Insight - 3rd Summit for Space Sustainability

Thursday, July 8, 2021

By Director of Space Applications Programs Krystal Azelton

Secure World Foundation (SWF) successfully concluded its third annual Summit for Space Sustainability this past month (June 22-24, 2021), marking yet another milestone in what is becoming a marquee tradition for the space community. Even though this year’s event had to be virtual, SWF once again managed to create an engaging and interactive platform where invited experts and the audience could exchange ideas and perspectives on the future of space sustainability. The virtual Summit consisted of two keynote addresses, five panel discussions and two mentoring sessions across three days. By the end, there was something new and surprising for every attendee to take away. Video recordings of the proceedings are available on the SWF Summit website

This year, SWF sought to put particular emphasis on participation from Young Professionals (YPs). While the space community was able to find alternative ways to maintain established professional connections during the COVID pandemic, many YPs were unable to meet new professionals for networking opportunities. As such, SWF sought to put YPs center-stage whenever possible. First, SWF launched the Next Generation video campaign, a series of promotional videos for the Summit featuring promising YPs nominated by our sponsors. They discuss their careers, their journeys and their contributions to space sustainability. Second, the winners of this year’s YP essay contest were announced, marking exceptional essays on various issues related to space sustainability. Congratulations to:

  • Renata Knittel Kommel (Bryce Tech)
  • Sravanti Pemmaraju (School of Law Christ (Deemed to be University), India)
  • Nathaniel Rome (Georgetown University)
  • Andrew Swackhamer (University of Colorado, Boulder)

Finally, SWF arranged two mentoring sessions on June 24, featuring professionals working for our sponsors. They met and spoke with young professionals from around the world, providing career advice and sharing insight into trends around the space community. 

The primary aim of the Summit is to provide a forum for important cross-sector conversations around space sustainability that aren’t being held elsewhere. This was true with the first panel’s discussion on whether space can do more to support action on climate change. Much of the data that is available today is derived from space-based observations, yet the amount of investment seen in this technology is relatively small. In order to spur additional investment, experts on this panel encouraged stronger collaboration among climate change scientists and policy makers, as well as Earth observation experts. This can help scientists to set the objectives for their work and could give policy makers more reasons to invest in relevant technologies. 

Next, a group of experts discussed the stunning rise of low Earth orbit constellations. With the recent announcements of several new satellite telecommunications constellations that will number in the thousands, panelists questioned whether there really is a demand for so much satellite broadband, or if these are seen as tools for political soft power. Experts also questioned whether the philosophy of “fail early, fail often” (which did well in software development) is suitable for the space environment. It was felt that greater care should be taken with the shared environment of space, since the actions of any one party could negatively impact all. It was felt that it isn’t too late to effectively regulate megaconstellation operators as they still require landing rights, and that certain countries with attractive markets may be able to negotiate with operators to ensure responsible behavior. 

Another major issue among the space community is active debris removal. Experts at the Summit discussed different ways to make active debris removal economically viable. While short-term investments in this activity would result in costs, the long-term value of such an investment was evident. Accordingly, the discussion focused on the next steps to field active debris removal capabilities in light of the increasingly urgent space debris challenge. These steps include a policy commitment to space environmental management, building out international collaboration, developing detailed technical risk analyses and economic assessments to support business planning, and following through on high-level political leadership statements. 

On the second day, discussions kicked off by asking a highly controversial question: is there even a space race? Experts discussed current geopolitical tensions playing out in the form of space activities, particularly those of countries like China, Russia and the United States. Levels of trust being very low among these superpowers at the moment means that each interprets the activities and achievements of their rivals as hostile, even if there is little evidence. However, it was suggested that it is possible to engage in “noble competition,” whereby each stakeholder can be a winner without undermining competitors. Such an approach could go a long way towards ensuring stability in the space domain.

The last major discussion revolved around the establishment of the US Space Force and what its mandate should be. The specific role of the Space Force is often unclear, particularly to the public. Experts discussed several strategies to clarify what the Space Force’s primary mission should be, debating whether it should focus mostly on Earth orbit and below or out to the Moon and beyond.  In either case, it was argued that the United States must work closely with allies and commercial partners to develop and maintain the tools necessary for a resilient US space architecture. 

Summit attendees were  fortunate to have two special guest keynote speakers. The first was a candid interview with Mr. Tory Bruno, CEO and President of United Launch Alliance, featuring Ms. Marina Koren of the Atlantic. Mr. Bruno discussed the need not only for the establishment of norms of behavior, but also meaningful penalties that would act as a deterrent against irresponsible behavior in space. To him, this is an important key to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the orbital “global commons.” Secondly, Ms. Bhavya Lal, Senior Adviser for Budget & Finance at NASA, gave insight into the work that NASA is presently engaging in to support space sustainability. While celebrating the myriad of activities that are emerging in low-Earth orbit, she expressed a concern that this sharp rate of growth is not sustainable in the long run. As such, greater coordination needs to take place across different space communities to ensure continued access to space for all. Speaking for her own organization, she announced an internal Orbital Debris Review Team is engaged in finding new ways for NASA to reduce debris creation. 


In closing, SWF Executive Director Dr. Peter Martinez celebrated the rich discussions held over the course of the Summit and noted that, even during the COVID pandemic, the space community continued to develop and flourish. To that end, this year’s Summit for Space Sustainability also continued to develop by bringing new insights and perspectives to the most challenging questions around this issue. We look forward to continuing the conversation in 2022 in-person somewhere across the Atlantic - hope to see you there!

Last updated on July 8, 2021