10 mins read 03 Aug 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: Dr Cassandra Steer

Women play a huge role in the Australian space sector, and each week will be sharing the story of an inspiring woman who makes our community so special. 

Dr Cassandra Steer - Deputy Director - Mission Specialist with the Australian National University Institute of Space (InSpace). Credit: Jack Fox (ANU).

In March each year, we not only celebrate International Women’s Day but we also enjoy learning about all the contributions women have made to society during Women’s History Month. Originally started in the US in 1987, it has in recent times, in part due to social media, become more well known across the world. 

As a celebration of all the wonderful work, inspiration and support that women across our region do in the space sector, will be speaking to a new women in the Australian space community weekly, to uncover their stories and find out who inspires them.  

Dr Cassandra Steer - Deputy Director - Mission Specialist with the Australian National University Institute of Space (InSpace).

What is your role?

I am a space law, space security, and space governance expert. I'm really passionate and concerned about space, space traffic management and space debris. So, Space Situational Awareness (SSA) is something I take a great interest in. Really, I guess the simplest way to describe it is, that I focus on space security writ large. So, space debris and space traffic management falls under that for me because that is part of the security of the environment. As do arms control concerns, weaponisation and international security in the space domain. Space diplomacy is another phrase I use because there is lots happening in the space domain internationally at the moment that I'm very excited about. 

I have worked with a number of countries, including the US, Canada and Australia, consulting with them, partnering with them, doing research for them, advising them, and then writing very loud public pieces about what I think we should do. 

How did you end up working in the space sector and what drew you to it?

I never really grew up with a focus on space and I'm not much of a sci-fi fan, which I know is disappointing for a lot of people. I was in the Netherlands working on international law and international criminal law, looking at genocide war crimes, and crimes against humanity which is very popular and a bit over-saturated because all the international tribunals are there. So, although I loved that work and I'm very passionate about what we can do to restrain states and restrain humans from doing horrific things to each other I started to look at what technology is doing to the way that wars are fought. Cyber security was an obvious area to go into, but people started pointing me towards space which I had never really thought about much. And the more I looked into it, the more fascinated I became, the more excited I became, and the more concerned I became because things were happening under the radar. People talk about cyber but they don't talk about space as much in my world of international law and security. 

Space law has been around since the 1960s, but a lot of people who operated as space lawyers operated in a very siloed way and I love the ability to bring other law and governance perspectives to what's happening in space. So that is when I moved to Canada in 2015, where I was very honoured to be the executive director at the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law for two years. 

What advice would you give to people looking to start their career in the Australian space Industry, whether they are new graduates or those looking to move their careers over?

I'm really interested in the governance and legal and ethical issues around technology, and I think for anyone who is a humanities-minded person, technology needs your thinking and your skill set. 

It needs, your ability to think and communicate across disciplines and across issues because the technology experts tend to talk only about the technology and so we need more humanities-trained people to be looking at what is happening in space. To be guiding it, to be guiding our government policies, our military strategies and to be looking at the international arenas. 

For any career trajectory that anyone is interested in the 21st century, there is probably a space element to it. Like anything from refugees to climate change to, medicine to law to engineering, to oceans to pretty much anything there is a space element to it. I think you just have to carve out your own training a little bit and just jump on the issues that you're interested in. 

But then the other thing is that where we are in the 21st century and what the pandemic has taught us about predictability and what jobs we consider to be essential or not, and what skill sets are needed is that there is a whole bunch of jobs and careers that do not exist yet. 

Who have you met that has had the most impact on your career journey so far?

I think, oddly enough, it is someone who's not a space person at all. He is an international criminal law and law of armed conflict academic at McGill. He, many, many years ago said to me, just start thinking about space, you know the issues you are working on, I think they're going to start happening in space more than we realize. So, he had the biggest impact on me, just because he turned my gaze upward.  

Professor Anna Moore, Director of InSpace at ANU. The Australian National University (ANU) Institute for Space (InSpace) is a unique national and cross-disciplinary organisation designed to create opportunities for ANU innovators to supercharge Australia’s space capability with technology that helps all Australians. Credit: ANU.

Which women in the history of the Space Industry do you look up to? What was it about their achievements that resonated with you?

Anna Moore who I work directly under now. The reason she is impacted me is not necessarily because of her space expertise, it is her leadership expertise. My whole life has been to do everything at full speed and to say yes to everything. I am just learning how to slow down, how to have an impactful career, be a mother and look after my parents. There is still a lot I want to do, but how do you do that at a sustainable pace? I think because Anna is an astronomer, she just moves at a steady, calm, stable pace, and I am sure she gets frustrated at things, but I've never seen her knocked off-centre. I suspect it is because her training has been to observe the universe, to spend nights just observing because scientific results depended upon her sitting and being with what is out there and waiting to see what emerges. 

She is not superhuman, right, she has got a very clear vision and the vision is about everyone, it is not about her, it is not about ego and that just makes it an absolute pleasure to work with her. I think the space sector already benefits enormously from her leadership in Australia. I would just love to see her be the next head of the agency.   

What do you think are some of the issues faced by women in the space sector, have you experienced them and how do you think they should be resolved?

I have, I look younger than I am. Supposedly if you are a woman and you look younger, that is meant to be a compliment but I find it very frustrating because when I walk into a room, particularly when I'm talking about security issues, global issues or policy and trying to advise government people there's a double whammy. Not only am I a woman, but they also assume I am a young woman, and therefore perhaps not so experienced.  

I have the advantage of being white however, I have some colleagues who always have to be careful when they are framing things critically because they are black. I think that the biggest issue is the whole sector, including government, industry and research is still dominated by white men. The space sector is dominated by that demographic and because I take a critical stance on a lot of issues, I have had to learn to package my messaging in such a way that it will land in the way that I intend. I need it to have the impact I intend without just standing up and saying you are doing it wrong. 

I think when you're part of any demographic which is not in the majority, you have to reframe how you deliver your message. The thing that has made the biggest difference for me is just having allies, so other women in the sector. I think there is a groundswell happening in Australia and I am really excited to see this community of women in space who are therefore also committed to diversity in a much broader sense. 

What has been your most interesting discovery or been the most interesting space-related project you have worked on or been part of?

The first project I did as a consultant when I was in Canada. I was the chief investigator, so leading a team of truly multidisciplinary team of people across Canada to come up with a deterrence theory for space. So how do you deter unwanted behaviour from adversaries and shape behaviour in space to deter potential attacks, in space to space, from space or through space? 

I loved it because I was working with computer scientists and computer engineers, with space operators with military and ex-military folks, with graduate students from the social sciences, just such a range of disciplines. We all had to learn we had to develop a common language about the issues we were investigating and writing about. We learned so much from each other, we learned so much about how you get to a team result when you have very different expectations and definitions and even expectations of what an outcome looks like. I loved the learning curve that that was, and I absolutely loved every challenge that it brought.  

It was like everyone talks about multidisciplinary, but when you really get people in a room together working together on a concept or a project there is so much of figuring out and that's why humanities is such an important part in training skills. 

In fact, when I used to talk about this I would say there is segments to space, the ground segment and then the link between them but I've started adding a fourth segment, which is humans because we are the users where the reasons the technology is there and we are impacted by it. 

What are you most excited about in the coming years for the Australian Space Industry?

What we need in Australia is a national space policy, we absolutely need an overarching national space policy. Right now, we've got these piecemeal things that are happening and if we had a national space policy, that would be an opportunity to insert huge value statements about who Australia is as a space actor. 

What are we doing in space and why? What are our values around sustainability and intergenerational equity and what could we learn from Indigenous governance, the Indigenous knowledge holders who know how to manage a very tough environment over millennia? We have opportunities to do something really important in terms of space governance and I have a hope that will get enough government people realising that quick enough to put these things in place.