Veronica Cesco (UNOOSA) and why space should not be taken for granted

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Veronica cesco

VIENNA, JUNE 10 – Veronica Cesco, a 32 years old Associate Programme Expert at UNOOSA, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, talks in this interview about a wide range of space issues and activities, things that we often take for granted and we barely ever give a second thought: how would Covid-19 have unravelled without space technologies? How can space help us achieve the SGDs? What is space sustainability and why is it important?

What professional and education experiences, passions and interests brought you to pursue a career within the UN?

I always wanted to live an international life. Ever since I was a kid I travelled a lot, and soon enough I realised that I wanted to gain some academic and work experience abroad. With this goal in mind, I pursued a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Trieste. I later continued my educational path in London, at the University College London, where I attended a master’s degree in International Public Policy. With the end of my master studies, I started working as an intern for an NGO concerning mass atrocities and genocide prevention: an incredibly interesting and stimulating experience. Soon after, I was able to find my first, full-time paid job as a research assistant at a consultancy, where I stayed for ten months.

Despite enjoying life in London, I eventually decided to move to Brussels to pursue a second master’s degree in European Studies, which I attended and completed while working full time for an international NGO engaged in advocacy and campaigning efforts aimed at eradicating extreme poverty. Throughout this time, as I was slowly finding my way into the job market, I always kept a close eye on the UNDESA Fellowship and JPO programs. Every year I applied for one or the other, to give it a try. These are great opportunities offered by Italy to young professionals!

One day, in 2018, I received an email saying I had been pre-selected for a position. As I read forwards, I realised I was being listed for a job as Associate Programme Expert at the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs. It really came as a surprise. I previously worked in very different sectors and I did not even know that the UN had an office for space! At the time, I was at the European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, working on the development of an open labour market for researchers in Europe. I was happy with the job but, after seeking advice from friends and acquaintances who already worked for the United Nations, I decided to quit my job in Brussels and start with this new chapter in Vienna. The opportunity I was being offered was truly unique: not only could I work as a programme and project officer, but I would be doing it in the office of the Director. I am really enthusiastic to be at the United Nations. The work environment it offers is truly unique.

Which elements, in your opinion, make the UN working environment a special one?

This probably sounds very cliche but, without a doubt, I would say the multicultural environment. Being constantly working with people and colleagues from all over the world is a real privilege.

I also think the Office for Outer Space Affairs is particularly special because of its unique topic. When talking about sustainable development, few people would think about space, but this is changing over time. Space is unbelievably important to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals: over 40% of the targets underpinning the SDGs rely on space technologies. The vital contribution of space has been recognized and confirmed in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

What is UNOOSA’s mandate?

In terms of mandate and mission, UNOOSA promotes international cooperation in the peaceful use and exploration of outer space. On one side, we support member states in establishing legal and regulatory frameworks to govern space activities. On the other side, we assist member states in strengthening the capacity of developing countries to use space science, technology and their applications. For instance, on how to use space-based data to prevent or manage a disaster. We are not a space agency ourselves; we do not build or launch anything into space. We are rather an office that supports cooperation and aims to create partnership among countries.

An interesting example is our collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Every year we launch an announcement opportunity for member states who want to launch a satellite into outer space. Together with JAXA, we provide educational or research institutions from developing countries with support to develop and manufacture cube satellites (very small satellites) and the opportunity to deploy them from the International Space Station. The past years we have supported Kenya, Guatemala and Mauritius.

Can we speak of ‘satellite inequalities’?

There is no limit to how many satellites can be launched in space by one country. Every country therefore gets a chance, although some member states undoubtedly have far more satellites in outer space than others. The US, for example, has already launched a significant number, as more and more private companies are entering the sector. In this regard, an important task and duty of the Office is the registration of objects that are launched in outer space. When a member state, whether a private or public actor in that country, launches an object into space, it has the responsibility to register the object in question in the UN Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space, which is maintained by UNOOSA.

Could you please describe some projects you are currently working on, or have worked on in the past?

Among others, I lead two portfolios: one on space economy and another on space for youth. In regard to the former, I have been working on a series of online events, entirely dedicated to understanding the space economy and examining its building blocks. We began with these events in 2020, and published an outcome report at the beginning of this year, highlighting the main outcomes which emerged from the discussion. Just now, I am organizing an event entirely dedicated to the private space sector in Africa on 30 June 2021.

The Space4Youth portfolio is rather different in nature. One of the main activities it involves is the organisation of a yearly essay competition. Young people from all over the world are invited to submit their ideas on how we can use space to support the achievement of the SDGs. The winners are given the possibility to attend a space camp in the USA and they are paired with mentors – this year experts from the UK Space Agency and NASA – who provide feedback on their ideas and help them develop them further, when possible. This year we received over 400 submissions from 80 different countries.

On May 26 a UN panel entitled ‘Space Diplomacy for a Growing Space Economy‘ was held at the UN Headquarters in New York. What are space diplomacy and space economy? Why is it important to talk about these themes?

The event was co-organized with the Permanent Missions to the United Nations of Italy and UAE. Space economy and space diplomacy are topics that are becoming more and more important. When we speak about space economy, we mean all the activities, services and goods that are directly or indirectly linked to space and create economic and social value. Activities which are directly linked to space are, for example, the collection and distribution of satellite data, as well as the manufacturing of rockets and other space technologies. But even more important are those activities indirectly linked to outer space because, while most of us take it for granted, a vast amount of non-space sectors are connected to space-based data: the utilisation and monitoring of natural resources, urban planning, precision agriculture and transport, to name a few. Access to finance, alongside ensuring innovation and cooperation between governments, universities and the industry, are core elements for a strong and healthy space economy.

Space diplomacy, on the other hand, refers to the relationship which exists between those stakeholders involved in outer space. It is about cooperation among nations in using space technologies to address common challenges facing humanity. Outer space is a resource that we need to use sustainably and space diplomacy is key. We need to ensure that the way we carry out space activities is not damaging or precluding future generations from being able to use it. Let me give you an example. Many do not know about it, but there is a lot of space debris: space ‘waste’ to keep it simple. This waste includes non-functional objects such as satellites or spacecrafts and their fragments. This debris just orbits around earth and could, in the case of collision, create some serious problems. What if, for instance, a piece of debris gets in the way of the International space station? This could be extremely dangerous for the structure itself and the astronauts within it.

We therefore have a responsibility to ensure that the way we use space is sustainable, and space diplomacy is the most important tool we have to address this crucial issue.

What interesting and unique challenges arises in terms of space cooperation?

When looking at the history of space exploration, we are surrounded by examples of outstanding international cooperation, such as the international space station, which has been build through the joint efforts of multiple countries. We are facing an increasingly complex ecosystem of actors investing political and economic capital in space. As new chapters for space exploration continue to open up, we must redouble our commitment to international cooperation. The Moon and Mars missions are evolving rapidly, and a range of exciting programmes are being announced. It is important that we keep cooperation and collaboration at the heart of space activities.

Another challenge is the expansion of the private sector and the quantity of objects they are launching into space. This proliferation of space actors is something that needs to be closely monitored: we need to ensure that all actors involved in space activities are included in the conversation about international space cooperation.

UNOOSA is one of the UN entities under the leadership of a woman: why is this important?

It is great to see a woman leading an entity in an area that is mostly men dominated. Women make up only 11% of astronauts, and 20% of the total space-related workforce. So, when you look at UNOOSA and you see our Director, Simonetta Di Pippo, who studied astrophysics and pursued a space career first in Italy, then Europe and eventually the UN, I think it is extremely inspiring. It is also reassuring because it shows that women can make it to the top. I think she is a great role model for many young girls.

In my experience, I would say that at the UN -given also the growing push towards greater gender equality- the ratio between men and women in high positions of power is almost equal. However, this unfortunately does not hold as you go down the chain, which shows that we still have a lot of work to do.

How can we incentive more young girls and women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?

I believe education is pivotal in incentivising more women to go into STEM. Already at a young age, many girls begin shifting their interests towards the humanities, because according to schools, teachers and parents, girls are better suited to study humanities, rather than STEM. This is a social construct, based on stereotypes, that needs to be eradicated through education. Girls in schools should learn about great women, those who made and are making history, scientists and women in high-level positions. Women astronauts should be more visible to inspire girls to enter the sector. If you see a picture of astronauts and they are all men, then, as a young girl, you might feel that this is not your path because you do not identify yourself with them.

Mentoring is also an important aspect. At UNOOSA we have established the Space4Women project, which includes a mentoring network through which younger women can be paired with women mentors working in the space sector.

What has Covid-19 taught us about the importance of space?

People do not realise the extent of our daily life’s reliance on space technology, which, with Covid-19, only became greater. Space technology and their applications have indeed allowed us to remain connected throughout this difficult time, to keep working and attending school lessons. Without it, we would have not been able to do anything. Space technology also played a crucial role in tracking border movement as these were closed due to the virus and was used to support tele medicine. One positive outcome of the health crisis is that many governments have now realised how important it is to increase space investments. Globally, there is a greater recognition of how crucial space is to our daily life. The recovery from Covid-19 really needs to take space into account.

What advice would you give to a young person looking to work for the UN?

It is important to tick all the boxes: good university studies, some work experience, knowledge of more languages. These are core elements one needs to have. The rest boils down to persistence and a bit of luck. Internships, fellowships and the JPO programme alike are extremely competitive, do not expect to make it happen overnight. If you keep trying, however, at some point you will make it, you will be the right person at the right time in the right moment. Be very persistent!