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IAC attendees
The International Astronautical Federation held its annual conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, this month despite concerns about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. (credit: IAF)

Maybe space shouldn’t be for all

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Space advocates have for decades been trying to expand the audience for their broad vision of a bold a future for humanity in space or for specific programs and projects. At one level, it’s a laudable effort. Getting more people interested in space helps build support for programs, particularly when trying to get funding. Broadening support also helps expand the pool of potential scientists, engineers, and others who seek to work on them.

If there was any acknowledgement of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, it didn’t make it into IAF statements leading up to or after the Congress in Baku.

But, perhaps, there should be limits to those efforts. By casting too wide a net, you bring in people and organizations that maybe, just maybe, you don’t want affiliated with your movement, as a couple recent events have demonstrated.

One is the recent International Astronautical Congress, that annual conference that brings in people from around the world to discuss space exploration. That conference hopscotches around the world, but landed this year in a curious place: Baku, Azerbaijan.

It’s curious not necessarily because Azerbaijan doesn’t have much of a space industry. If you’re into capacity building and expanding the scope of interested countries and organizations, hosting a conference in a place like Azerbaijan could be a good thing. The International Astronautical Federation (IAF), which runs the Congress, often talks about “space for @ll” and “@ll space people.” (Why they replace the “a” in “all” with the @ is a mystery, though.)

However, let’s be clear: Azerbaijan is a repressive regime. Freedom House rates the country “not free” in its annual assessment, scoring just 9 out of 100. (Neighboring Russia and Iran actually scored higher, at 16 and 12, respectively.) Another group, Reporters Without Borders, ranked the country 151st out of 180 countries for press freedoms—and that was three spots higher than where Azerbaijan ranked in 2022.

Then there is a matter of Nagorno-Karabakh, the breakaway region of Azerbaijan populated by ethnic Armenians. In the months leading up to the Congress, the government of Azerbaijan sealed off the region, preventing even humanitarian supplies from reaching civilians there. Just a couple weeks before the Congress, Azerbaijani forces conducted an assault on the region, causing the separatists to capitulate at the cost of reportedly hundreds of lives.

That might have led some organizations to reconsider their plans to host a major conference in the country, but at the IAF, it seems, the show must go on. If there was any acknowledgement of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, it didn’t make it into IAF statements leading up to or after the Congress. Instead, the IAF praised the event as the “most diverse” in its history, apparently based on the number of countries attending (132).

Yet, there are signs people stayed away because it was in Baku. The IAF said this year’s Congress had more than 5,400 attendees, but the conference a year ago in Paris had more than 9,300 registrants. According to one article, the Canadian Space Agency pulled out of this year’s Congress, citing the “humanitarian crisis,” which would seem to be a reference to Nagorno-Karabakh. Others reportedly scaled back their attendance.

(A related issue, beyond the scope of this essay, is how IAF selects locations for the conference. A look at the list of past events shows it is overweighted to Europe and even Australia at the expense of other parts of the world. India and Japan, two leading space nations, last hosted the Congress in 2007 and 2005, respectively, and the conference was last in South America in 2000. That makes the section of Baku even stranger.)

A similar controversy is now evolving on a smaller, domestic scale. A space advocacy group, the National Space Society, is preparing for a “Space Settlement Summit” at the end of this month in Phoenix. Organizers describe the event as one to discuss ways to “encourage the rapid development of technologies and capabilities required to get thousands of people living and working in space in our lifetimes.”

The event includes people from industry and academia, as well as former astronauts and a retired general. (One speaker is described as a “prominent figurehead in the spirits and space sectors,” which is probably not quite the flex the organizers intended.) NASA’s deputy administrator, Pam Melroy, is listed among the participants, as well as two members of Congress, Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ).

If the organizers are serious about not doing “cancel culture” it would seem like anyone would be welcome regardless of any abhorrent beliefs so long as they wanted to talk about space settlements.

Gosar’s name might sound familiar even if you don’t live in Arizona. Last month he criticized the retiring Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, calling him “deviant” and a “homosexual-promoting-BLM-activist” in a newsletter. “In a better society, quislings like the strange sodomy-promoting General Milley would be hung,” Gosar wrote.

Gosar was, as you’d expect, raked over the coals for advocating for the execution of Milley for baseless allegations of treason (not to mention for Gosar’s homophobic language, too), but he did not back down. Nor, apparently, have organizations of the Space Settlement Summit: as of mid-October he is still listed as one of the speakers.

Organizers appear to defend keeping Gosar on the program because of that “space for all” approach. “Anyone from AOC to MTG that has a vote on the US Federal budget is welcome to come and be educated about space and share their space focused policy thoughts,” tweeted Greg Autry, namechecking Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). “I personally don't do cancel culture or speech suppression.”

This exposes the flaws of that “space for anyone” approach. Does that mean the society would welcome a speaker who condoned the horrific assault by Hamas on Israel? A Holocaust denier? A member of the Proud Boys? One would hope not, but if the organizers are serious about not doing “cancel culture” it would seem like they would be welcome so long as they wanted to talk about space settlements.

Recall this saying: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” The space community, in its zeal (or desperation) to be open to everyone, is demonstrating that by welcoming repressive regimes and caustic congressmen. The fallout may be more than just depressed attendance at a conference. It could end up turning off legions of people with some moral backbone to space altogether.

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