We talked to Peter Martinez of Secure World Foundation about space sustainability and COVID-19.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Peter Martinez: Thankfully, we are all doing well; thank you. My thoughts go out to all those who have made personal sacrifices to keep our society running, especially those who have suffered setbacks or the loss of loved ones during the pandemic.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Secure World Foundation.
Peter Martinez: I am an astrophysicist by training, so during the early years of my career, I was researching group-based astronomy. Gradually, I became more interested in astronomy from space, and this drew me into the area of space technology in general. In the late 1990s, I started participating in United Nations activities related to space, which introduced me to the field of space diplomacy. In the early 2000s, I developed an interest in space policy and started working with the South African government toward the development of national space policy and the establishment of a national space agency.
I was later appointed the South African Space Council Chairman, the chief regulatory body for space activities in the country. During the 2010s, I participated in several UN processes dealing with space security and space sustainability. These processes were focused on developing voluntary instruments to improve our collective ability to govern the space domain to remain a safe and stable operating environment for all space actors. In 2018 I joined the Secure World Foundation as its new Executive Director. Our organization focuses on space sustainability and space security. In my position, I am able to work with an outstanding team of highly talented and experienced space professionals to advance the goals of space sustainability on the international level.
How does Secure World Foundation innovate?
Peter Martinez: Our innovations take the form of ideas, rather than products or services. We work in the area of space policy and space security, and we think about ways to improve the cooperative governance of space activities to maintain space as a safe and stable domain for all space actors. Often we act as conveners to bring together norms and standards entrepreneurs who propose new norms or standards based on their operational experience. Then we help to socialize these new ideas among governments and other entities in the space community.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Peter Martinez: As we have so many activities all around the world, we were very fortunate to have a culture of distributed work at SWF, even before the pandemic hit us. So, when we had to switch to operating fully remotely in March 2020, we were able to make the transition with relative ease. The biggest change to our operations has been the shift from in-person events to entirely virtual meetings. This introduces some challenges (such as time zones), but it also allows the participation of many more people in our events.
We are looking forward to taking our experience during this time to develop new ways of working with our international partners that will continue even after the COVID pandemic subsides.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Secure World Foundation in the future?
Peter Martinez: From the outset, I have seen the pandemic as an opportunity to take a fresh look at how/why we do things in certain ways and question deeply entrenched assumptions and beliefs about our field. I think that the organizations that will be most successful in the post-pandemic world will be those that don’t strive to go back to the world as it was before but embrace new ways of doing things.
In our field, one of the issues we have to work on is the reluctance of diplomats to engage in substantive discussions through virtual media. However, as more people realize that this current social distancing situation may persist for another year or more, they will be more open to using technological means to keep processes moving forward. Even in the past few months, we have seen attitudes shifting, and we sense an increasing openness among governments to hold substantive discussions through electronic media.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Peter Martinez: Fifteen years ago, we were the only organization solely focused on space sustainability. Now a number of universities and civil society organizations are working in this space. Governments and the UN have also started to tackle the issue. We think this is a good thing as it means that space sustainability and space security are entering the mainstream of thinking in government, academia, and industry. Some of the issues that we worked on ten years ago, like planetary protection, are now receiving adequate attention from bodies such as the UN, so we have moved on to other issues. We will stay ahead of the game by identifying emerging governance challenges for space activities and pushing forward the frontiers of space sustainability.
Your final thoughts?
Peter Martinez: There is no doubt that COVID has been a terrible experience for the world. If we are to make any sense of this, it is that the pandemic has tested our resilience as a global society, and it has also given us time to pause and reflect on what kind of world we want to leave behind to our children. COVID has exposed many of the systemic problems in our society. We can fix these issues if we want to. It also shows, quite dramatically, that even in global issues, the actions of individuals matter. We need to apply this way of thinking to other global challenges that we will need to solve collectively going forward, like climate change. To quote the UN’s former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “These is no Plan B because there is no Planet B.”
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