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Ability to travel solar system is key to better life on Earth – UN Outer Space head

Humanity may be on the brink of a leap in the field of space exploration, but are we ready to handle the extraterrestrial boom when it comes? We ask Simonetta Di Pippo, an astrophysicist and the director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Simonetta Di Pippo, an astrophysicist and the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us today.

Simonetta Di Pippo: Thank you, my pleasure.

SS: So, Ms Di Pippo, the technology is advancing so fast these days, groundbreaking change is no longer a generation away, we see it happen before our eyes in every field. However, we haven’t come back to the Moon, we haven’t gone to Mars, we keep inventing cool smartphones and virtual reality glasses and stuff, but it seems like space is being neglected. Is this the calm before a big storm, some kind of a huge breakthrough? What could that be? 

SP: I would say that space is really in a very interesting phase right now. What we see is the flourishing of the private sector at least in a few countries, commercial activities in space. This happens because a certain number of technologies are becoming mature. You see in the history of space first telecommunications, meteorological satellites, and now Earth observation, they are becoming more developed towards applications and services for the benefit of humankind on Earth. And you see a lot of companies creating everyday, working downstream, as we say, on applications and services. How can space really benefit sustainable development on Earth? For sure, if we look at the aspiration of the Moon, Mars and beyond, this is something governments have to tackle. For sure, this time it has to be done on a global level. It must be a co-operative effort. And we in the UN together with our member states are working on this baseline trying to consider the space exploration as the new frontier.     

SS: Like you say, we see now private initiative coming into the space game, dominated for so long by governments. Elon Musk is shooting Teslas into space, for instance. You said that private industry has capabilities that only governments had just 10 years ago. Will private space exploration eventually take the lead over the government initiatives? Or to do NASA-scale things you really need to have a NASA-scale budget? 

SP: The point is that when you have a challenging objective you need to develop new technologies, sometimes disruptive, sometimes technologies that weren’t even foreseen in the beginning because you have to fulfil the objective - landing on another object in our solar system, or you have to send astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station and in the near future beyond; or if you have to develop an outpost, for example, on the Moon, where a group of individuals can work and live, and eventually come back on Earth. In doing all this you need, as I said, new technologies while in order to develop better in certain fields we can easily see certain technologies, for example, to go to the low Earth orbit, around 400 kilometres above our heads, and come back, yes, there are technologies available because these technologies were developed thanks to, let’s say, funds put forward by governments all over the world. So there are areas that entrepreneurs can use or can put leverage on in order to develop their own ideas and their own projects to go to low Earth orbit and beyond. Going beyond is not technologically easy, so we have to work together as a space community, as I said, to bring humanity beyond the Earth limits.      

SS: What about private space tourism? How long before a tour of our orbit becomes a thing not just for billionaires? 

SP: This is like any other technology - at the beginning it costs a lot of money because you need to develop a lot. I mean, this is true in space and in a lot of other fields. For sure, I cannot tell you if it’s going to happen in 5, 10 or 15 years, but, for sure, I think going to space not only for tourism but also for performing scientific research and really developing human species, for sure, we will have more and more people going to space. But what is more important in my opinion right now, today, we have to better communicate. The importance of space is not only because it’s inspirational, not only because it’s bringing new generations looking at STEM education and therefore space which is really an inspirational field they should work in, but for the fact that space can benefit our day-to-day life. And all of us should be really engaged in understanding, for example, how many satellites we use - each of us, every day - to do what we normally do. And so it’s also our burden, our task, our duty as of the space community and, for sure, the UN and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs to communicate the importance in particular for developing and emerging countries of the use of space day by day.    

SS: Stephen Hawking told us the Earth will fail us, that we better think about getting off this rock and going to Mars - and Elon Musk’s SpaceX is taking the advice very seriously and is planning it. Is there a rational component to this idea? Do we really need to go and colonise Mars? And can we really do that? 

SP: You know, colonising means really going there and occupying something. I will prefer to say that humans must become interplanetary which means that we’re living in the solar system and we should expand to other bodies of the solar system. I see this as a way of bringing and developing more new technologies so that we can even, let’s say, increase and improve the quality of life on Earth. Even if we have a lot of issues, I don’t expect we all need to move from the Earth to other planets. This is one of the reasons that Elon Musk is putting forward and it’s the question of discussion as usual. It has always been the beauty of the scientific progress - debating and discussing different ideas. For sure, I believe that going to the Moon, have a settlement or an outpost on the Moon, and then going to Mars and beyond is something that we should do because this is the way which we can develop technologies that would have a lot of advantages on Earth. Just one example, if we have to support a crew going to Mars, or a crew which is a group of individuals, of astronauts or normal people living on Mars, they have, for example, to cultivate plants, they have to sustain themselves in terms of food. But developing technologies for that reason can have a lot of influence and advantages on precise agriculture or smart agriculture on Earth. So you see immediately the link between what we do in space and internal planning of human exploration of the solar system and what we can get in terms of advantages for our own sustainable development on Earth.     

SS: More than 10 years ago China and Russia have drafted a treaty that seeks prevention of an arms race in space. Why hasn’t the treaty been adopted until today? 

SP: This is true. Even though it’s not something we deal with at the Office for Outer Space Affairs, this is more Geneva business and the Office for Disarmament Affairs, what I can tell you from our standpoint is that what we’re trying to do also in co-operation with the Office for Disarmament Affairs is to work on what we call transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities, help member states become more transparent, so in this way building the trust that is absolutely needed in the field. In this respect I would like to mention a tool which he’ve had since long, based on the so-called registration convention. This is the register of the objects launched into outer space which means that all member states on the basis of this registration convention notify us every time they launch an object into space. If you go on our website you will find the full portfolio, the full list of objects launched into outer space since the beginning of the space era. I believe this is quite an important tool. It’s the only treaty-based tool that is existing in terms of transparency and confidence-building, and I believe this is really the right way of doing it - being transparent and promoting international co-operation is the only way to maintain peaceful uses of outer space.        

SS: U.S. has dismissed the Russian - Chinese draft as “hollow”, “hypocritical”, “a ploy of two nations to gain military advantage”. What’s behind Washington’s mistrust, what do you think? 

SP: I’m not commenting on national policies and approaches. What I can tell you is that, for example, the United States have been one the proposers more than 10 years ago, close to 15 years ago, of quite an important mechanism in another field, but just to make an example, - it’s related to the interoperability of GNS systems. GNSS stands for global navigation satellite systems. Currently we have four of them in the world. One is BeiDou developed by the Chinese; another one is Russian - Glonass; the third one is Galileo from the Europeans and the fourth one is GPS from the United States. So the idea is to have regular meetings under the umbrella of the so-called ICG for which we, the Office of Outer Space Affairs, serve as the executive secretariat. So the four providers that I’ve mentioned plus others coming to the table they regularly meet, discuss, and in this way the use of GNS systems by everyone in the world is really becoming interoperable which means that there’s an open transparency, everyone can discuss their systems, and this is done for the benefit of everyone everywhere. I believe, this is a very good role model for how we should do co-operation in space.   

SS: Donald Trump wants United States to be dominant in space and is even planning to create a Space Force to protect U.S. assets in space. Is this Space Marine talk real? Can that happen? 

SP: As I said, I’m not commenting on national positions. What I can tell you is that under the umbrella of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space we had several years of discussions under the working group on the long-term sustainability of outer space activities where, for sure, the United States and other countries have been actively participating. In June this year they have proved a set of guidelines that they are already applying, which means that clearly they’re ranging from different topics under the umbrella on the long-term sustainability. But as I said, under the umbrella of COPUS and UN they’re really co-operative, and the international co-operation is really at its best.   

SS: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, reacting to the Space Force idea, has said that “a sovereign nation has a right to protect its assets, including assets in outer space”. Do you agree with his logic? I mean, we all use the ocean, it’s a common resource, but then most countries have navies, and we’re doing ok, isn’t space kind of the same? 

SP: As I said, again, I cannot comment on national positions… 

SS: Right, you don’t have to comment on national positions, but just the idea of dividing space - what do you think of that? How should that be done? 

SP: This is not under the discussion at all under the umbrella of the UN. And what I can tell you is that we always mention in every possible presentation, situation, meeting, event etc. that space has to be considered as a global commons, and we have to work together to preserve it for future generations. 

SS: Fighting a war in space or using space is not great, but what if we need to place some kind of a giant cannon to shoot down some kind of an asteroid headed straight into our planet? Sooner or later we might need that, won’t we? 

SP: We’re working a lot with member states on planetary protection and planetary defense. These are two topics which are becoming more and more important in our portfolio. And we’ve established two international working groups which are serving - one of them is sort of a network which is there to prepare for how to communicate if, for example, an asteroid is on the wrong trajectory towards the Earth; and then there’s also what we call SMPAG which is a group of space agencies which are discussing with a support of the Office for Outer Space Affairs how to prepare for this possibility and which kind of measures can be taken in order to deflect the asteroid. What is currently top in the list is how to find a way of deflecting an asteroid, not destroying an asteroid, not doing anything like that because it can be very dangerous - just putting the asteroid on a different trajectory so there’s no more danger for the Earth.   

SS: You’ve called space “the Internet of tomorrow”, meaning that countries that don’t have access to it will be left behind. But space exploration is expensive, and so if you are a country that has no money for it, should someone else be footing the bills? 

SP: The concept we have is that space exploration has really developed to allow the participating countries to develop technologies which can very helpful for them on Earth. For sure, an emerging or a developing country cannot participate or cannot have a mission to the solar system alone. What we can do, however, is to think in an open and inclusive way. So we develop altogether an open architecture where we have the key elements that are needed so that everyone can participate depending on their own requirements and their own financial means and also their own technical skills. And in this way we implement what we call the “triangular approach”. Through the UN, having the UN as the accumulation point or the centre of gravity, if you want, we can put together developed and developing countries. So in this way we create this triangular approach. We’ve been proving recently with small projects that it’s working quite well. And I have to say that in preparation of UNISPACE+50 one of the main priorities on which the member states work hard is the so-called space exploration and innovation. And on this we have participation of a lot of emerging and developing countries because they see the other value of participating on this frontier - technology and development - for their own sustainable development on Earth right now. So I’m quite confident that with this approach we can really be open and inclusive so that no one will be left behind.  

SS: Do you harbour hopes that someday, your agency will be leading humanity’s outer space activities, that it’ll be something like Starfleet command from Star Trek, for instance? Or are your only concerns about here and now? 

SP: Well, being an astrophysicist and being in the space science for more than three decades, this is the field where you cannot only think about tomorrow. You have to think about tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and always in the medium- to long term. This is the way in which we think. What I can tell you is that the UN, and in particular the Office for Outer Space Affairs, but in general the UN - we’re here at the service of member states. We’re here to serve the needs of member states and we’re here to offer technical skills for them to take best-informed decisions. I believe that the Office for Outer Space Affairs has been quite successful in this endeavor. For sure, the more countries we have at the table of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space the more we can see this approach becoming open and inclusive, as I was mentioning before. We have a lot to do, we have a lot to communicate. And the more we do it, the more we see the result of that. So by having a long-term vision, we’re going there step by step. 

SS: Thank you so much for this wonderful insight. We were talking to Simonetta Di Pippo, an astrophysicist and the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, discussing how we can make the best of the opportunities space is presenting to us.