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Preparing for the Final Frontier

Story by
Matthew Leib/The Whole U

Should there ever be war in outer space, Saadia Pekkanen says there would be no winners.

“Nobody can win that war, because nobody knows what victory looks like in that scenario,” says Pekkanen, who since 2004 has served as Job and Gertrud Tamaki Endowed Professor at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and specializes in outer space security, law, and policy with a regional focus on Japan and Asia.

Portrait of Saadia Pekkanen

“It’s exciting to think that SPARC is helping position the UW in the new space race," says Saadia Pekkanen. Media credit: Matthew Leib/The Whole U

Contrary to depictions of space war in popular culture, Pekkanen says plucky pilots or stealthy spies won’t be the ones that carry the day in the face of galactic aggression. Rather, diplomats and policy experts with feet firmly planted on Earth will be the ones to navigate a path to peace on earth — and above it.

“The most important thing I can tell you is it’s not clear which country — if any — is going to be able to shape everything in the new space race,” Pekkanen says. “We are back in a world where great power competition is on the table. The U.S. has declared space as a warfighting domain and thinks of both Russia and China as near-peer competitors in that game.”

Whereas past notions of space relations were defined by competition between U.S. and Soviet interests, Pekkanen says the new space race is now multi-polar and much more complex. She believes that an integrated approach that accounts for policy contexts in different countries will deliver the best chance of shaping peaceful prospects in outer space. That is one of the reasons she co-founded the Space Policy and Research Center (SPARC) with Kristi Morgansen, who now serves as chair of the UW Department of Astronautics and Aeronautics.

Launched in 2018 as a partnership of more than 40 UW faculty across STEM, law, business, and policy fields, SPARC seeks to position the UW as a hub for training what Pekkanen calls “the next generation of space professionals.”

“It’s exciting to think that SPARC is helping position the UW in the new space race,” she says. “Students of social sciences, humanities, policy, and law can make a difference. And I think that’s a difference worth making.”

Read the full story, originally published on February 20, 2020 as a Faculty Friday feature in The Whole U.