Humans have always imagined life outside the earth and depicted it through movies like Star Wars, Gravity and Interstellar. But how much of them is likely true, and how is space an issue of national security?
We weren’t quite sure ourselves so our student fellow Connie E asked Victoria Samson, the Washington Office Director for Secure World Foundation. She has nearly twenty years of experience in military space and security issues, so she schooled us on the complexities and challenges of governing outer space use and advocating for the sustainable use of space.
Before joining SWF, Victoria served as a Senior Analyst for the Center for Defense Information (CDI), where she leveraged her expertise in missile defense, nuclear reductions, and space security issues to conduct in-depth analysis and media commentary. Prior to her time at CDI, she was the Senior Policy Associate at the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, a consortium of arms control groups in the Washington, D.C. area, where she worked with Congressional staffers, members of the media, embassy officials, citizens, and think-tanks on issues surrounding dealing with national missile defense and nuclear weapons reductions.
Fun fact: “I have a cat that’s 25-and-a-half years old and I love to belly dance.”
FPI: I’m not sure many people think of foreign policy when they think of space. How would you explain what you do to someone outside the space security arena?
I always say when I meet people that I work on space issues and they think it’s landscaping. Basically, space is the idea that we get a lot of benefits from satellites and ability to utilize space, and it’s important to make sure we continue to get those benefits in the long term. Space policy looks at laws, regulations, technologies, investments, various space assets and asks if those practices are sustainable in the long run.
What the Secure World Foundation does as an organization is we promote the sustainable, long-term use of outer space. Sustainability in my mind means you get the ability to get the benefits in space indefinitely so that you can access your information from space without interruption and countries can place satellites up on the orbit. Space is used for military, economic, communication and cultural reasons. People think of NASA and space exploration when they hear space. That’s definitely of interest to our work (at the Secure World Foundation), but we are more looking at it from a down to earth application of space.
FPI: How much of your work is concerned with the weaponization of space and the potential of an outer space arms race?
I used to work on traditional arms control issues like nuclear weapons and missile defense. The problem we get when we use arms control vocabulary to discuss space is that it doesn’t necessarily apply. For example, for nuclear weapons, their physical possession can be banned but with space, a satellite could be used to spy on you or to get weather information or for other agricultural reasons. So it’s dually used. It won’t do much benefit to ban people from having this technology because the technology in itself isn’t bad, it’s what the intent is. For example, if you’re going to do a close approach to a satellite, you could be getting close to a satellite because it needs to be repaired, fueled, or you wanted to blind it or knock it out of the orbit. All of those capabilities are there, it’s the intent that matters. For me, my interest revolves around how we create a stable and predictable space environment. That expands the conversation beyond an arms control perspective of “are there weapons in space?”
FPI: Where do you draw that line between the prevention of malicious use of outer space and the non-interference in other country’s non-military use of the space?
I would be out of a job if I knew. It’s a difficult question. Right now, there are five major outer space treaties, the biggest one being the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The only thing it prevents is putting weapons of mass destruction up on orbit or the moon. Anything short of that legally is allowed. It didn’t codify norms and behaviors for a country to be considered as a responsible space actor. There are a lot of international discussions on space and security issues, but they tend to shy away from treaties just because it’s difficult to define what a space weapon is. So we tend to have more discussions with UN resolutions instead of treaties.
FPI: When it comes to weapons and security, people tend to think of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. Space security seems to be an overlooked area on the international agenda and news media. Is that the case and if so, could you tell us why?
I absolutely agree that is the case. It’s one of my pet issues to get space included into a general security discussion because if you talk to the military, they say space is the force multiplier and they cannot function without the ability to utilize space. So it should be part of an overall discussion when you talk about national security issues. Currently, people still focus more on space exploration or just pure science instead of space’s national security implications. Having said that, space is rocket science and is hard to translate into language that the average policy maker can understand and agree with.
I think there will be more discussions in the future since more countries are starting to use space for national security reasons. A lot of countries look at what China is doing with its space program and consider that as a threat. To be fair, China has not been totally transparent about what their intentions are. So oftentimes you don’t know what’s happening, you assume the worst. I look at it as an opportunity because if China is investing a lot of its own resources into its space capabilities, it gives us more of an incentive not to mess up the space domain.
FPI: What are the challenges facing the governance of outer space weapons both for the US and the international community?
Space is tough because there is not really any one place to discuss it. The U.N. decided to split space into civil space and security space years ago, but this distinction is blurred now. Officially, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is mandated to discuss civil space issues. It’s located in Vienna, Austria. Then you have the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva where security space issues are discussed. But the Conference on Disarmament is a consensus-based organization which means they have to have total agreement to move forward on issues and to set an agenda. They have not been able to set an agenda for a long time. It’s difficult to move these discussions outside the U.N. because for a lot of the smaller countries, they have limited expertise and funding to send people to somewhere outside the U.N.
Having said that, my organization (Secure World Foundation) is a permanent observer at COPUOS so NGOs are allowed to do that, we also have given statements at the General Assembly for space security issues, so there are some openings for civil society and think tanks. But where we really play a role is conveying policy makers and researchers through conferences internationally.
FPI: Some think that outer space weapons might one day replace conventional and nuclear weapons due to its precision and destructiveness. Do you foresee that coming? Are those weapons created more for deterrence than practicality?
It doesn’t make sense to use space weapons as a military device or position weapons up on an orbit for attacking the around because having one specific spot on earth targeted would require thousands of satellites. The U.S. and Soviet Union actually did test some satellite weapons during the Cold War. There were a couple dozen of those tests whereas there were around a thousand nuclear tests.
However, there has been a change over the past few years, the U.S. military is recognizing that due to progress other countries have made in their space capabilities, we can no longer assume our satellites will be able to work without any interference whatsoever. So there are some thoughts about moving to a more aggressive posture that might lead to conflict in space extending into conflict on earth. But I don’t think anyone really expects Star Wars where we just have a shooting battle up on orbit and nothing happens on the ground. If there is any kind of conflict regarding space, it would be something that was part of a spectrum of conflict that’s happening elsewhere.
FPI: What brought you into this field? Have you ever felt being a woman was a hindrance in your career?
I did not plan out my career path whatsoever at all. I was always interested in international relations because I loved doing Model United Nations in high school and studied international affairs in both undergraduate and graduate school. I thought I was going to work for the State Department, but I couldn’t pass the foreign services exam. World Bank also didn’t happen because it was undergoing a hiring decrease for Americans at that time. So I ended up working for a defense contractor and I’m fairly certain they hired me because two people there have gone to the same school I’d gone to 15 years prior. It wasn’t a good fit for me so I switched to the arms control side a couple of years later, basically working against missile defense and nuclear weapons. That is where I got exposed to space issues.
My field is definitely male-dominated and it’s a subtle hindrance being a woman. For example, you go to an event where everyone gets their hand shaken and addressed by their last names, but you would get a hug and addressed by your first name. Young female professionals in their 20s also lack the access that males have to senior management because they might look like they’re hit on by the older colleagues. And even now, oftentimes organizations will take what men have to say more seriously than what I have to say. I spoke at a conference in November where I was one of the two female speakers. It’s not intentional, but it happens. More subtly, there were rarely women that ask questions during Q&A’s because they’re not getting called on. There’s also a lack of female writers for newspaper op-eds and that forms a problematic cycle in which less female experts are known and invited to panels.
FPI: Do you have any book or film recs for those looking to learn more about space policy?
Movies tend to gloss over some of the technical facts. For example, the movie Gravity that came out a few years ago that talked about space debris. That’s a huge plot point in the movie and so when I talk about space debris, I’d refer to the movie. It’s not totally correct, but at least it’s raising awareness for space issues and it gives people something to hold onto while you discuss it. Another movie that just came out, Hidden Figures, is great because it breaks the hero dominance stereotype of space. It really highlights how much team work goes into NASA’s operations.
FPI: Do you have any tips for emerging and fellow interruptors?
Definitely be confident in your viewpoint, document your capabilities and don’t be afraid to promote yourself. I know that some studies say women who promote themselves are seen as being pushier, but frankly if you don’t promote yourself, you’re not getting promoted so you might as well do it. Be pushy. The other important skill to have is being able to learn things on the job and to read up on an issue. I don’t have a science degree and I work with a lot of rocket scientists. Being able to make sense of very technical issues is something I do in my daily job.