Some of the top thinkers about the future of space visited Seattle this week as part of the U.S.-Japan Space Forum. The forum, supported by the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, is a standing committee of policy experts who meet regularly to sort out the challenges and opportunities for the two countries and more. The group had two days of private meetings in town, followed by a public symposium Wednesday at the Museum of Flight. Saadia Pekkanen, a professor at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and a co-chair of the forum, said there was good reason to bring the discussion to Seattle.
“Seattle is in many ways the new hub for space policy, bringing together a combination of billionaire interest, technical workforce talents, and also shared passion on the part of educational institutions like the Museum of Flight to take and advance our understanding of space,” Pekkanen said. She added that space is no longer dominated just by governments, and that the list of important partners includes longtime contractors such as Boeing and all of the newcomers in commercial space as well.
“We are also dealing with a world that is no longer just dominated by Western players,” Pekkanen said. “The most ambitious space players, I would say, are actually found in Asia—not only ambitious but also very competent.”
With so many countries and companies getting into the space business we have to examine our old assumptions.
“We can no longer take the rules of the game—the normative, the legal, the policy, and the regulatory frameworks that have really shaped global space affairs—for granted,” Pekkanen said. Shaping that discussion, she said, is a big part of what the U.S.-Japan Forum is all about.
Roy Kamphausen, the vice president of the National Bureau of Asian Research, spelled out six challenges for space and security in the Asia-Pacific region. These include China’s space expansion, conflict with North Korea, the evolving and complex relationship between China and Russia, Southeast Asia’s reluctance to act on military and security questions, and changing priorities and resources for the United States and Japan.
Hiroshi Yamakawa, a professor from Kyoto University, noted that space debris and possible threats to assets in space also present challenges. Yamakawa presented a history of collaboration in space between the U.S. and Japan, which he said goes back more than 50 years.
“It’s a very long and sustainable cooperation since the beginning of the space age,” Yamakawa said, noting Japan had recently extended its commitment to work with the International Space Station until at least 2024. “I hope that this cooperation will last at least until 3016.”
Collaboration in space
Collaboration in space comes down to pretty practical matters. For one, few countries have the funds to go it alone in space any more.
“This backdrop of real threats, favorable policy environment, and budgetary constraints creates an environment that necessitates greater collaboration in space and defense,” said Ron Lopez, director of Asia-Pacific business development for Boeing. “We’re talking about the bringing together of superior technologies with skills and know-how to develop value-added, cost-effective solutions.”
“The purpose of collaboration is really to do more with less,” Lopez added.
Collaboration is not a new idea. Shoichiro Asada of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries pointed out that U.S. and Japanese companies have already worked together on missile defense systems, jet fighters and engines, and other systems.
“Until now, industries in the U.S. and Japan have had a good relationship in space and defense,” Asada said. He had five suggestions about how that could be made even more productive. These include promotion of collaboration between governments and of an open-door policy for government procurement, harmonizing of procurement rules and of requirements and specifications for projects, and standardizing parts, which he admits can be a challenge when few of certain items are produced.
John Mittleman, expert on maritime domain awareness with the U.S. Naval Research Lab, gave an interesting presentation about the huge quantities of data available, especially from small satellites. We can pinpoint practically every ship at sea as we work on security considerations. Information about what is happening on the oceans can also inform us about other challenges, such as resource issues, energy, and climate change. There’s so much data that Mittleman says machines are going to have to do a lot of the heavy thinking.
“Machine learning embedded in big-data analytics will rival human all-source analysis, with one important distinction: the volume of information they can handle will far surpass the speed and capacity of the world’s entire corps of intelligence analysts,” Mittleman said. “Very useful information can be pulled from massive troves of data, whether the data comes form satellites, drones, every car on the highway, every smart phone in your pocket, or anywhere else.”
Can computers really think and understand? Mittleman said the premise of the 2015 film Ex Machina is not all that far-fetched.
“Machine learning can and does discover very complex relationships, hidden relationships, that look an awful lot like human intuition,” he said. “We’re beginning to see real, live, effective understanding coming from the conjunction of persistent, multi-source data with high-speed, high-volume data analytics.”
There’s a fascinating and important future ahead in space, and Seattle people and companies will have a big part to play.