Via Satellite

Space Leaders Weigh in on Navigating the Geopolitical Landscape

We’re past the days of the Cold War, but concerns about the growing complexities of geopolitical relationships — and how those complexities could impact the space and satellite industry — are amplifying. And while the international satellite industry has largely embraced a spirit of cooperation, regulatory experts have raised new concerns over everything from space wars to data security — and even control of Mars and other planets.

But during Tuesday’s Closing Session at SATELLITE 2019— “Space Leaders Forum on Navigating the Fractured Political Landscape” — speakers spent most of their time emphasizing how industry has embraced a spirit of cooperation. They spent less time discussing how brewing political tensions could negatively impact the space industry.

Franco Ongaro, director of technology, engineering, and quality (D/TEC) and head of ESTEC, European Space Agency (ESA), said that agency has made great strides in furthering collaborative relationships with its international partners. He called for greater collaboration in developing international standards for space activities.

“A complimentary relationship is necessary,” said Ongaro. “We are beyond the initial Research and Development (R&D). We are an extension of that. A mature industry is an industry that gives itself some guidance. Like other industries, planes don’t fly where they want — they operate with standards.”

Jean-Yves le Gall, president, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), emphasized the importance of “intelligent” cooperation. “It is clear when we have cooperation, it brings a lot of benefit for both parties. The DNA of CNES is in cooperation.”

International Launch Services President Kirk Pysher expounded on that point. “Our DNA was developed to be an international business,” he said. “We spent 25 years working in the global marketplace, with our Proton launch vehicle and now we have had [plenty of] commercial launches. I don’t know if I see it as a change today from five years ago. There’s always a challenge someplace in the world, whether dealing with the client base or a customer. We need to help each other to support each other’s goals.”

Steven Lett, diplomat and chief executive, COSPAS-SARSAS, said his international humanitarian organization embodies these ideals. As proof, Lett showed off a palm-size satellite “distress” device that can dispatches alerts during emergencies, so COSPAS-SARSAT can find a person “anywhere in the world, like the middle of the Pacific Ocean” — regardless of where that person is from.

“If someone [needs assistance], we don’t say, ‘sorry you didn’t pay your dues,’” he said. “We are a small United Nations (UN)-like organization, we have a treaty instrument like the United National, and we have 43 member agencies. The DNA of cooperation is built into CNES is fed into COSPAS because France is one of our founding states. In the Reagan years, when all technical cooperation had been cut off between [the Soviet Union] and the United States, COSPAS-SARSAT remained.”

While speakers rhapsodized the space and satellite industry’s commitment to collaboration, they offered little in the way of a response when moderator Jonathan Ward raised concerns expressed by author, scholar, and space strategist Namrata Goswami over China’s alleged ambitions for space dominance. However, a few panelists touched on the importance of mitigating brewing tensions.

“You have this constant … tension between providing global service and enhancing global welfare while protecting your national interest,” said Lett.

Meanwhile, Majed Alonazi, senior executive for special projects at TAQNIA Holding, touched on the challenges that his nation, Saudi Arabia, faces an emerging space presence — specifically, that leading economies are walling themselves off. “We face so many difficulties of acquiring rights since advanced nations have obtained so many of them,” he told attendees.

Mike Short, Chief Scientific Adviser U.K. Department for International Trade suggested we the industry think more broadly about space’s role in geopolitical economies.

“To me the word landscape doesn’t convey what we’re talking about,” he said. “We’re talking about the global economy,” said Short. “To me, the fracturing is occurring because of distrust, concerns about control and companies having too much control. It’s not so much about the landscape — it’s about the economy. So how are we going to address those so consumers see the benefits?”

Lett, for his part, remains optimistic. “What’s interesting is, despite the political tensions, we’re seeing a cohesiveness that still hangs on,” he said. “All of these former Cold War adversaries do not have diplomatic relations but nonetheless come to our meetings and discuss how satellite and space equipment can save lives.” VS