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SDL’s 2024 Space Media Roundtable Roundup: Optimism in Outer Space

Photos of Jatan Mehta and Kristin Fisher with moon background

by Anna Linvill

On February 29th 2024, the Space Diplomacy Lab (SDL) hosted the third Annual SDL Media Roundtable webinar with guest speakers Kristin Fisher, CNN Space and Defense Correspondent and Jatan Mehta, independent space exploration writer and blogger.

At CNN, Fisher covers everything from NASA, and the newly created space force, to commercial space companies and the advent of space tourism. Mehta is the author of Moon Monday, a Newsletter dedicated to covering lunar exploration developments from around the Globe. He also writes India Space Progress, a monthly report contextualizing the progress of India’s increasingly relevant space capabilities in the global arena.

In the 2024 SDL Space Media Roundtable the invited journalists shared their take on current and future trends in space policy, commercialization of space, the role of emerging space-faring nations, the Moon rush, and the formation of competing diplomatic alliances in the space domain such as the Artemis Accords.

When asked about their top concerns and issues that might impact activities in space in 2024-25, Fisher did not mince words. “The phrase ‘Russian nukes’ has been in the headlines so much, but I actually can say that’s not the thing that I’m most concerned about. I’d say the thing that is probably most concerning is what happened just about 24 to 36 hours ago, which is this close call between two old satellites, one Russian satellite and a NASA satellite. They came within twenty meters of one another. That is just so ridiculously close. There’s a company called Leo Labs, which tracks this sort of thing, and they say, [a collision] would have increased the debris in low Earth orbit or Leo by about 50%. That is so scary and could alter for decades our access into space into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), impacting what we can do up there, what our satellites can do up there. That close call just hours ago, it gives me the willies, and I think it should everybody too.”

Mehta, coming from a physics background with subsequent space industry experience, is an avid watcher of international space programs and the work of emerging space-faring nations. He is enthusiastic about the possibilities presented by positive collaborations between established space programs like NASA in the U.S. and the rapidly advancing capabilities of emerging space nations like India and Japan. “The Government of India recently announced the four astronauts of the Gaganyaan project, part of India’s own indigenous space human space flight program. They will be the first astronauts that India sends [to space] on its own capability, using its own indigenous technologies end to end…There’s a lot of interest from international partners, including NASA, to see how India evolves, and there’s a lot of potential there for collaboration as well.”

Mehta is also deeply interested in international and commercial efforts to sample the water ice at the south pole region of the moon. He explained that, with the Artemis Accords, there can be expected to be a general data sharing between member countries which could really help with efforts to establish a permanent human presence on the moon. “Our understanding of the potential of humans on the moon, which is part of the reason for the moon rush, is based on orbital data.”

Fisher and Mehta reacted to questions about their own overall positive or negative views of the future of space economy and collaboration among nations. “As somebody who has covered politics for many, many years one of the things I love the most about covering space is how optimistic it is. The public-private partnership model is incredibly exciting.” Fisher went on to explain that the competition, particularly with China, may have an upside. “I was talking to the CEO of Intuitive Machines, Steve Altemus, just before Odysseus’s launch, and he said he was really grateful for the competition. He thought it was a really good thing, because it was fueling legislators to fund programs like Artemis.” Concerns about Russian and the militarization of space, according to Fisher, is great motivation for allies to keep up with technological developments and cooperate in space.

Mehta, for his part, is also optimistic about the future of humanity in space. “These days we are seeing more collaboration than ever before…on South Korea KPLO, their first lunar orbiter, carrying U.S. instruments. NASA has played a significant role in various ways, with mission design help and launching on the Falcon 9 via the commercial model. And then you also have Japan carrying the U.A.E.’s Rashid Rover to the moon. The mission unfortunately failed, but nevertheless, it was a good sign of commercial collaboration. The UAE is a country that that does not have indigenous space capabilities, yet if they can build a rover, they can fly to the moon on these commercial or semi-commercial missions. So that’s exciting. And there’s, of course, India-U.S. collaborations, the biggest of which is at the moment is NASR, an Earth observation satellite, truly a joint mission. And it is very important, because we want to understand climate change better, and we want to be able to act faster. This is the sort of collaboration that’s super important.”

Several members of the audience voiced concerns over what will happen after the International Space Station (ISS) program ends in 2031. Mehta and Fisher explained that many commercial space stations are in the works, and nations like China already have their own space stations, while the U.S. Artemis Program includes the Gateway program, a space station designed to orbit the moon and act as a way station for human activities on the moon and beyond. Fisher and Mehta emphasized that because of the Artemis Accords, international cooperation is still alive and well and the best and most likely way for humanity to achieve its goals of exploration, scientific advancement, economic development in space, and problem solving here on Earth.

While he is optimistic, Mehta worries about the tendency of journalists to project Earth’s political tensions into space and particularly onto the moon’s south pole, where there is only a small area suitable for spacecraft to land, and a high likelihood that international moon landings and missions will occur at or nearly the same place and in quick succession.

“It’s important to keep in mind that not all decisions are taken with the geopolitical adversary in mind. Some of them are purely engineering. But this you would only understand if you have scientists and engineers talking to policy makers. The narrative can cause issues to scale up, and then convert into a lot of unfriendliness that could be impact everyone badly…As journalists, our job is to simplify and clarify the layers of what we scientists and engineers do, as well as the geopolitical elements and the policy elements.”

Fisher agreed and reiterated that it is important that there are scientists, engineers, and science communicators in the intelligence community and who work with policy makers to avoid unnecessary confusion and escalation of tensions. She later added, “I think our job is as space communicators and journalists is education. So much of the public does not speak this language at all but it is not just about the lingo. There is nuance there. It is very important.”

“Spaceflight has historical and cultural elements that need to be considered too.” Added Mehta, as the discussion turned to the how increasing human space activities are negatively impacting activities here on Earth – from ground based amateur and scientific astronomy to cultural and spiritual practices tied to observations of the heavens. Fisher agreed, “I think one of my favorite stories was from Saskatchewan, Canada at the Dark Sky preserve…. to see how the night sky is changing, and how that is affecting everyone, from the armchair astronomer to the very large observatories, to indigenous tribes who view the night sky, and the moon in particular, as a sacred space. This is really a global issue and nations need to come together to arrive at some consensus because what China does with Mega consolations, what SpaceX does, it impacts every one of us.”

Ambassador Bob Pearson, a Rethinking Diplomacy Program senior fellow, emphasized that the excitement around the burgeoning space industries also poses the risk of unrestrained competition and possibly conflict, that requires robust diplomatic agreements to curtail.

“The Outer Space Treaty took 10 years and the Deep Sea treaty took more than 10 years to resolve. As a student of Western Hemisphere history, I know what happens when you have unconstrained competition between powerful states. What happens in space happens on Earth. Why would we not have an international space summit?” Fisher nodded and added, “The big question is, with current tensions between major powers so high, how do you get all the pertinent players to the table?”

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