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Duke’s Space Diplomacy Lab at One: Space Media Roundtable 

By Anna Linvill 

On February 2, 2023, The Duke University Rethinking Diplomacy Program’s Space Diplomacy Lab welcomed journalist and author Leonard David from “Inside Outer Space” and Joey Roulette, frequent space contributor at Reuters, to a media roundtable discussing 2023’s most pressing issues and emerging trends in space economics, governance, and diplomacy. The roundtable featured an in-depth discussion between space journalists and RDP’s Space Diplomacy Lab Co-Chairs Giovanni Zanalda and Dr. Ben Schmitt; RDP Fellow Amb W. Robert Pearson (ret); and Affiliate Fellows, Dr. Britt Lundgren and Dr. Lynsday Gray. The roundtable was followed by a Q&A with Duke students.  

Duke’s Rethinking Diplomacy Program (RDP) brings together diplomats, policy practitioners, faculty, and leading experts in various disciplines for academic collaboration, policy recommendations, and scholarship. RDP aims to promote and encourage anticipatory diplomacy–earnest, multilateral diplomatic discussion on global issues before they become crises.  

“I like that you call it a lab, because space is a lab for all kinds of things: ethics, politics, and diplomacy–especially around militarization of space and economic activities on the moon. There is a labyrinth of issues and the public is generally not aware of what’s going on. Actions in space light a fuse that leads back to Earth.”, said David, when asked about his top concerns in today’s space environment.  

Both David and Roulette agreed that the militarization and economic development of space by private companies and smaller spacefaring nations presents new challenges. Protecting Earth from the negative consequences of both civil and military activities in space needs to be a priority. 

“We need a code of misconduct for space. With the use of satellite technology in the Ukraine War, there has been an erosion of protections against war in space.” 

Conflict in space is happening. Russia tried to jam Space X’s Starlink satellite, and while the company’s engineers reacted quickly to block the attack, the growing role of civilian space companies in international conflict is blurring the lines between peaceful, commercial development of space and the militarization of Earth orbit.   

“When this war is over, we will not return to a pre-war status quo in space.” Roulette predicted.  

“We need to lower the rhetoric from all sides or we will see a continuation of warfare as we have seen in the past on land, at sea, in the air; only now, it will take place in in a new dimension: space. Everyone is watching everyone. Everyone is second guessing, goading each other, getting more paranoid. There is a need for diplomacy.” Leonard urged Duke’s Space Diplomacy Lab to keep working on policy ideas to tackle these difficult and important issues.  

Roulette believes that while competition in space is on the rise, there is still room for cooperation. In spite of their current status as rivals on the world stage, Russia and U.S. are working closely on the ISS. When the coolant line of the Soyos space capsule was damaged, Russia’s Rososmos agency and NASA worked together to launch another capsule to bring the astronauts home. The U.S. and Russia are in discussions to renew the Integrated Crew Agreement for joint flights between the two countries on the ISS, some via SpaceX.  

Duke students attending the webinar asked some of the most generative questions at the event, such as, how can emerging economies benefit from the space economy? While space-based conflict on Earth is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed diplomatically, there are also positive benefits for emerging spacefaring nations partnering with commercial space companies. Interestingly, private companies are making it possible for smaller, emerging spacefaring nations to participate in the space economy at a much lower cost. The space company, Axiom recently signed deal with Turkey to bring Turkish astronauts on missions, stimulating Turkey’s astronaut training and engineering education system. Supporting international industry and talent development is a business goal for U.S. based companies. Already, more countries are using cube satellites, using private companies for less expensive launches. “If you want to play in the 21st century, you have to have a space agency, and you have to have companies that will transport satellites for them.” Diplomacy is playing a big role here too. Countries that are not currently spacefaring countries have signed The Artemis Accords, which aims to build interoperable international space facilities so that multiple types of space craft can land at international facilities on the moon. Eventually, they hope to send a multinational mission to Mars. There are also companies working to designs for space-based recycling that would help clean up space junk when all those satellites go offline. 

Another student asked how we are using space for benefit of life on Earth and the environment. Leonard David, an environmentalist and 1960s peacenik smiled.  “We have been doing Earth monitoring for a long time, but the resolution of cameras and radar has been improving exponentially, allowing more accurate data.” 

We need policies and multilateral agreements with robust enforcement mechanisms. “Yes, we can more clearly and precisely see where the greatest methane and CO2 pollution is coming from, but that doesn’t mean we can stop it. What are we going to do? Yell at them?”  

The conversation took a dark turn with earnest talk of extra-terrestrial life. Dr. Lyndsay Gray, an RDP Affiliate Fellow, brought up the frightening potential of an alien invasion from outer space. There are organisms that can survive in extreme environments. They do exist in outer space. How to we ensure we are not harming life on Earth or foreign environments with micro-organisms that don’t belong there? We need rules around decontamination, prioritizing the safety of Earth while considering the health of outer space environments–future habitats, while keeping Earth safe too. NASA and DoD are already thinking about this with extreme biological research. Diplomats and policy makers need to be thinking about this too, perhaps making rules ensuring dangerous research of moon, asteroid, and Martian samples is conducted in space labs.  

As for intelligent life, ‘Are we alone?’, is the corniest line, says Leonard David, but we do need to plan ahead. We are currently using AI to go through signals from space. We are learning more about what is out there. We may be on the cusp of knowing that we are not the biggest, smartest thing in the Universe. Contact in immanent, so the question is not, ‘Are we alone?’ It is, ‘How crowded is it?’ 

So, what is going to happen in 2023 in space?  

Joey Roulette predicts 2023 is going to be an extremely exciting year as NASA gets closer to landing humans on the Moon. “I am willing to report from the moon, if I can get the trip paid for on my expense account.”  

Leonard David pointed back at Duke’s Rethinking Diplomacy scholars and said, “The Space Diplomacy Lab is going to be very important as politics and cultures collide. This is an exciting time to be thinking about space.” 

This webinar is part of the Space Diplomacy Webinar Series organized by the Rethinking Diplomacy Program with a grant from the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment Fund.