Interning at UNOOSA: working to improve life on Earth at the intersection of space, policy, and society

by Julia Milton

Julia Milton

In March of this year, I started an internship in the Office of the Director at UNOOSA. I arrived in Vienna having just completed a dual master's degree in policy and aerospace engineering, and working in the Office for Outer Space Affairs represented the goal of what studying those two tracks had been: developing systems that are not only technically sound in space, but which work to improve our lives on earth.

Like so many people who go into this field, I have always been interested in space and the opportunities it represents. I grew up in the United States during the Space Shuttle era - an inspirational time for a kid with an interest in science. As young students, we would watch the launches in our classrooms and make cardboard box space stations pretending we were the real astronauts and cosmonauts who were floating in orbit above us. However, I was not only interested in the technical systems - the rockets, the guidance systems, the robotics - but in the ways I believed space could affect our own lives and societies. Space has always represented something fascinating and profound in human achievement, and I was drawn to the field precisely because I was amazed at the potential it has to inform us about our planet, to encourage international cooperation even in tense political climates, and to advance our understanding of science and technology in meaningful ways.

Although I have always been interested in space and its applications for life on Earth, the path to where I am now did not follow a "linear" route. For a long time, I did not believe a career existed where I could combine my interest in engineering with an interest in addressing societal challenges. I studied industrial engineering in university but left the engineering field after I graduated, largely because of what I perceived to be a mismatch between the work I wanted to do and the opportunities I saw available. I wanted to work with technology and people together on issues that were important in society - topics such as climate change and reducing income inequality. However, I felt a disconnect in many of the jobs that did exist - although the technical systems were challenging and engaging, the human element and the clear application to the context the technology would be used in was missing.

After graduating and leaving engineering, I spent a couple of years in other fields. I worked as an analyst in a consulting firm and later helped to coordinate the mentorship program at a social service agency in Chicago. These experiences greatly affirmed that I wanted to work with and for people on the issues they were facing, but I also missed doing science and engineering. It was almost three years after I graduated from undergrad that I found out about the Technology and Policy Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and decided to apply to graduate school. In my time at MIT I have taken classes in aerospace engineering and topics such as climate policy, government and economics, and design for humanitarian applications. I have also been fortunate to intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory where I worked in the space telecommunications section. The section is responsible for things like the Deep Space Network which communicates with spacecraft and performs radio and radar astronomy observations for exploration of our universe. My experiences in graduate school have given me a strong technical background, but I have felt that much of my understanding of policy aspects and societal applications has come from hands-on involvement and experience outside the typical engineering setting.

Inside the mission control room of the Deep Space Network at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

At UNOOSA, I have worked on unique projects with the ultimate goal of advancing space technologies and sustainable development together, including the recently-launched Space4Women initiative and the upcoming Space4Climate project. The experience has been incredibly valuable and has reinforced to me that working in a field that is both technical and human-centered is not only possible, but necessary.

When I was writing this piece, I was at first uncertain how much I should speak about the events that have taken place since I started my internship; I wondered if they were outside the scope of my expertise. The months since March have been turbulent and difficult, as the coronavirus pandemic has inflicted an irreplaceable human toll, upended jobs and livelihoods, and thrown into sharp relief existing inequalities that have been exacerbated by the public health crisis. In recent weeks, protests against systemic racism and injustice have taken place across the world. As I began to write, I found myself at first asking the questions that I often hear in engineering in response to complex societal issues: is responding within my scope? Do we have a responsibility to consider our own work in the context of these events?

I believe that the answers must be yes. Often in engineering you hear sayings like "technology is just a tool", seeming to imply that our work as engineers begins and ends in producing the system. However, this framing - meant to absolve us from having to address questions that cannot be answered using math and science - is not honest. We cannot consider technologies to be only neutral tools, as in building systems we imbue them with our own values, and these tools are always used later to advance (or impede) societal goals. The intersection of technology, policy, and society is fundamental to every engineering discipline. As engineers, we must address all three aspects.

As I move along in my education and career, I feel - at least to some extent - that the current generation of space engineers and scientists are on the forefront of an understanding that space must be inclusive and societally-focused if it is to remain relevant and contribute towards its highest potential. We have grown up in a time in history that has been dominated by large scale, global issues at the intersection of technology, society, and policy. Climate change. The coronavirus pandemic. The changing nature of work. All complex topics that can't be adequately addressed by a single field, by a single organization, or even by a single country. These are interdisciplinary issues that require the collaboration of many fields and many people from diverse backgrounds. As an international organization with technical expertise seeking to promote the peaceful use of space, UNOOSA is ideally positioned to take on some of these complex topics through its work on advancing the Sustainable Development Goals. Through its work focused on increasing access to the benefits of space for all people, it is in many ways a unique organization that is actively helping to lead the inclusive, societally-focused understanding of space that so many engineers and scientists today view as necessary.

In my time studying both technology and policy, the two disciplines have sometimes felt in tension with one another, with engineers and policymakers each focused on separate objectives and much back-and-forth required to develop a solution that is mutually agreeable. Answering the complex issues of our time demands that we avoid a situation where distinct fields are working in tension with one another, and ask how we can frame and assess the questions so that all these forces pull in the same direction.

When space policy is discussed, one of the most common questions is "we have so many issues here on Earth, why should we spend the limited money and resources we have to go to space?" I understand the perceived mismatch between technological development and societal needs not to be an inherent flaw of space research, but to be a real disconnect in how space is communicated and how we as engineers in the field often center our research. Despite the collaborative benefits, historically space has been an exclusive field - expensive, somewhat narrowly focused on displays of technological might, and out of reach for many because of their gender, ethnicity, where they grew up, or access to educational resources. Knowing this background - and as someone who felt for many years that the field was inaccessible to me and others like me - I am not surprised when people feel apathetic or opposed to devoting resources to space research and space exploration.

We are at an incredibly exciting time in space exploration. Space technology is more advanced, less expensive, and has greater potential to improve life on Earth than ever before. Remote sensing provides near-real-time data about our climate and environment with greater accuracy, telecommunications satellites enable remote learning, medicine, and work, and ambitious goals in space exploration provide great opportunities for international cooperation. However, with changing political climates, increased commercialization, and new national and international objectives, space is also at a crossroads and there is still much work to do to make sure that we are able to advance, and advance in the right direction. Space cannot be a bubble. Space cannot be exclusive, and it cannot be irrelevant or inaccessible to anyone.

Consequently, when we - the space engineers and scientists of the future - undertake our work, we must grapple with a question central to defining the future of space exploration: how can we build systems that are both optimized for technical performance and for the societal contexts that they operate within? Technological advancement alone is not enough to propel equitable and sustainable social and economic development, and answering the question of "How can we best use space technology to improve life on earth?" means that we must center societal needs in our work. Understanding our field in the context of society, and society in the context of our work is not outside our scope, but at the very heart of it.

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