the civil space sector in Europe or in the US or Canada, I can jump into the middle of the conversation because I know that there’s a general background understanding about who’s where in the space sector. I also know that we can jump into the middle of a conversation based on geopolitical perspective.
So the US right now is very concerned about China. I mean it’s concerned about what Russia’s doing in the Ukraine, but in terms of its own positioning in the world, it’s really trying to paint a bit of a Cold War 2.0 between itself and China. And so everything that its concerns are gearing towards in space security in particular is that China is the biggest threat and that what we might see happening with Taiwan and with tensions rising and the potential for a conflict with China in the next five to 10 years, there’s a thorough understanding of how integral space and cyber are to what’s going on.
Whereas if I speak to people in Australia, I have to really back up. I have to start with: This is why space is important. Space is important to us because we are using it for telecommunications on our phones, for GPS, when we order Uber Eats or when you get on a plane, or international shipping. We use it for finance and banking every time you make a payment with your card, every time… My partner does trading on the international stock exchange, he needs position navigation and timing satellites.
We use it to track bushfires. We use it for search and rescue. We use it for education. We use it for remote communications. We use it for health systems. And I have to — the reason I can ramble that off is because that’s how I start every conversation in Australia. And I start it, if I’m doing executive education to government or if I’m in an informal conversation with people and government or if I’m doing formal education at the university or if I’m speaking to stakeholders in Defense. And even to be honest, some stakeholders in the commercial space sector in Australia, to really paint the picture of space is important because what it gives us on Earth and it’s going to become more important as a domain unto itself and we’re going to see more interesting and exciting and difficult things happen around the moon, but it’s an everyday thing.
It’s not just about launching stuff and it’s not about science fiction. I have to start that conversation from that point, various versions of that, before we can then get into, well, what should Defense be doing, for example? Or what are the kinds of capabilities Australia should be investing in? Not because we think space is a cool sector, but because we’re committed to climate resilience or because we’re committed to connecting our remote communities in Australia with communications or whatever the biggest issue is — space is a part of that.
I don’t need to start the conversation at that point when I’m doing work in North America or Europe, which means that you have more time to dive further into what’s really at issue. So I do a lot of stuff around space security and arms control, but also around space sustainability.
I guess the challenge is bigger in Australia, but it also means it’s quite exciting. It’s an exciting time to be an expert in space law and governance. And I have a collective of experts around me that we’re aiming to work together more in becoming a resource for Australia because there’s such a need for it. There’s such a gap that it’s exciting to be able to work in that space in space.
So Cassandra, I know that your work has contributed towards movements for equal access opportunities in space. Can you tell us a bit about what equal access opportunities look like in space and how your work actually helps to facilitate these?
So equal access opportunities, I mean, I use the buzzwords, diversity and inclusivity. It’s a similar thing, but what’s important is, and I guess this goes for any tech sector, we know that there’s huge problems of diversity in the tech sector. And we also know that there’s a massive global shortfall in skills –anything STEM related. What I do is STEM related even though I did so appallingly at math and science, I headed straight to humanities, but I find myself then focusing that skillset to a very tech focused sector and learning more and more about it every day.
But the shortfall globally in cyber skillsets or any kind of STEM skillsets, I think, there’s tens of millions of jobs that we’re predicting in the next 10 years that we just don’t have people who are skilled enough for yet and I’m a little wary of this “We therefore need to get girls interested in STEM or Indigenous kids interested in STEM or more culturally diverse people interested in STEM”. They’re interested in STEM or they’re interested in those tech-oriented careers. They’re just not made to feel welcome and their voices are not made to feel equal. And that’s the piece that we need to shift.
So it’s great that there’s a focus around International Women’s Day or there was an international women in STEM theme as well — it’s really great to give that focus too, but it’s not because of lack of interest. And that kind of puts the blame back again on those who are not finding jobs in the sector rather than looking at how we need to fix the sector. Because there’s research that demonstrates that workplaces which are more diverse and inclusive, meaning you don’t just have a few token women or black people in the room, but their voices are actually heard as equal and that there are practices in place to make sure that’s the case, and there is training in place for people who have a bit of a blind spot as to why their communication methods might be actually shutting down ideas or shutting down different perspectives.
Once you put that inclusivity into place, there’s research that demonstrates those workplaces become more innovative because you have different perspectives and different solutions, and even different ways of understanding what the problem is, and funnily enough, people enjoy working in those environments so they stick around longer. So it’s really good for employee retention as well, ironically enough.
So that’s the stuff that we need to focus on. And there’s starting to be a focus on why we need this in space. I mean, if you went to the Space Summit, Space Awards last year in Sydney, you would’ve seen 95% of the people who got up to receive these very quite prestigious national awards for the space sector were white men and not young men either. And they have one award that’s the female space leader of the year. That’s a nice award to give, but if you have to have that award that’s only for a female space leader, then it’s demonstrating that the problem is also not really being understood properly.
This year for that particular event — the Space Connect summit and awards — they have done a really explicit effort to make sure that there’s diversity of speakers and that they’re starting to represent a little bit more of what’s out there. Research shows that globally women make up about 20 to 22% of the space sector. It’s hard to figure out at what level — are they all junior people? Are they all people or even mid-level? There’s not that many at CEO level in when it comes to the commercial side and there’s certainly not many women in leadership positions in government, but that 20 to 22% figure has been there for 30 years.
So even if there are more women going into the space sector, there seems to be the same number of women leaving it. Otherwise that number would be growing. And why are they leaving it? We need some kind of longitudinal study, which is another reason why we need to bring more humanities into this, but we need to understand why they’re leaving it. My guess is they’re leaving it because the sector is not flexible enough for family needs or for people wanting to work just flexible hours, which is dads as well as moms.
They’re probably not very inclusive environments where women — and particularly if you bring intersectionality into that — women who are also women of color or culturally diverse or indigenous who get double or triple discrimination working against them, they’re probably not feeling like it’s really a place where they can flourish. And so they’re leaving.
That’s an assumption that I have. There’s no research to back that up, but that’s why I think we need more of a focus on it.
So through ANU Institute for Space and through another initiative that I lead called the Australian Center for Space Governance, we’ve partnered with the ANU Global Institute for Women’s Leadership–that’s Julia Gillard’s institute. And so we’re going to be hosting the country’s first diversity and space conference in April of this year, 2023.
We’re also going to be hosting a National Women in Space Network. We want it to be open to students, to mid-level career, to senior career people, and not just women. It’s anyone who identifies as a woman and it’s anyone who sees the need for diversity in the space sector because unless we’re making that explicit, it’s not going to fix itself.
It sounds like you’re putting quite a lot of effort towards making some change in this space. So how did you get involved in this? What drew you to it?
So I have to give a lot of credit also to Elise Stephenson who’s deputy director at GIWL because her whole research agenda is women in space and diversity in space. So she was given the funding and the time to make it the priority. It’s something that I’ve always talked about on the edge of what I do. I also have a big interest in the Women, Peace and Security agenda. So that’s something that came out of the UN over 20 years ago now, which is an agenda looking at how to improve participation of women in the armed forces and in civil police forces to deal with conflict and post-conflict situations, because those women in uniform can access local communities better. They can deal with women’s needs in conflict and post-conflict situations. It also deals with protecting women and girls against gender-based violence because rape and gender-based violence is a highly effective deliberate weapon of war. It’s something done deliberately to girls and women because they’re girls and women. It’s a really effective way of shutting them down and keeping them out of being an effective part of society and therefore being able to have greater military advantage, quite literally.
So the Women, Peace and Security agenda, which also demonstrates that when you have more women in decision-making positions and in politics, that that leads to greatest stability post-conflict, it leads to longer lasting peace, when there are peace agreements, There’s evidence that backs all of that up. I’ve worked on that a little bit on the periphery of what I do. I became, I guess, interested in how that applies to space when I was executive director of an organization called Women in International Security in Canada where I was learning so much about that Women, Peace and Security agenda and people who are real experts at the forefront of that. I started to see that all of this is exactly applicable to space because space and space security is just about space technologies used in warfare.
Space security is only important because of what space means for terrestrial, for security, for space technologies, for warfare, whether legitimate or not. That that’s why space security is important. And therefore the Women, Peace and Security agenda has a natural application. We need more women working on the technical side of these space capabilities, including in Defense, but we also need to have a gendered lens on how those technologies are applied.
For instance, if you’re targeting a satellite or a satellite system deliberately to take out communications of your adversary, that’s going to impact citizens as well. And it usually impacts girls and women more or in different ways, if that’s their only way of communicating safely or if it’s their way of participating in a local economy, they need digital payment options or if it’s their only way of accessing education because they’re being denied education, those are are gendered knock-on effects that have to be taken into account.
So the Women, Peace and Security agenda applied to space, I guess is what set me off on that course. And then connecting with Elise and her work, I guess in partnership because she has enormous expertise in diversity and inclusivity and national security in particular. So we’ve really kind of been able to converge on the work that we’re doing.
One of the things you were talking about earlier about diversity and inclusivity and why women of color particularly don’t generally stay in different industries. And from my own personal experience, I don’t know how to articulate this other than it’s very hard to work somewhere where nobody else looks like you.
That’s really interesting. And really, really important. My background is in nuclear physics. I have been in many situations where thinking about how do you work in a space where you are an other, and what are the consequences of not making those spaces friendly? They can be fairly significant.
I think it’s thoroughly significant not only for the people seeking careers in those areas who are then denied those careers, but the impact of them being denied those careers is that you lose talent. You lose those different perspectives. If everyone in the room looks the same, they also tend to think pretty much the same. That’s not going to solve the problems that we need to solve in the 21st century.
We need diversity in order to have different attacks at and perspectives on what the problems are and to come up with different solutions. So if everyone looks the same in the room and if you’re not made to feel welcome because you are the other, it’s not only a terrible thing for you, but it’s a terrible thing for that sector. It’s a terrible thing for society. It’s a terrible thing for the problems that we’re trying to solve. And Zena, I mean, I’d love to hear your perspective on that because I know you feel very much other, not just as a woman, but also racialized sometimes.
Yeah. It is hard as well because my background is Middle Eastern and I have a very Middle Eastern name, and so that usually invites quite a lot of questions. I usually don’t mind because I think a lot of the times people are just curious and that’s not a major issue for me. But I think sometimes people forget that there are boundaries around questions that are and aren’t appropriate to ask. So having a Middle Eastern background, I often get asked what my religious beliefs are quite frequently, and I personally just don’t ask that question to anyone, not because I think it’s an inappropriate question, just because I don’t think it matters. I think religious beliefs are a very personal and spiritual thing, and everybody chooses to live their life in their own way. I’m someone who’s supportive of that secular kind of society. So I don’t even think it should be a conversation.
I’m fine if people are curious and they have certain questions. That’s not a problem for me at all. But sometimes I think there are different undertones. Sometimes it’s some of the questions that get asked.
There’s also an extra burden that comes with that. If you get asked questions that other people are not getting asked simply because they look different, they come from a different place. There is a burden that comes with that. And also some pressure in terms of like, “Am I being asked to represent something? Or am I just being asked because I’m me?”
Absolutely. I think why women experience that when they’re being asked to be the token woman in the room or to give the — “Why don’t you give the gendered perspective or why don’t you take on this particular piece of work because it’s women’s work” — which not only undermines it, but it fails to understand the importance of mainstreaming. But if you’re having to do that also as the Middle Eastern person or also as the visibly LBGTQ or as the visibly Indigenous representative of that whole culture, that whole group of people, it continues the sense of other. It’s the opposite of inclusivity. And yeah, exactly. There’s a huge burden.
I had to learn that a bit in my teaching. So I always thought that my teaching was inclusive until when I was teaching in the Dutch classroom, very much predominantly white Dutch kids. But there’s also very large communities of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants and there have been since the 1950s and ’60s. And so there’s a lot of second generation kids who completely outdo the white Dutch kids in their schooling because they’ve had to prove themselves over and over again. But I started to ask questions in the wake of the September 11 attacks, for instance, and the responses in criminal law, which were to say, anyone who’s suspected of maybe having ever thought about or talked about someone who might be a terrorist, maybe possibly like the stretch started to be so big you could be arrested without due cause, basically.
All these white Dutch kids were saying, “Well, I’ve got nothing to hide, and that’s a good thing.” And terrorism is really bad because they were getting that message from the media. And I started to ask the veil-wearing Muslim girl in the classroom what her perspective was, thinking I was opening up the discussion and not realizing I was completely racializing her and making it even more difficult to pull apart the issues with the discussion that was going on. So I think my own journey as an educator has helped me to really see why diversity and inclusivity is a key piece is so important.
I wanted to ask you about the Australian Centre for Space Governance, which I understand you’ve recently established. So this is an initiative that advocates for Australia’s interests in space in the 21st century and advances the agenda for responsible space governance. So can you tell us a bit about how the Centre came about and what’s encouraged the need for an initiative like this?
Yeah. So we’ve were talking a bit before about the opportunity that there is to be working in that area in Australia when there’s actually a massive gap in knowledge. And there’s a handful — It’s not an enormous amount of people in Australia working on those kinds of issues, but the people who are working on it are real experts, and we all get to know each other and it became very clear to me that one of the problems was we were being forced to compete against each other for these tiny little research grants to write a paper — not very impactful and competing against each other and also not really answering the biggest issues around why is Australia doing space? Why do we want to be in the space sector? What are we going to be focusing on capabilities? Who are we as a space nation? What does that mean to you politically? What kind of regulation do we need to have in place? Are we committed to sustainability? What are we going to do about the UN agenda around arms control, space arms control, which is now called the responsible behaviors agenda?
There’s so much happening in recent years, and so I just was speaking to all of the people who I know and who I wanted to collaborate with more. I want all the cool people who have these expertise. There are some amazing people who are not part of that core group, and that’s simply because the core group, the steering committee, are full-time academics, who — what we need is to have funding come in to support their expertise so that they can then demonstrate this is what I’m doing as part of my job. Because most of us do it on the side for free, to be quite honest. We give our knowledge away for free and we’re squeezing it in on the top of full-time workloads.
So that’s why the steering committee looks the way it does. There are experts from seven different universities across Australia. We have experts in space law, whether that’s international space law or commercial space law, space security, space governance, space history, space policy, space archeology, social sciences and political sciences applied to space and space property.
And so there’s a range of stuff in there, right? It’s not just regulatory stuff. It really is governance writ large.
And so we really — our mission is to fill that gap in Australia to serve Australia’s space governance needs. So whether that’s the government or industry or other stakeholders like the Indigenous stakeholders for instance who —
So there needs to be much greater engagement and their voices need to be coming first in terms of how do you govern those projects? What does that mean on the ground for environmental or cultural heritage impact, but also what are the governing values and principles you’re going to put in place? So that’s one particular stakeholder group we’re very interested in seeking out more engagement with. We did have one Indigenous member who had to step down because, for her, typically, what happens is the Indigenous person in the room is being asked to represent on 10 different boards or groups or governing bodies, and she was just overburdened.
So we don’t have Indigenous representation within that steering committee. We’re hoping to change that. But it’s also about creating pipelines. So we say that there are three lines of effort. One is to serve that need to government, industry and stakeholders. The second is to do collaborative research amongst ourselves. And the third is education and training.
One of the things that we do, for instance, through the National Security College at ANU is we’ve provided a space security training for senior executive level decision makers in governments — so very, very senior level across 20 different government departments. We’re about to do another one for public servants in the middle and lower ranks. So that kind of training, some training for some law firms who’ve started to see that actually this is a whole sector they need to be able to serve with their legal expertise.
And hopefully we can demonstrate pipelines, career trajectories for students who are law or social science, political science, archeology, policy, history students to see actually space is also a sector that where the expertise is needed.
We don’t have a linguist, but I think that’s another piece that we do need. I wrote a piece recently that’s critiquing how the space sector… So the Outer Space Treaty says that space is the province of all mankind. It was written in 1967. You could hear that in the language. It’s not only gendered, but it’s also this… “What does it mean to be the province?” And actually it’s not: It’s the province of a few wealthy western nations. And that’s going to get even more pressured in years to come. And it’s very much the province of mankind and not humankind. So what do we do about that? I started to look at how that tone of phrase is officially translated into different translations of that treaty in different languages. All of them are gender neutral. It’s not a single other gendered one except English — that I came across.
All of them use a different turn of phrase that say something like the responsibility of humankind or an interest of all humankind — that really different… Or touches all humankind. It touches all humanity. Very, very different terms of phrase. So we actually need cultural and linguistic experts to be looking at this stuff as well, because that will change how we govern space. So that’s the backstory of how we came to be. We have a few projects ongoing at the moment, and it’s just starting to grow, but it’s really a collection of really amazing people in Australia who can really be impacting where Australia goes with space.
You mentioned the challenges of being an academic and being involved in these different kinds of initiatives. I know that you’ve recently made the transition from an academic role to a professional role. Can you chat a little bit about what your motivations were for making that transition and what the, I guess challenges and opportunities are on both sides of that spectrum?
The motivation was twofold. One was to be deputy director at the ANU Institute for Space under Professor Anna Moore who’s the director was just… She and I had discussed that potential for a couple of years and so when the opportunity really came about, I was super excited, because she is a nationally recognized and respected leader in the space sector. And it’s because everything she does is about how do we get there together? How do we do this as a nation? How do we do this as a sector? How do we do this as a community? How can we get as many people to benefit as possible? That’s just her whole way of being. It’s not about her or her name or her ego or even about the ANU or even about her institute. So her leadership is very inspiring.
She’s also all about people and she’s really, really humble. And so that’s just an exciting person to work under and team to work with. And also the ANU Institute for Space works across the entire university. So we have researchers including Zena who make up the body that we call mission specialists. We have them from every single one of our different colleges or faculties, essentially. We have an economist. We have Zena in doing aerospace with her expertise. We have people building quantum sensors. We have people looking at advanced communications. We have people doing space biology and growing plants in space. And then learning from that how we can use bi-products in the agricultural sector in Australia and become drought resistant. We have people doing space medicine and how that could apply to remote medicine in remote Australia.
It’s just the full gamut. I learned so much about the different technologies. And in order to be a useful space lawyer or a space governance expert, I really need to understand those technologies in a more than shallow way. There’s no way I’ll ever become a technical expert, but I learned every day from those technical experts.
So that was the positive motivation. I guess the negative motivation was I had an actual burnout at the end of 2021 that was very much related to multiple knock-on effects of the pandemic for many members of my family. One of — my stepdad was terminal. I don’t want to go into a huge long story about it, but so many people were affected in so many different ways in the pandemic. I think it took me actually going through a complete and utter burnout and being incapable of working for a couple of months for me to really recognize the load that I was carrying and the expectations that we all had to keep working and keep doing it.
I was trying to support my students as well and working right through the night in order to fulfill my work obligations and also during lockdown, take care of all these other people. It really forced me to consider my priorities. So my whole life – my whole adult life, I guess, I made very explicit that career was my passion. And when I met my partner when we were in our mid-30s, I said, “You’ve got to know about me that career is number one.”
“You just have to know that fact about me if you want to have a relationship with me.” And it was like, “That’s great and awesome.” But then we had a child and then we were in pandemic and then all these other things were happening. It wasn’t working and he kept telling me it wasn’t working. And I was the sole income earner as well. So I said, “But this is my career and I have to do it.” And the burnout actually showed me that that priority was completely flipped and a little bit bizarre.
It’s fine to be passionate about your work and your career, and leaders do fill up their lives with their work, but if you’re doing that (at the) expense of your wellbeing and your family and not able to care for those people who need you, then it’s a little bit of an insane balance.
So it just led me to reconsider where I wanted to go next and whether academic titles and ranks were that important to me. I’m in a leadership position, but it’s a very different kind of set of responsibilities that I have and I’m also working part-time. So that has been a big shift for me. So there are positive and negatives in that. And I guess that answers a little bit what you’re saying about the positive and negative opportunities.
I just think it’s incredible, as I mentioned, being able to work across and with experts from so many different disciplines. We often talk about multidisciplinarity, and I think students today coming into universities don’t want our 20th century degrees or actually 19th century degrees that we offer them that are very discipline focused and preparing them for jobs that probably aren’t going to exist in the next five to 10 years, let alone the next 20.
They want multidisciplinary education and training and they want to be able to pick modules from different areas and do some aerospace and some… “How do I build a satellite?” if they’re interested in space. And then, “What is the space law and governance?” Or if they’re interested in climate, they want to understand, “How do you measure that? How do you track that? What do you do about that from a governance perspective? What does that mean for agriculture?” They want to piece all of these things together and the university sector’s not super well-equipped for that. But the job that I’m in is all about that. So that’s the opportunity. And we can start to shift the thinking a little bit through the university sector of how to deal with that.
I guess that one of the other challenges for me is that we always talk about being so interdisciplinary at the ANU Institute for Space and we’ve always talked about humanities and law and governance being part of that expertise, but actually I’ve been the only person doing that up until recently. So we’ve been growing that expertise base, I guess, and we’re reaching out across different colleges and research schools to say, “Hey, actually what you do, for instance, around democracy or around issues in the pacific with climate, with climate change. Or how do you provide communications when a volcano near Tonga explodes? Actually space is a part of that.”
So we’ve been reaching out. We’ve been expanding the humanities base across InSpace through that kind of thing. We have an economist who’s a mission specialist. So one of the challenges has been to be the only person ostensibly representing all of humanities and that the science — Because if I put all of you science people into one group, they kept putting humanities into one group. But often the comment would be, “Oh, we need a bit of ethics and policy and law on that. That’s Cassandra.” And I’d be like, “Well, no. I’m not an ethicist. And actually I do a bit of policy, but I’m not a policy expert. I do governance and law and that’s quite different. That’s not even regulation necessarily.” So it’s about bringing nuance to an understanding of what all of those different expertise are and why we need the full gamut.
Are there things that you might want to share in terms of your experience working in this kind of space about how to do these kinds of things well, to how to do this kind of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary work well in a way that is respectful across disciplines?
Yeah. I think it’s a great question and I think we’re still learning as well at ANU InSpace. So one thing I could say I learned in the past from when I was consulting in Canada, I actually was responsible for a team of about 12 people really from a range of disciplines. There were coders. There were space operators. There were space strategists. Really speaking quite different languages–And some of them were French speaking and some English speaking–so literally different languages, but also disciplinary languages that were so thoroughly different that we would misunderstand each other quite often.
So we ran a workshop at the beginning of our eight-month project to try and understand that about each other and figure out ways to decode each other’s language. But really what we did was we had to work towards a common lexicon, a common set of definitions and understandings for the purpose of this project so that we could understand what each other was trying to bring in. I really saw my role as a bit of a translator across that.
I think that’s actually the strength of people who are trained in humanities, although I just said the expertise within that are so very different. Humanities training in general is about understanding those issues with a bigger story and a bigger picture and being able to cut across issues rather than be focusing on one piece of technology, for instance, or one part of the problem.
So I do think just having humanities trained people in the room can help. And I think if you’re working on a specific project coming up with what is our common language around what we’re doing, because I might mean something when I say deterrence. That means a whole world to people who are deterrence scholars. That might mean something very different to you if you are working in robotics or AI for instance, or decision-making or these kind of terms that are shorthand in a lot of different disciplines.
So coming up with a shared lexicon is really important. And the other thing that I learned which I think is showing up also at ANU InSpace, is in fact that gender and cultural diversity helps all of that too, because at the risk of making a massive generalization, women tend to be better at translating across a set of ideas rather than — tend to, not always, but — rather than just following down one single track.
We tend to communicate in more webbed ways and more brainstorming ways rather than thinking we have to have the answer and have to defend that answer, which is a masculine form of argumentation and teaching, and therefore what often shows up when men have been trained that way, and when the room expects that to be the way.
Similarly, that cultural diversity makes a difference too, because bringing in those different perspectives will force the group to realize, “Oh, I’m just operating in my bubble or thinking in my bubble.” I guess those are the takeaways and I guess it comes back to why disciplinary diversity matters almost as much as gender and cultural and diversity in this greater sense.
I entirely agree. I work in an interdisciplinary space within the research that I do and also with my role at InSpace as well. It was a challenge in the beginning, but now I think it’s actually really diversified. The work that I do was not just understanding different language or different perspectives but trying to understand different ways of working.
So people tackle a problem a different way or suggest that you move forward or the next steps be something different to what I was originally accustomed to. And in the beginning I was always like, “Why? Why are we doing this?” And that was only because I had been trained — I’ve got an engineering background, so I was trained in a very particular way. And so working in an interdisciplinary space and trying different ways of work while in the beginning I did find it challenging. I’ve personally found over time that it’s kind of diversified my research and my outputs a lot more.
Amazing. Even the workflow, you’re right, what is the next step and how do we track what we’re doing and how do we feed that back to each other? All of that is, we’re really trained to think and learn, and move, and decide, and advance ideas according to our discipline, and that’s limiting.
The hardest thing for me was outputs. So I’m a very output-driven person. I like to see something at the end of a piece of work that I’ve done and working in an interdisciplinary space, a lot of the times sometimes there weren’t very clear outputs, and it was because the people I were working with were like, “Well, we still just want to sit in the exploration phase for a little bit longer.” And that was always so frustrating for me because I was like, “I need to see an output from the hours that I’ve put into this.” But over time, I think I’ve kind of been a little bit more comfortable sitting in that exploratory space a little bit more, and I think my work has been a lot more, I want to say, creative. I think I’ve had more creative outputs because of it.
That’s amazing. And hopefully other team members then have seen the value of actually, where are we going with this? There’s value to both too.
Well, that’s the whole point. There’s value to every perspective and every approach.
Just finding that balance.
We did want to ask if there was anything that we haven’t touched on that you wanted to share with our listeners?
I guess the only thing to add really is that I was saying before just how important space is to everything that we do and that we’re committed to in our daily lives. I guess, it’s just that this is not about me wanting to convert anyone into
a space studies or space career, but it really is about the way that we all understand cyber and cybersecurity and cyber interactions to have some importance, whether it’s our banking or our mobile phones or national security or the research that someone is doing in AI and robotics or whatever it is. We need to understand space in exactly the same way.
We’re dependent on space multiple times a day in many ways, just in our private lives, let alone in what we’re trying to do to solve society’s problems or political problems and regionally, or trying to solve any kind of tech solution. Either or probably both. Space is a part of that. And if you’re starting to look at space technologies, there’s probably all sorts of incredible trickle-down applications for these other areas that you’re interested in.
I mentioned this person doing space biology research and how that’s had impact for the agricultural sector in Australia. The interaction between what we have the potential to learn about in space and how we’re using space technologies and anything and everything that we’re committed to as human beings — I think it’s really growing that awareness.
And seeing ourselves as space citizens. Earth is floating in space. We’re dependent on our near-earth orbits. We’re about to go to the moon in the next five years. It’s like the moon is about to become part of our… really, part of our natural and technological environment. And I think that’s quite an exciting opportunity for us to cognitively grow ourselves as humans. What does that mean for who we are and what we’re impacting and how we operate?
And there’s risks and opportunities in that. I’m super excited to see how the people who are in their ’20s today, or even my daughter who’s four like 20 years from now, what all of that’s going to look like. I’m really excited to see where that goes.
Thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate it. It’s been a fascinating conversation and I wish we had lots more time to talk about these things, but maybe over coffee sometime. So thank you again, Cassandra. I really appreciate it.
My absolute pleasure. And thank you so much for the conversation, both of you.
Liz: Thank you for joining us today on the Algorithmic Futures Podcast. To learn more about the podcast and our guests, you can visit our website, algorithmicfutures.org.
Disclaimer: This episode is for your education and entertainment only. None of this is meant to be taken as advice specific to your situation.