UW News

January 21, 2016

Diplomacy and danger in orbit: Saadia Pekkanen moves Jackson School toward role in discussions of space

UW News

Saadia Pekannen, associate director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

Saadia Pekkanen, Job and Gertrud Tamaki Professor and associate director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.Dennis Wise

Saadia Pekkanen is associate director and the Job and Gertrud Tamaki Professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. The founding director of the school’s doctoral program, she also holds adjunct appointments in both political science and law. She has master’s degrees from Yale Law School and Columbia University and a doctorate from Harvard University, and joined the University of Washington in 2004.

Have you always been interested in space?

I have! Although I have to say, funnily enough, when I arrived at Harvard and said that’s what I am interested in doing, I remember some faculty said, “You know, seems like too much of a niche thing for one dissertation — what’s the big picture?” Though they didn’t really advise against it.

So did you put the interest aside for a while?

I did not. I did a chapter from my dissertation and then sort of went from there. And I’ve been following civil, commercial and military space affairs ever since.

And little did I imagine, coming here 10 years ago, that the Pacific Northwest was going to become the amazing regional space player that it is becoming. There are people here very committed not just to space travel but also to advancing the technology, and it’s unique to have them all concentrated in this area. It is becoming a sort of “space valley” — the Silicon Valley for space — and I feel utterly lucky!

You co-chair the U.S.-Japan Space Forum, which recently met in Washington, D.C. What is that group and its mission?

This is a standing group with stakeholders from the United States and Japan, which brings different angles to the space policy table in both countries. As you know, Japan is a security ally of the United States. In 2013 the two counties launched a government-to-government dialogue with the idea of figuring out how as the geopolitics of the region changed, they could cooperate better in terms of space technology, which would also of course affect their security.

But space has become very democratized, in the sense that it’s beyond governments. It’s not just a question of private companies — it’s also now down to the billionaires who are helping us change some of the technologies and trajectories. The other important change is that it’s not just Western countries — the United States and Europe — that are dominant.

It used to be just us and the Russians.

Exactly — but that world is gone. I’d say the world’s most important, rising and ambitious space players are now in Asia — China and Japan, of course, and also India. And all of them have civilian, commercial and military ambitions in space.

It’s not just about the space technology anymore, it’s about the geopolitical context in which these newer powers are developing them. The Forum reflects these realities.

You have written of the dangers of a “counterspace race.” What is that?

This is the race we are in, very different from your grandfather’s space race. Counterspace means that you have the ability to protect your friends and deter your rivals in operations out there. Because of the way space assets are linked to civilian, commercial and military life on the planet, that can also mean enabling or crippling systems down here. All this affects the balance of power among countries at a fundamental level.

The U.S. is the world’s most “dependent” space power in the sense that our civilian, commercial and military life rely on those assets more heavily than other countries — GPS, for example, and communications, navigation or weather satellites. And for the military, of course, reconnaissance is important, too, as well as aiding fighters carrying out operations on the ground. So this dependency is a vulnerability, the Achilles heel of the U.S., and everyone knows it.

If you look at the National Defense Authorization Act, it has become very strident about the fact that this counterspace threat is very serious, very deadly. So, institutionally the Pentagon is responding to this. And the U.S. is moving forward with like-minded allies to devise ways to safeguard freedom of space navigation, which is critical.

You write in Forbes magazine about topics including the dangers of human-caused debris in Earth orbit. It needs cleaning up, but that process also has a darker side. Would you explain?

The dark side is that the technologies that might be used to get rid of orbital debris — to, say, sort of drag it down, zap it and bump it out of orbit — are the same technologies that can knock out your functioning assets.

So of course for a dependent space power like the United States, that’s a huge concern. The U.S. is responding by elevating the institutional focus on debris threats within the Department of Defense.

I think they’ve been thinking about it for some time, but now it’s politically clear they have a mandate to go after this, to ensure that the heavens are safe and sustainable — those are the watchwords for the global community, too.

The threat is very real, you write.

I want to be very clear when I make this statement: I do see considerable threats in space. And these will have consequences for humanity’s ventures in outer space. This is where the counterspace race comes in, with fairly irresponsible behavior by the world’s leading space players.

For example, certain countries have used direct ascent missiles and have created orbital debris. Everybody cites the example of China’s anti-satellite mission test in 2007 (said to be the largest recorded creation of space debris in history) — but China is not the only one doing things.

Russia has demonstrated what we call co-orbital satellite operations, going around other satellites with the potential to take them down. India is also interested in going after military space. Japan pioneered the technology back in the late 1990s. And the United States has both offensive and defensive counterspace abilities.

What is — or could be — the UW’s Jackson School of International Studies’ role in such discussions?

One of the most exciting things happening here at the Jackson School is the International Policy Institute, which was formed through a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The idea is to bridge the gap between what academics know and what policymakers might want to know. It’s hard for academics to convert what they do into “policyspeak,” and one of the goals of the institute is to give our faculty the chance to communicate some of their ideas to the real world.

What comes first, as you begin this work?

Right now, for the first year we are focusing on space, cyberspace and also the Arctic — each a sort of new frontier in terms of U.S. foreign policy, but also the global community. We just had a conference where we connected with policymakers in the D.C. area, and we will return east to communicate the messages to more policymakers later in the year.

You have said we are at “a very pivotal crossroads” as far as space affairs are concerned. Would you say more?

I seriously believe that we can put Seattle and the Pacific Northwest on the map with respect to elevating peaceful solutions to issues in outer space, particularly with respect to getting rid of debris. And one of my missions is to make that possible.

So I am spending some time not just with the private sector stakeholders here in the community, but also working very closely with the Museum of Flight people, to expand the educational mission.

We have to raise public awareness about the issue, because I think that most people say of orbital debris, “What is that?”

We also have to realize that the technology and the policy go together. And what we are going to create here is a community of stakeholders who meet on a regular basis to discuss these issues and to figure out how we can connect to these larger global security issues.

Certainly, I feel the U.S. does need to protect its interests because it has the most to lose out there. But you cannot leave diplomacy out of the question, because in the end you have to bring every stakeholder to the table. We can’t do that with just one space power acting alone.

This gathering of stakeholders sounds a bit like the recent climate talks in Paris.

I’m glad you brought that up, because how long did that take? It took over 50 years to come to fruition and a lot begins with raising consciousness about a global problem.

So I feel we’re at the beginning. We are just starting the conversation, and the way to position what we are doing in Seattle and the Jackson School is to help advance that conversation for the future.


For more information, contact Pekkanen at 206-543-6148 or smp1@uw.edu. To learn more about the Jackson School and its work, contact Monique Thormann, director of communications, at 206-685-0578 or thormm@uw.edu.