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A feminist analysis of space law
Dr Cassandra Steer’s book chapter critiques the fact that space is not accessible to all, because it has remained the province of a small group of elite nations and women are underrepresented across the sector.

If we don’t have more diversity and equality in every aspect of the space sector, then we will not have an equal future.

A new book chapter written by Dr Cassandra Steer FHEA, Mission Specialist with The Australian National University (ANU) Institute of Space (InSpace) and Senior Lecturer at the ANU College of Law, puts a feminist lens on space law and gender diversity in the space sector.

Her chapter, ‘The Province of all Humankind: A Feminist Analysis of Space Law’ is part of a newly published edited book, Commercial and Military Uses of Space, which examines international space studies and contemporary issues by key academics, experts, industry and government voices.

The collection is edited and authored entirely by women. However, the volume seeks to normalise the role of women as experts in the space sector, by not calling attention to this fact and instead focusing on the diversity of perspectives, disciplines and expertise provided by contributors.

In this Q/A, Dr Steer outlines some of the key themes explored in the book and her chapter, which promote the inclusion of diversity in the space sector.

What does this book, and more specifically your chapter, explore?

This edited book brings together a diverse range of chapters on space related topics, such as law, science, archaeology, defence, policy, and more. The authors included in this book are drawn from Australia and overseas, from academia, government, industry, civil society and the military. What makes this collection unique is that it’s truly interdisciplinary, and all the contributors and the two editors are all women. But the collection does not draw attention to this substantively—they are all experts in their respective fields who just happen to be women.

My own chapter does take a deliberate perspective on diversity in the space sector. It’s titled, ‘The Province of all Humankind: A Feminist Analysis of Space Law’. The 1967 Outer Space treaty states that space is the “province of all mankind”. I critique the fact that space has remained the province of a small group of elite nations, so it’s not at all a shared province, and moreover that historically and today, women are underrepresented in the space sector. Engineers, operators and decision-makers are still mostly men, and space is therefore not the province of all humankind. Language matters, and I draw from the work of feminist linguistic activists from the time of the suffragettes, who had to seek judicial decisions about whether women are considered ‘persons’ for the purpose of voting and electability rights. I also draw from second wave feminist legal activists who advocated to change legislative and policy language to replace gender specific terms. I don’t argue we need to change the terms of the 1967 Outer Space treaty, but rather that we need to proactively re-interpret the normative obligation of that provision, and ensure that current policy, legislative and popular language in the media no longer talks about ‘mankind’ or ‘manned missions’, but ‘humankind’ and ‘piloted’ or ‘unpiloted’ missions.

Does your chapter build on any of your previous research?

I have an interest in applying Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) critiques, feminist critiques and de-colonial critiques to space law and space policy. I’ve written on this in my research paper, ‘Who has the Power? A Critical Perspective on Space Governance and New Entrants to the Space Sector’ (Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law), and have presented these critiques on many international panels and events, as a keynote speaker or invited panellist. I continue to expand on this approach in all my work.

Does this chapter relate to any current courses you are teaching? If so, which ones?

In July 2021, I will be teaching a new course offered to ANU Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and Master of Laws students, Space Law and Governance (LAWS8340). This course will cover both the civil and military aspects of our activities in space, the environmental and technical challenges, and different models of governance for space. In 2022, a series of micro-credential courses will also be offered to the general public, covering these issues.

Why is this book important?

Commercial and Military Uses of Space covers every aspect of our current uses of and dependencies on space, from a range of perspectives and disciplines. It is a world first to have space experts who are all women in a single collection, edited by two space experts who are also women. Bringing together these contributions in turn promotes the inclusion of diversity in the space sector. This edited collection is an opportunity to influence the development of the space industry—in terms of gender diversity, and diversity of disciplines and thinking—while it is in its formative stage, rather than trying to redress imbalances once they are entrenched in the industry.

How does your chapter impact current events, debates or academic controversies?

In 2019, to celebrate International Women’s Day, NASA was promoting what was to be the first ever all-woman space walk from the International Space Station. There was a lot excitement internationally. But on the day, they discovered there was only one medium-sized space suit, and the large didn’t fit either of the two women. One of them had to remain on board and a male astronaut went in her place. This demonstrates exactly why diversity matters: had there been more women engineers, space suit designers, operations planners, decision-makers and overseers, there would have been multiple opportunities to foresee this risk. Most men still assume that their experience and perspective is the norm, and have no frame of reference outside that. Not only does diversity ensure different perspectives and new solutions to existing problems, but here the lack of diversity actually caused a problem that cost time, money, human resources, and an international PR embarrassment.

There’s a lot of attention in the media right now for the Chinese, UAE and US Mars missions, and for SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 and SN rocketships. If we are serious about expanding our activities and presence in space, we need to shift our organising principles, our decision-making, our law-making, and the language used throughout to be more inclusive. We have to prioritise women’s bodies and think about reproductive health in space, and we have to increase gender, ethnic and linguistic diversity in every aspect of the space sector.

The global UN Women theme for International Women’s Day this year was, ‘Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World’. If we are to achieve an equal future, we need to prioritise equal access to resources, technology and decision-making roles across the globe and in every sector. We are so thoroughly dependent on space-based technologies for our daily lives. If we don’t have more diversity and equality in every aspect of the space sector, then we will not have an equal future.

How does it relate to other current projects you are working, on either solo or collaborating with ANU/international colleagues?

I am currently working on a co-authored piece with Dr Cait Storr (University of Technology Sydney), on decolonising space. This means critiquing the frontier and colonialist rhetoric that underscores all budgetary, legal and policy directives right now in the space sector, which favour massive capital businesses and commercial competitiveness over the treaty rights of access to and benefit from space for all nations, and over sustainability, which is a critical issue already in our over-use of near-Earth orbits. It also means considering how Indigenous knowledge on intergenerational responsibility, sustainable environmental management and inclusive decision-making can be incorporated into space governance. Cait and I presented at a virtual conference last year hosted by the Institute for Postcolonial Studies and ANU Centre for Law Arts and Humanities and are aiming to publish this year.


Purchase your copy of Commercial and Military Uses of Space here.

Updated:  24 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team