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Building a Multidisciplinary Career in Space, Telecom, and Cyber Policy: A Conversation with Jaisha Wray

By Anna Linvill

Over the last decade, the world has witnessed an unprecedented increase in access to low-Earth orbit and beyond for a wider array of government and private sector actors. With this modern space renaissance underway, we’ve seen the promise of multi-sectoral commercial activities on orbit become reality. Things that were once in the realm of science fiction now are happening daily.

To realize the promise of this new space age, building international regulatory regimes and norms that can keep up with technological developments is essential – and no easy task. Space focused diplomats, policymakers, scientists, technologists, and experts across a wide array of fields work to facilitate the peaceful exploration and development of space for a growing number of private companies and governments, while helping to set global norms that protect those assets from accidents, and intentional kinetic or cyber sabotage that could impact people back on Earth. Diplomats and civil servants with technical competence and the communication skills needed to negotiate norms are extremely valuable in this complex, high stakes environment: a “must have” rather than a “nice to have” as this new era of space development unfolds.

On April 5, 2023, Jaisha Wray, Associate Administrator for International Affairs at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce, joined the Duke University Rethinking Diplomacy Program’s Space Diplomacy Lab for a wide-ranging conversation centered on the fascinating multi-disciplinary work that she has been doing for the past 15 years, and her diplomatic approach to addressing complex, interconnected issues.

Ms. Wray is passionate about space and recounted with great enthusiasm her early experiences in space policy. She has carried that passion through her work in other areas from cyber to telecoms, in a career that has been marked by her willingness to take on new and difficult challenges.

Ms. Wray has worked on important policy issues across three administrations. “Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to work on very bipartisan issues, which has helped me and made my life a lot easier,” she explained. Working on rules and norms for space; the Cyber Deterrence Initiative–calling out malicious behavior in cyberspace in conjunction with partners; and developing the national strategy to secure 5G are non-partisan issues with enormous impact on people in the U.S. and around the world.

Notably, her soft skills and talent for bringing people together has been very impactful, not just across U.S. interagency collaboration but internationally. Ms. Wray explained that, in the U.S., experts and diplomats working on space policy issues often know one another, owing to frequent collaboration across agencies and departments. But she noticed while working at the U.S. Embassy in London, that in the British space policy community were much more siloed, so she organized a Space Happy Hour to bring them all together. This group still meets today. “It seems silly,” Wray laughed, “but it made a lasting impression!”

Now, Jaisha is leading efforts on interagency and international cooperation in her role at NTIA. NTIA is the President’s principal advisor on telecommunications and information policy—focused on issues like building Open Radio Access Networks (Open RAN) rather than continuing to use a proprietary approach, while improving the regulation and licensing of the internet spectrum–increasingly provided by satellite constellations.

This is an area that touches on issues that the Duke Space Diplomacy Lab is particularly interested: the proliferation of satellites and space debris in low-Earth orbit. Space debris poses a risk to satellite assets and people on Earth and in space, while the light pollution and electromagnetic signals from constellations of satellites surrounding the globe are making it increasingly difficult to study space from Earth based telescopes.

Ms. Wray agrees. “Space is becoming increasingly contested: congested and competitive,” The Federal Communications Commission is setting up the first ever Space Bureau to deal with license requests and consider the tradeoffs. Commerce is inheriting the space situational awareness capability from the Department of Defense for commercial and civil satellites. They will be responsible for providing notifications when a piece of debris is coming close to a satellite, and to ensure communication lines are open among all spacefaring entities and nations. “It is a challenge. But US leadership is key,” she emphasized.

Space Diplomacy Lab co-founder, Dr. Benjamin L. Schmitt, an astrophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania, asked Ms. Wray about what “sort of mitigation efforts” the government and regulators are taking through international fora to keep the spectrum open for scientific research “threatened by the unrestricted proliferation of mega constellations operating on a wider array of spectra.”  Ms. Wray explained that “there are a lot of efforts underway to think about these considerations… the Federal Communications Commission is setting up the first ever Space Bureau to deal with the mini license requests… On the debris issue, Commerce is inheriting the space situational awareness capability from the Department of Defense for commercial and civil satellites. That means we will be the lead now for providing notifications when it appears that a piece of debris is coming close to a satellite.”

The Director of the Rethinking Diplomacy Program, co-founder of the Space Diplomacy Lab and Duke faculty, Dr. Giovanni Zanalda, was curious to hear Ms. Wray’s take on private sector actors’ increasing presence in space activities and their requests.  According to Wray, “a lot of companies are struggling because space is so exciting. There’s a lot more competition than ever before for the spectrum, but also for buyers and customers…it’s becoming increasingly crowded on the competition side. And another thing we hear a lot from satellite companies are the ask for government assistance. And so my agency has been in the news a lot because in addition to the $1.5 billion that my team received, we received $48 billion for broadband funding. And that money there is meant to be connecting the unconnected…”

Despite the impressive course her career has taken, Wray was remarkably humble, sharing that at various points in her career, she was intimidated by the scope and seriousness of the work she is engaged in, but has learned that it never hurts to throw your name in the hat or take on a new challenge.

As she explained, “apply for jobs that may seem out of reach. It doesn’t hurt. Don’t be afraid to take on special projects or propose creative ideas. Build a network. I know that COVID made things a little tricky, but now we’re easing back into the real-world environment. Go to events like this…Don’t be afraid to ask people for recommendations. Set yourself up, set your sights high. Seek out leadership positions, do internships, and lay the groundwork for your success in the future. I could even be cheesy and say, aim for the stars. But it’s never too early to start thinking about your future and the qualifications that you might need for a future role.”

Ambassador Robert Pearson, a senior fellow with the Rethinking Diplomacy Program, and former head of the U.S. Foreign Service, couldn’t agree more, and congratulated her on an impressive and impactful career in public service. Pearson pointed to Wray as an exemplar of the new breed of civil servant our complex, rapidly changing high tech age demands.

This event, part of Duke’s Rethinking Diplomacy Program’s Space Diplomacy Lab Webinar Series. The Rethinking Diplomacy Program, hosted at the Sanford School of Public Policy, is supported by a grant from the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment Fund.