We have come a long way from taking our first steps in space to formulating policies to ensure a collaborative and partnership driven approach to space governance.

Nivedita Raju, our next pathbreaker, Associate Researcher with SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), researches space security issues for the Armament and Disarmament cluster.

Nivedita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about specializing in space law after realising the endless possibilities in space policy arising out of the unregulated nature of space and the potential for future explorations and settlements.

For students, you are not restricted to careers at a law firm or litigation for the rest of your life. The space policy, security and disarmament field has excellent career prospects for Indian students with law degrees. There are tons of exciting options! 

Nivedita, Your background?

After I was born in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, my family relocated to Muscat, Oman, where I spent my childhood and defining years. Being a third-culture kid naturally led me to develop an interest in international affairs. I remember being drawn to subjects such as economics and political science. But did I know that I would become a space lawyer one day? Absolutely not! My journey to space law was not quite intentional, as you’ll soon see.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I was never one for following social expectations. When I was in high school, the idea of becoming a CA or an engineer or a doctor failed to interest me, because I felt like I was being forced into a box. A law degree, on the other hand, held the promise of endless possibilities. I applied to Indian law schools through the Common Law Admissions Test and found my way to Gujarat National Law University (GNLU) for the five-year integrated BA LLB degree. 

After working in a law firm for three years, I applied for my Masters in Air and Space Law at McGill University. Specializing in space law subsequently led me to focus on space security. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

During my undergrad at GNLU, I explored different types of legal careers through 11 internships, which included mobilizing at NGOs, conducting research at several law firm and shadowing advocates at different courts. Among these, I worked at a law firm that specialized in aviation, where I was eventually recruited based on my internship performance. I had also studied aviation as part of an “Air and Space” elective at GNLU, and found the subject fascinating. And so even after I was recruited as a legal Associate at the firm, I actively pursued my own research beginning with a paper on disability rights in aviation law, which was published in an international journal.

It was at this juncture that I discovered space law. The US had enacted the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act which granted ownership rights to its citizens over space resources. This development sparked my curiosity and led me to think about the potential global inequalities arising out of space mining if the sector remained unregulated. I was invited to present my ideas at a conference at McGill University the following year, where I discovered an entire community passionate about space law. I learned that McGill is the world’s leading institution for this subject and also realized how dependent we are on space for our daily needs. Whether its GPS for navigation purposes, or satellite data for disaster mitigation and climate change assessment, or using space assets for national security – space is undeniably essential. The geopolitical hurdles around such a vital resource intrigued me, as did the scope of permissible military uses of outer space. And so, after the conference, I decided I would specialize in space law.  

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Moving from a corporate job to work in international law may seem daunting, but it’s not impossible! I knew I needed to enhance my educational qualifications first, so I applied for my LLM. 

My first choice was McGill, due to its small class size, renowned faculty and exposure to cutting-edge research projects in the space sector. I had also considered American universities including NYU, Berkeley and Georgetown since they have strong international law programs with space law opportunities. I chose McGill over the others because I preferred the longer period (my LLM was 2 years, as opposed to the shorter US-based LLMs). McGill also offered significant financial support to students, including the prestigious Erin JC Arsenault Fellowship in Space Governance which I was honoured to receive. In my second year, I was additionally awarded the International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA) scholarship and had the opportunity to meet women leaders in aerospace at the annual IAWA conference in Peru. The women of IAWA are absolutely phenomenal! Even today, they are actively supportive of my career. 

I took my time to find an organization which was the right fit for my interests and experience. Through my network, I first learned of Open Lunar Foundation, a non-profit that works exclusively on developing lunar policy focused on helping to create a peaceful, cooperative future on the Moon for all life. We work on policy and partnerships that support a sustainable lunar settlement driven by open values.I was selected as a Research Fellow to work part-time on lunar security research. The Open Lunar community is fantastic, and since the fellowships are virtual, nationalities from all around the world are welcome to apply. Around the same time, I learned that Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) was looking to include a space perspective in their research. 

How did you get your first break? 

McGill’s Institute of Air and Space Law offers numerous opportunities for students to get involved in research projects. I began as a Research Assistant on the Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS). This project was responsible for sparking my interest in the nuances of space security. A few months later, I applied for another research project that was being conducted simultaneously for the US Federal Aviation Administration’s Centre of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. Both these projects gave me unparalleled exposure to space law research. 

I continued to work on both projects even after my graduation. The importance of opportunities through your university cannot be underscored enough. I highly recommend choosing a university that guarantees this kind of exposure. 

Of course, events such as conferences and workshops are another great way to find opportunities. Particularly now, in the Covid-era, virtual spaces are more open to participation. I would advise those interested to follow research institutes in the space sector on their social media pages, register for webinars and most importantly – never hesitate to ask questions or participate! We are always open to giving advice to students, so remember that reaching out on email or LinkedIn can be very helpful too. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

There are many challenges in this field, and the most obvious one is finding full-time work. I’ve seen many talented colleagues get burned-out with the lack of certainty and assurance of a full-time job. This is understandable, seeing how research projects are often part-time.

My major advice in overcoming this challenge is therefore to keep reaching out to as many people as possible, be patient, and stay hopeful, as the process takes time. 

A key challenge that remains in place today is the lack of representation. In space security settings, I would often find that I was the only woman in the room, let alone the only woman of colour. While the space sector is becoming cognizant of the need to address this lack of representation, discrimination continues to be a hurdle today. For example, most international space companies hesitate to hire non-residents or non-citizens, which actively excludes other nationalities. The space sector is also heavily gendered and male-dominated. 

My advice in this regard would be to first find a mentor who is willing to guide and support you through this environment. Moreover, when looking for opportunities, seek organizations which are committed to addressing these issues. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your work in the space policy sector

I presently work at SIPRI on space security issues for the Armament and Disarmament cluster. This sometimes involves working with other teams on interrelated subjects, such as nuclear and missile defense. I also steer projects on international disarmament education. In addition, I am a mentor for the UN Space4Women program, which aims at encouraging other genders to join the space sector. 

How does your work benefit society? 

SIPRI is among the most established institutions leading research on arms control and international security, and is especially renowned for its global mapping of arms transfers, nuclear weapons and military expenditure. SIPRI’s work informs ongoing peace research and conflict resolution processes. I enjoy working in this area as there is always scope for innovating thinking and constant exposure to new issues and challenges. 

Space Law is a growing field that focuses on how disputes in space may be resolved as humans venture further from Earth in the not too distant future.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I thoroughly enjoyed working on my research for the EU Non-proliferation and Disarmament Consortium earlier this year. I drafted a policy paper on the need to ban destructive ASAT  (Anti-Satellite ) testing.

The destructive testing of  ASATs, creates new debris in outer space  which poses a hazard to all other users of space. This paper discusses the threats posed by this kind of testing and proposes a new policy initiative to prohibit destructive ASAT testing

(available at: https://www.nonproliferation.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/EUNPDC_no-74_260421.pdf). 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

First – You are not restricted to careers at a law firm or litigation for the rest of your life. The security and disarmament field has excellent career prospects for Indian students with law degrees. There are tons of exciting options! 

Second – Don’t hold back from introducing yourself to experts and feel free to ask for advice. Whether for professional or personal guidance, reaching out is always helpful.