Multilateralism on the Final Frontier: Space Law and Policy in an Era of Expansion

This Feature appears in vol. 75, no. 1, "Insecurities: The 75th Anniversary Issue, 1947-2022" (Fall/Winter 2022).

An Interview with Gabriel Swiney

Gabriel Swiney is a Senior Policy Advisor in NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy (OTPS). He has also served as an Attorney Adviser at the U.S. Department of State and was one of the primary authors and negotiators of the Artemis Accords, a political commitment that expands upon the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty as part of the U.S. government’s mission to return humans to the moon by 2025. The Journal spoke with Gabriel to discuss the everyday workings of space policy, the development of the legal and multilateral frameworks governing humanity’s ongoing push into outer space, and the prospects for a more crowded yet more capable space-faring civilization in the medium- to long-term.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Outer space is one of these emerging domains where there seems to be a lot of movement: new technology, new actors, new processes. But to start, take us through how you got involved in this particular area. It is generally understood how astronauts are recruited and trained, yet on the policy or legal side, how does one break through?

Gabriel Swiney (GS): I come from an international law background. I went to law school, but I’ve always had a personal interest in space. I should say that it’s always been—many little kids go through the space phase sometime around when they do the dinosaur phase, and I guess I never totally got out of it. I went to Space Camp a few times as a kid. But as I grew up and went to college, majored in political science, and then went to law school, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do those kinds of things in my real career. In my professional life, I got really interested in international work when I was getting my JD. I ended up getting an additional law degree at Oxford, what they call a BCL, but it’s what every other school calls the LLM. When I was doing that, I really got to focus on international studies exclusively. And then after that, I got a job at the State Department in the office of the Legal Advisor, which for those who do international law is a very desirable place to be. It provides legal guidance to the State Department on everything: foreign affairs, international law, sort of everything they do. We call it “L.” The letter L. And that place is really unique, not only because the quality of who they get, but because we have a rotational system, and so every two to five years you rotate between portfolios.

During my time at L, I started out doing international claims and investment disputes, which is a traditional way to start. But I ended up volunteering to go to Baghdad for a year, was the deputy, and then the chief civilian lawyer, in Iraq for the U.S. government for a year there during the war. Then I came back and did about four years working on United Nations issues. So a lot of Washington but handling things, like I was the lawyer covering the UN. I was an author at the intervention in Libya in 2011, on a bunch of sanctions programs largely focused on African States and got a taste of the multilateral world doing that. Then, I transitioned to a new portfolio, to East Africa for a long time, where I helped negotiate an end to the civil war in South Sudan, successfully negotiate a peace agreement. But that peace of agreement fell apart. I did also help negotiate the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Sudan. A couple of years after that the Sudanese government fell.

I was involved in a bunch of that kind of stuff, and as all of those things were finishing up, they happened to be finishing up at a particular time. My colleague, who had the space portfolio, rotated, and so I thought, Well, this is a good transition time for me, and maybe I can call in all my favors, which I did. I called in every favor from every boss I’d ever had, reminded them of the fact that I’ve been going to war zones for a number of years, putting my life at risk, and said, well didn’t quite say, “You owe me,” but I implied that, and managed to convince them to let me have a space portfolio. That just so happened to coincide with the beginning of the Trump Administration, which, as you know, setting everything else, did have a major focus on space. And I was a civil servant, working for lots of administrations.

It was just really good timing from a space perspective. There was a lot of money and attention at a very high level, the senior-most levels of the government. So I did International Space Law for the State Department for about 4 years. I was really enjoying that. I discovered that it really let me bring together a lot of the things that I had learned throughout my career. It’s obviously highly multilateral, but I also had bilateral experience from some of my treaty negotiating in the past. So I got to do that in terms of space cooperation agreements with other countries, and I really found that I enjoyed also having to learn the science and engineering. Not so much. I’m not a technical person, but I had to learn a little bit, so that I could be conversant and then talk about it. And that was really gratifying and a fun way to use different parts of my brain.

Then, about a year ago, I had the chance to go in a detail to NASA. I’d been working, of course, very closely with NASA the whole time of the State Department. They asked me to go over on a detail in a newly-formed office at NASA called the Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy. So this is an office that advises NASA senior leadership on any issues they want to talk about in technology, policy, and strategy. I went on a detail which is where I am right now. I’m working as a senior policy adviser at NASA, working on lunar operations. But I also do a lot of work, of course, on things that are related, or at least tangentially related, to international legal work: norms of behavior, that kind of stuff, now from an operator’s perspective at NASA instead of just a foreign affairs perspective like it was at State.

So it’s a long answer. That’s how I got there. I got really lucky. It’s the place I want to be. The space community is where I want to be for the rest of my career. It’s incredibly dynamic, and the timing has been really good for me. There’s just a huge amount going on, so there’s a lot of policy and legal issues that need answers.

JIA: On the policy and legal side, the non-technical side, would you say that others had a similar experience to yourself, coming in parallel or laterally into the space community, as opposed to having a more defined trajectory that leads to this kind of work?

GS: A lot of scientists and engineers have their own path: they get PhDs or some degree and they go right into it. But the reality is that the space law and policy world is very, very small. The U.S. is the dominant actor, but even in the United States there really aren’t that many people that do space law and policy. Yet, there are a few schools that teach this kind of thing. But there’s just not a lot of jobs out there yet, although there are more all the time. So there’s not much of a pipeline, and not much turnover, which is something that hopefully is changing. It’s difficult for students who want to go into this. But I think at this point you mostly get people laddering in like I did, which is cool because you bring a different set of expertise. You bring a broader set of expertise, which I think the Space community can really benefit from, instead of just people who have been doing space all the time.

JIA: You brought a specific expertise based on your past experience. Yet when you assumed the space portfolio at “L,” what were some of the ways in which you had to catch up? What was some of the research or learning on the technical side, and how did you fill in those gaps?

GS: You start with a big picture and then zoom down. One of the things that international law deals with generally, oftentimes, is how to deal with shared resources or resources that don’t belong to one nation. Whether it’s the high seas or airspace or outer space, how do you deal with that? How does the international community deal with that? That’s a major issue in space right now. Everything from orbital congestion to the use of space resources raises questions like that. How the community deal with resources like that? They’re sort of located beyond national jurisdiction.

I came in with some general international law experience about that. But I realized very quickly that you can’t just treat space as one thing, you need to understand the different resources we’re talking about? So I had to teach myself about things like orbits: what are the differences between low earth orbit and geostationary orbit and geosynchronous orbit? And then what are the differences between different locations on the moon or different resources you might want to extract? To make policy about those things, you have to understand what’s important, what the goals might be in the future for different operators. So I’ve had to do a lot of technical learning. Sometimes it involves me watching YouTube videos. Sometimes it involves a lot of Wikipedia or reading academic articles. I have some technical books around that I consult. But yes, basic stuff like making sure I can talk about orbits in a generally intelligent way. It was something I had to teach myself.

JIA: When you arrived, was there much in the way of institutional knowledge or onsite resources? Or did you find it yourself?

GS: In the State Department, at L, there’s not a lot of back-up and overlap in portfolios. I had my predecessor, but he was moving on to another portfolio. I could ask him questions and of course I had his files, electronic and paper. But the reality is, and this is for every portfolio in the State Department: if you’re a lawyer, the second you take over that portfolio, it’s your responsibility. So you start getting a fire hose of questions from policymakers out there in the world, and diplomats. It’s a lot of learning on the job. There’s not a handbook on how to answer questions like this. Maybe we should do a better handover process. But it makes you learn really fast. The first six months are a vertical learning curve, pretty much.

JIA: You brought up maritime law and airspace, which is often a first analogy to jurisdiction in space. Clearly there are differences, but is this the right framework for thinking about space law: a modified kind of maritime law, or has it really started to take on its own characteristics as an emerging field?

GS: There definitely are analogies. And I think the most useful way to think about those analogies is when you’re brainstorming for solutions. If you’ve got a problem in space, and you want to figure out how to deal with it, just like lawyers in every field or policymakers, it’s useful to see how humans somewhere have dealt with similarly-situated problems. So that’s useful.

I do think there are parallels with either airspace or maritime law, or the high seas or the deep-sea bed, which is another analogy people use—and of course, Antarctica as well. But they can get you into trouble pretty quickly, because they do have different legal regimes. So while it’s useful in terms of analogical reasoning, as a legal ladder it’s not great. There’s the Outer Space Treaty, which is different from a lot of the Sea Convention, which is different from Antarctic Convention. In other words, they deal with different problems. One of the things I was involved in a few years ago was helping to draft an executive order on the use of space resources. And one of the lines that I had used previously in remarks and speeches I’ve given is that, to paraphrase, outer space is a legally and physically unique domain.

I think that’s how I think about it. it’s legally different, because there are some treaties, but it’s physically different, which means that even if you have the same words, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get the same answers, because you really do have to treat space like what it is, which is this very different kind of place. In the ocean, if you take a direction and keep going, you will eventually hit land, and you will eventually hit someone’s territory unless you hit Antarctica, I suppose. But in space, unless you point back down at Earth, you will never hit another country’s territory. So there are very different implications given the physical facts like that.

JIA: To what extent would you say there is an established legal regime around space currently being refined versus one that is actively being constructed?

GS: It’s both. The Outer Space Treaty entered into force in 1967.[i] So it is pretty old now, but I will say, for most of that time until maybe 15 years ago or so, humanity—I don’t want to short-change what they’ve accomplished, all the accomplishments of our predecessors, but they mostly did the same categories of activities. For a long time, you had telecommunications, government space programs like NASA and other government space programs, and a couple of space stations. Also, you had some people who would do remote sensing go up and look back down on the earth. And that was kind of it. That was the extent of human behavior in outer space, and the international system was designed to deal with those problems. It was designed to deal with that kind of a world, and that’s the world we lived in for a really long time, until the 21st century, and maybe even more recently than that.

Then, a bunch of new stuff started to happen. A lot of new companies, a lot of new players. You get more countries involved as well. So you have this massive proliferation of actors, but also new activities, things that no one had ever done before in outer space, either happening now or about to happen, probably in the very near future. That means you’re taking tools that are 50-plus years old and applying them to new situations, which is fine. Lawyers do that all the time. But then you start realizing that there are either gaps or lack of clarity, or places where you don’t have rules. There certainly are many topics that are unregulated at the international level. It’s an interesting mix of applying the law that you have and have to apply, and that’s binding law. But then figuring out how to how to adapt it and how to fill in the gaps. In some ways, it’s like constitutional law in that sense: you have overarching documents that provide you general principles, and then you’re trying to figure out what that means and which gaps need filling in, which gaps don’t, which gaps are good. For example, sometimes you don’t want clarity. So it’s a lot of creativity. It’s a lot of historic research, but more so thinking through what rules are you going to build?

The last thing I’ll say is that just like other fields of international law, maybe even more so, you are creating the rules as you go along, in the sense that you might be creating customary international law. You could intentionally go about expressing an idea and doing things like that, where you’re trying to actively shape the system with what you do and what you say.

JIA: Given all of those new players—new companies, new countries—how does that change things, either the mechanisms that happen or what you yourself are actually doing?

GS: It’s a double-edge sword. Because in terms of capabilities, it’s almost entirely good, right? The costs are coming down. There are greater technical capabilities with more actors. You have more potential partners. Not everyone has to specialize or do everything. You know that there can be this incredible proliferation of your ability to do things, so that’s really exciting it. It’s not perfect, but it does lift all boats to some extent, and we’ve seen lots of developing countries get their first satellites up, or have access to, even if they don’t have their own satellites, remote sensing data and things like that. They can improve life through agriculture or in other ways. So that’s great.

It does make it a lot harder to coordinate on the policy and legal side, the more actors you have. Let’s start with governments. The more countries you have, just as a matter of math, the more multilateral coordination is harder. COPUOUS, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, is the UN body that covers outer space and has 100 countries in it right now.[ii] So that’s a lot. Plus, it operates by consensus, so every time you get another country, it makes it that much harder to reach consensus, even if everyone you know is behaving in good faith. It just makes it harder, mathematically.

But the rise of companies is even trickier to deal with because, and this is a parallel that other fields are dealing with as well, particularly in technology, the international system was largely developed as a tool for governments, for nations, and that’s who shows up to the United Nations. That’s who negotiates internationally-binding rules. But you also have powerful and capable private actors that have their own interests, so figuring out how to take those interests into account, how to give them a seat at the table when appropriate, even how to figure out when that is appropriate or not, is something for which I think we’re still very much struggling through the mechanisms that we’ve had for a long time. Not only do they substantively deal with questions that we have somewhat moved beyond, but also their mechanisms are a little bit old-fashioned. And so you’re seeing people have to be creative in terms of what the mechanisms are to get new answers or create new norms. And this is one of the reasons why we’ve seen a something of a proliferation in recent years of those kinds of mechanisms, multistakeholder fora, and things like that. In some ways, it’s been the most dynamic and most useful mechanisms that we’ve seen in the past five or ten years.

JIA: Is there a schedule or guiding force between when those fora happen, or does it remain very ad hoc?

GS: It’s very ad hoc, other than the United Nations bodies. UN bodies, of course, have a regular meeting schedule, but the other ones really are driven by stakeholder interest and need. One example is this thing called the Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group,[iii] which is a very long title. It’s a multi-stakeholder forum that was put together with the support of a couple of European governments and a few of the European universities to talk about policy and legal issues related to space resources. It was brought together by those governments and universities because they saw the possibility of space resource activities happening in the near future. They saw a need, a lack of clarity on the legal and policy side, so they basically created a terms-of-reference out of nowhere, invited a bunch of industry, a bunch of governments, a bunch of academics. And we started a meeting. That legitimacy didn’t really come from anywhere. We weren’t mandated to meet by anyone other than ourselves. Eventually, they wrote and adopted, just through that group, a handbook of possible steps governments or others might take, a toolkit, really, for regulating space resource utilization. It could define the future of space resources for humanity for the next generation. It just depends on what you do with it.

It is very ad hoc. It’s on an issue-by-issue basis right now, other than the formal United Nations that we’ve had for decades and decades.

JIA: What are some of the current issues right now? What are people and institutions organizing these fora around?

GS: A big issue right now, and this, I think, will be the issue of 2023 and 2024 in particular, at least for me, is lunar surface operations. Operations on the moon’s surface. NASA, the United States, and our partners have the Artemis program to go back to the moon and do a bunch of things. But we are not at all the only country going back. China, India, Israel, and Russia all have—I’m sure missing some there—lunar operations either launched or in the planning stages. Pretty soon, there’s something like more than 20 missions going to the surface of the moon just between now and 2026, and a lot of those are going to very nearby locations, nearby to each other. The moon is a big place, but the places people want to go to tend to be pretty small, on the South Pole of the Moon, for example. That’s where it’s anticipated that the resources would be found, for example. Figuring out how to operate in proximity in a place beyond any territorial national jurisdiction is a problem humanity has not had to face for a long time—or at least in a new situation, figuring out how to behave in territory that we can’t claim, that can’t be claimed by any nation, figuring out what to do with the resources we do find, figuring out how to protect the interests of future generations, and how to balance competing interests between things like science and industry and historic preservation, which will come up.

All of these things are questions that you can find analogies to in human history. You can pick and choose different analogies and different experiences, but really a lot of them are things we either haven’t had to deal with for 700 years or more or have never had to deal with. I looked it up, and the last time humans settled or moved to a previously-uninhabited piece of land historians think was something like 700 years ago. So we haven’t done that in a long time, and we’re going to have to figure out how to do it all over again.

These operations are really going to start in earnest this year, at a robotic level at first, but with people coming in a few more years. That’s my mission. My mission is to figure out what to do with those missions. And so there’s a lot of effort, for example, among the various countries participating in the Artemis program to get our own ducks in a row, to, at the very least, figure out how to deconflict and coordinate our own operations, and then to go to the rest of the world and say, “How can we work together?” How can we deconflict our operations with those from other countries as well? That’s my main focus right now at NASA, and I think that’s going to be one of the main ones, at least for the legal and policy community.

JIA: Because it’s so new, what are the guiding principles, norms, or values that you draw on as you go into these situations or negotiations?

GS: You start at the general and try to work your way to the specific, hopefully ending up with actual rules or norms that you can use to guide particular missions. At the end of the day, you’re going to have actual hardware and people doing specific, actual things. Eventually you need to be able to tell a mission planner think about X or don’t do Y. That’s the kind of guidance that the actual mission planners or astronauts ultimately need.

To get there, you have a few steps at least. That’s the way it’s worked out. Start with the Outer Space Treaty, which of course is still binding and still applies. Start with that very general and then work your way, in little bit of a stepwise function, to figure out what that means for operations. The next big step we took was with the Artemis Accords,[iv] which is where we got a half a dozen or so of our close partners together and negotiated this agreement with a text that’s now been signed by more than 20 countries that takes the Outer Space Treaty and goes a step or two closer to operations and gets particular about tools, policy and legal tools you can use to implement the Outer Space Treaty. So we created the concept of safety zones that you would use to deconflict operations, and we came up with some ideas about historic preservation and some ideas about rescue and safety of astronauts, and so on and so forth. That reached a bit of the gap between the high-level Outer Space Treaty ideas and our operations. But that doesn’t get you all the way there. So now the rubber is going to hit the road, I think, in the sense of taking the Artemis Accords and discussing with particular operators that want to send a rover, a particular rover, to a location on the moon. We’ve committed to create safety zones under the Artemis Accords, and that’s designed to implement the principle of due regard and the Outer Space Treaty. But given that we have a particular piece of hardware going to a particular location, how big should the safety zone be? Then it becomes, ideally, a technical conversation: they’re weight is 100 kg, it has rockets that do this and that, and it’s going to travel at a certain speed so it’s going to kick up rocks and dust. To be safe, you need to be some distance away. 

So is this a really interesting progression from some big-time international law principles to implementation principles designed at a political level in conversations with engineers and scientists. And then ultimately, as I said, it becomes, in an ideal world, a very technical conversation, one about science and engineering. That’s what really, at the end of the day, implements the treaty obligations and implements political commitments: that mission design. It’s enjoyable to see that entire life cycle, from what should you do and how are you going do it to then actually doing it. We haven’t accomplished any of that yet, at least not the last part, which we’re still working on. The last part is the exacting one: What exactly do you do? But that’s where we are as a community at this moment.

JIA: In the process of discussions, to answer some of those technical questions, whose work do you draw on? Do you have your own technical advisors on staff?

GS: Since I’m at NASA, I have access in my address list on Outlook to the top collection of technical experts in the world. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important, I think, for NASA and the U.S. government to take such a leading role here. There’s always a danger of either being perceived as overreaching, as the United States, or being perceived as trying to dictate the answers to the rest of the world. For cutting edge questions, the reality is that NASA is the only agency that’s ever sent humans to the moon. We’re sending about half of the missions that are anticipated between now and 2026, US government-controlled or contracted missions. So we’re still the biggest player, and we have a lot of very deep, very knowledgeable, subject matter experts. We draw on them, and it’s internal as a first step. But also, I spend a lot of time talking with academics. I spend a lot of time talking with industry to make sure that you we have cutting-edge knowledge. And then, if we don’t have full knowledge, which is almost always the case, we also think about the things we still need to learn. And then it might be a question of working with scientists to have them actually design certain instruments or conduct experiments to figure out certain things that we can then use to answer certain policy questions.

One of the great things about NASA is that I can, in fact, just call up the world’s leading expert on lunar craters, or whatever it is I’m looking at, but we also make sure to speak with industry and academia. Particularly, industry is really developing knowledge at an incredible, incredible rate, and they also know their own systems better than anything. This isn’t like the Apollo program back in the day, where there were contractors there, too, but NASA engineers were the ones knowing exactly what every rocket engine is going to do. Not anymore. If you want to learn about the rocket engines, you have to talk to SpaceX or Astrobotic or whoever is building your spacecraft. So there’s heavy industry involvement, and it has to be in the policymaking as well right now, which is something that’s also very new.

JIA: What does it mean to have such a deep relationship with the private sector, especially one that is in flux?

GS: We’re still figuring it out. I will say that the space industry is in an interesting place right now, because you have a few of what people sometimes call “old space,” which are the legacy providers of launch equipment: Boeing, Raytheon, those large, usually defense companies. They’ve been around for a long time. Then you have a couple of quite big, but not as old, companies like SpaceX, which is the most obvious one out there, but also companies like Rocket Lab that are doing a lot and have a lot of expertise. But then, most other space companies still feel very much like startups, and a lot of the ones that NASA works with, a lot of our cutting-edge stuff are these much more startup kinds of companies with only a few dozen employees. When companies are like that, they typically are very technical heavy. They have a lot of engineers. They are product people. They don’t tend to have a lot of lawyers, and they don’t tend to have a lot of government relations and policy folks. So figuring out how to work with companies like that, that are all about the tech and know all about the engineering but haven’t really thought through the implications of what they’re doing—it reminds me a lot of conversations I have with people who work with Silicon Valley. They say that if someone has this great app or a new social network or whatever, and then put it out into the world, something unanticipated happens. Space is a little like that, where it’s a process of the US government and others helping the private sector recognize the implications of what they’re doing and then trying to get them to have something of a feedback process with us to figure it out. I don’t really have an answer yet. I will say that is one thing we’re still trying to think through.

Sometimes it involves talking with industry organizations. Americans often talk pejoratively about lobbyists and industry groups, and certainly there’s problems in our political system about that. But there’s something to be said for an industry organization that represents an entire industry or a subcategory of an industry, which makes it easier to get their perspective. So we often work with industry groups. And of course, these are companies where we also have to be really careful not to be either giving preference or information, or taking policy positions, for example, that have actually been pushed by a company, for competitive reasons, as opposed to good reasons on behalf of the nation. Sometimes, companies will use law and policy to get advantages over their competition as well. It’s a tricky one, and I think we’re still figuring it out. It makes me a little bit jealous sometimes of my colleagues back in the State Department that work with more mature industries. I never would have thought I would be jealous of people who have lots of lobbyists that they that they talk to, an industry like the oil industry or the automotive industry, which have very deep benches when it comes to thinking about policy issues and would happily tell you what the rule should be. In fact, they’ll try to write your legislation for you. Space isn’t like that. And interestingly, they largely look to the government to look out for the interest of private sector actors and design the policy and legal solutions for the future, which is exciting. It’s fun to be one of the ones that does that, but it’s also a little bit terrifying, because sometimes you’re trying to figure out what’s good for industry and what’s good for the future even though you’re one more step removed from that than you might be in another industry.

JIA: If there is that imbalance on the legal side, where you don’t have an obvious counterpart in an organization, what do you do in that context?

GS: That is happening. I’m not going to name names, but there are companies out there, I will say, that are extremely well-capitalized, and so money is not a problem for some of these companies. Some of them have a lot of money, so I will reach out to them and say, “We’re thinking about issue X on the surface of the moon to create some rules. What do you think they should be? What are you worried about? What are you not worried about?” And I’m shocked by the number of times that this big company will come back and say, “Gosh! I don’t know. What do you think they should be?” That would not happen in other industries. I can’t imagine that happening in the pharmaceutical industry, for example. I promise Pfizer would tell you what they think the rules should be if you ask. So it’s really interesting. The space community has some growing up to do, I think, in terms of law and policy.

JIA: Outside of the private sector, to what extent do you have counterparts in some of these other countries? Do you have specific people that you talk to, for example in their Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and what do those relationships look like?

GS: Those are the people whose opinions I value the most, because they are the most similarly situated to me. When I was at the State Department, my closest counterparts would typically be ministry lawyers, and in other countries whoever has a space law portfolio. That’s typically who I would work with. Although, I will say that not every country has the luxury of being what we would consider fully staffed-up. If you’re a smaller country or a country with budgetary problems, a lot of people in government are doing two or three, what we would consider, multiple portfolios. It’s pretty rare for foreign governments to be able to have people who specialize quite to the extent that we do.

But now that I’m at NASA and working on policy issues for a space agency, my closest counterparts would be senior policy people in other government space agencies. So I work really closely, for example, with counterparts in Canada, Japan, the UK, and the European Space Agency. They are the ones who also operate missions. They’re the ones who have a government that cares about the rule of law, that cares about predictability and shares our values.

It’s certainly true that Russia and China have counterparts to me. That’s a little bit less useful because their goals and principles are different enough that Ii’s less useful. But I absolutely spend a lot of time not only solving problems with counterparts, but also brainstorming and thinking about solutions that would help on a question. That’s really invaluable to have those relationships.

JIA: Are there established mechanisms for communication?

GS: It’s the full complement. It depends on the government to some extent, but a lot of it depends on the personal relationship. As I said, the space law and policy community is not that big, and one implication of that is that I tend to go to the same conferences with the same people multiple times a year. I’m seeing my foreign counterparts over and over and over again, which means that we get to know each other, and we’ll have dinner and get a drink, or get coffee in the middle of a conference or a negotiation. And then those relationships let you use the formal mechanisms which of course exist, government-to-government communications, but they also let you do much more informal things like a quick phone call or a text message to ask a question. I really think those kinds of channels, unofficial, off-the-record communications are how, in my experience, 95 percent of government gets done. It lets you test out ideas without taking an official position.

But that requires trust. It requires trust that your counterpart isn’t going to go public with what you suggested or burn you to complain about it. So it takes years to develop those kinds of relationships and not everyone’s comfortable with it. Not every foreign government wants their people on it. We don’t have Slack, but just to use that as an example, they don’t want their employees on Slack with some foreign government official. Not every government works that way. But those personal relationships really do matter, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s nice to stay in the field for a while, so you can develop those over time.

JIA: To the question of politics: you work with other countries, and surely things come up taking place outside the formal discussions or negotiations. When you’re working with counterparts, either the close ones or the maybe not so close ones, how do you contend with the international political implications of whatever it is that you happen to be addressing?

GS: We definitely have to think about it, because if you think of geopolitics, it has a pretty strong impact on the level of cooperation that countries are interested in. So that’s the first thing we think about. There might be a country with whom we think we could cooperate really effectively, on a program level. It could be good for the program. It’d be good for them. But they might not be interested in it, or we might not be interested in it for completely unrelated reasons, having nothing to do with space or that particular cooperation. So that’s a wasted conference. You just don’t go after that because it’s going to waste everyone’s time. You then have to at least understand the basics of geopolitics to even know what’s in the realm of it possibility before you can even think about space.

But zeroing in a little bit more on space, geopolitics are still pretty relevant once you’re talking about particular cooperation or particular issues, because space can be just like anything. But I think sometimes in a more heightened way with space, people can react strongly because we all have in our minds visions from science fiction and otherwise what’s possible in space. It’s literally above our heads. There’s something of an emotional reaction, too, I think.

Activities can be either misperceived or intentionally abused in a way that creates fear, that creates negative reactions, and that can be heightened because of political concerns.

For example, trying to do this in a non-political way. Like I said, I started working on space stuff during the Trump administration. I did a lot of work on space resource issues, and I’m not political, I’m a civil servant, as you know. My guidance is what it is, and it always would be apolitical. But in a lot of the work I did on space resources, I was accused of taking a Trump position, whatever that means, on space resources. A lot of the articles that came out about, for example, the Artemis Accords, when we negotiated it, said that this was an initiative of a particular administration trying to push a particular view. The reality is that it was done by a bunch of career civil servants behind the scenes because they are just trying to do their best in space law and policy. But we had to deal with that political implication, and I think one of the reasons that we got a lot more signatures over time for the Artemis Accords is because, over time, we were able to get past that geopolitical knee-jerk reaction of seeing it through a particular political lens. It just takes time. I had so many meetings and so many conferences where I said, or I had to say, “Read the actual words. Don’t look at the timing, don’t look at the administration, just read the words, and then tell me if you have a problem with the actual words on the actual page.” That took a year or two. Eventually you get through that, and people read the words and like what they say and support it. And now we have a bunch of countries that have signed on. But you do have to, even as a career civil servant-type like me, be aware of these political implications because they really color how people interpret what you’re doing, whether it’s true or not, and often it’s not true. You just have to get past that. It’s another sort of stumbling block to deal with.

And then, of course, sometimes you can achieve things for political reasons, too. One of the good and bad truths about working in government is that you work for principles. You work for politicians. We all do, ultimately, whether it’s the President or someone else, and political actors like deliverables. They like deliverables at meetings when they have a high-level meeting with a foreign government. They want to have things they can announce. They want to have things they can sign. So, understanding the geopolitics and the domestic and internal U.S. politics of what your principles want and how they want to use deliverables, how they want to use meetings, also gives you leverage to accomplish things. If, for example, there’s a country you’ve wanted to cooperate with for a long time, but it’s just been a hassle and there’s been all kinds of problems, if there’s going to be a high-level visit in two months, then you can say, “We can create a deliverable for you, whoever ambassador or Prime Minister can announce this during your visit in two months but we have to get over these problems.” That, typically, is what it takes to get over those problems. So that’s another great tool that government employees can use or are sometimes forced to use to create deliverables. It’s really important to keep a keep an eye on the politics.

JIA: As a civil servant working at NASA, do you feel mostly insulated from the domestic political process, or do you think it impacts the work on some level?

GS: Space used to the same as the sea: politics ends at the water’s edge. So international relations was free of politics. That was the sort-of ideal in traditional American foreign policy thinking. I don’t know if that was ever true, it’s probably less true than it used to be. But the good news, for me at least, is that space has remained mostly non-partisan in the United States. There’s a lot of politics that goes into space, so I don’t want to say that it’s apolitical, but that’s because it can be highly political, but it’s not about like two-party politics. It’s much more regional politics, for example. You’ll see local politics. A lot of what NASA does is driven by particular Congressional districts or particular Congressional delegations even. But that’s not a Republican or Democrat thing. It’s much more much more nuanced than that.

I do feel pretty insulated in the space community from party-level politics. I don’t think about party level politics much at all, but other types of political considerations are highly relevant, and of course you always have to deal with Congress at some point: some of what we do has to get appropriated and authorized. Understanding general Congressional politics is also important, as for any government agency, to get your operations going.

JIA: To what extent do national security concerns or implications inform the work that you do, or in some way drive the conversations you have?

GS: The good news is that NASA is not a not a secret. NASA really is a civil space agency, and the U.S. government really does have different space programs that do national security stuff. We have Space Force now for that. We had other parts of DoD [the Department of Defense] in the Air Force, and we have our intelligence community that does those things. And those really are separate. Sometimes, I think, we’re jealous of their money, so some parts of NASA might benefit if they were less separate, but they really are quite separate. I will say the only time you see significant overlap or interaction with those, at least the times that I’ve seen it, is very early technology development. There might be a certain technology that would benefit both security and civil space applications, so we might coordinate with the Department of Defense to ensure we don’t both fund it at some government research lab or something. You do see some of that in early-stage technology development, but otherwise NASA does what NASA does, and it’s civil space. To the extent we think about security issues, NASA benefits from having a secure and predictable space environment. We have people up there. We have a lot of hardware. We want to do more, so it would be really bad for NASA’s operational goals if there were, let’s say, worst-case scenario, a conflict that spread to outer space. That would be awful for NASA; we couldn’t keep our mission to the extent that we can now.

We are cognizant of trying to, let’s say, pave the way for continued peaceful coexistence in outer space, so we try to, as we like to say, wear the white hat. We try to show what responsible behavior looks like. So that could be really sticking to our science and our exploration goals. But it can also be things like minimizing orbital debris and having good practices of deconfliction and coordination and all those kinds of things, in the hope that the rest of the space community, the national security space community in the United States but also abroad, and also the commercial space community, follow our lead. Even though those things are very much growing, particularly commercial, there’s more national security space activity all the time. The reality is that, generally speaking, NASA is the first one to do things. We were the first agency or the first of anyone to place a satellite in geostationary orbit, and the first ones to go to the moon, and so on and so forth. NASA creates a lot of firsts, and we try to use that in a very intentional way that is, let’s say, conducive to continued peaceful coexistence, and creates rules that benefit not only the nation, but also make and maintain NASA’s operational goals.

JIA: What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned or some of your takeaways from the work you’ve done so far, in particular negotiating the Artemis Accords?

GS: I think my big lesson from the Artemis Accords—and who knows if it’ll get me in trouble again in the future—is that it’s okay to be ambitious. When we first came up with the idea of Artemis, of course a couple of us did it behind the scenes and we’re working on it very quietly, internally, to sort of flesh out the ideas in our own minds. There wasn’t a lot of people in government who knew about it. Who didn’t think we could? The idea of a new, big space governance mechanism would be dead on arrival. That wouldn’t be something that, even if we could convince our closest partners to sign, the international community as a whole would accept. So we almost either didn’t go for it or watered it down and walked it back a lot.

But we didn’t. We had a lot of support from people like Jim Bridenstein, who was an administrator at the time, from Scott Pace, who was the chair of the National Space Council. We had a lot of support from high-level people who gave us that encouragement to go for it. With their help, some decent drafting, and some really good international partners, we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, are still getting more countries signing on to the accords all the time, and are now working on implementation with multiple countries. So I think my lesson is that.

I don’t know about the whole international community, but the space community at least is hungry for solutions, and it’s a pretty optimistic bunch. It’s largely people who want to do cool things that benefit other people, so there’s a desire to do those right. There’s a recognition that a lot of what we do creates precedence. It really felt like we were pushing on an open door once we got past some of the initial knee-jerk, geopolitically-driven reactions. All the other responses on the actual substance were great.

That’s my lesson. The Space community is hungry for leadership. It’s hungry for solutions. It’s hungry to work together, so we should just keep pushing. Just keep going.

JIA: Outside of the lunar landings in the next few years, that you mentioned earlier, what are you most excited about, or what are you most looking forward to?

GS: Increasing commercial capabilities is really exciting. The one that everyone’s watching is the SpaceX Starship. If that thing launches, and if it can do everything that SpaceX thinks it’s going to be able to do and get as much material to orbit, as much matter to orbit as I think they can, that could be a pretty serious game changer for the community, not just on the technical side. If all of a sudden, almost anyone can get things to orbit, that’s going to have huge policy and legal implications, just by lowering the cost of access so much that this will be a whole new thing. So I’ll be keeping my eyes on that.

And, just like everyone else, the creation of commercial space stations. I think in the next five or six years we’re going to see commercial space stations. NASA is partially funding some of these to eventually replace the International Space Station. That’s going to be really cool to have a commercial, industry-led permanent continuing presence in space. That’s a tiny foothold into my vision of a science fiction future, where people are living and working around outer space. And it’s not just robots, it’s not just government agencies. That’s very personally exciting, because I think that’s how you create culture. We’re won’t get there yet. But that’s how you create like a space culture or a space society. It’s how humanity itself, as a polity or as a people, starts to spread, is by getting things that aren’t just temporary and aren’t just government-controlled. It’d be really cool to see that, too.

[i] “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, The treaty was drafted in 1966 and entered into force in October 1967.

[ii] “Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space,” United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs,

[iii] “The Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group,” Universiteit Leiden, Resources%20Governance%20Working%20Group%20was%20established,the%20groundwork%20 for%20such%20framework.

[iv] NASA, “The Artemis Accords,”