People used to ask space lawyer Dr Cassandra Steer if her job was to make treaties with aliens. Back in the mid-2010s, not many lawyers were interested in space. But Cassandra could see how important it would soon become.
Fast forward to today, and space law is an incredibly diverse field. “There’s now a crossover in different areas of law, with people starting to look at space,” Cassandra says. Environmental lawyers need to be able to help write environmental impact statements for launches. Contract lawyers are helping space companies ensure that their work complies with complex regulations. “Practicing lawyers are starting to see that this is an area where they need skills.”
Cassandra started her career studying international law in Amsterdam. Her research initially focused on international criminal law, and how people and nations can be held accountable for war crimes. That led her to think about how technology was changing warfare, which in turn led her to space.
“People often say that the next war is going to be fought in space,” she says. “My main focus is on keeping space secure and peaceful.”
Ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to access space is another of Cassandra’s interests. Low-Earth orbit is becoming crowded with satellites and debris, with more launching all the time. Cassandra is worried that low-income countries are being left behind.
“Everyone is supposed to have a right of access to space, but some countries have always been locked out,” she says. “Orbits and the radio frequencies we use to send data back to Earth are finite resources. Countries that are slower in developing their space programs are going to miss the opportunity.”
Traffic congestion in space is also an environmental problem, says Cassandra. “Our near-Earth orbit is part of our natural environment. How are we going to manage that sustainably, so that future generations can still access space? We need to be doing things differently from how we're doing them right now.”
Cassandra believes that Indigenous approaches to law making can provide inspiration to solve this problem. “We have a culture in Australia that’s been managing environments for long term sustainability and intergenerational responsibility for 60,000 years,” she says. “Indigenous Australian notions of law and governance are more deliberative, more people are involved in making decisions. It’s not just top-down.”
In the not-too-distant future, everyone will be interacting with space and Cassandra wants to make sure we are all safe.
“My daughter is three, and by the time she’s in her 20s she’ll be getting suborbital flights to London and be there in four hours. Space is just going to be a normal, everyday part of her life,” Cassandra says. “I just want to make sure that it’s a safe and secure place for her.”
Cassandra completed a Bachelor of Arts (Philosophy) at the University of New South Wales.
An exchange semester in Amsterdam inspired her to move there and study International Law. She completed degrees in Dutch law and international law at the University of Amsterdam in 2005 as a mature age student.
She worked as a lecturer in criminal law at the University of Amsterdam for eight years. She also completed her PhD there in 2014.
In 2015, Cassandra moved to Canada to take up a postdoctoral research position at the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University.
Then, in 2020, Cassandra and her family moved back to Australia. She now works at the ANU College of Law as a Senior Lecturer. She is also a Mission Specialist with InSpace.