INTERVIEW: Introducing the State Department’s Newest Legal Space Expert, Emily Pierce
Emily Pierce is an Attorney-Adviser for Oceans, International Environmental and Scientific Affairs within the Office of the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State. She’s responsible for advising on all manner of international legal issues that arise in the context of U.S. space activities, including our obligations under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the other core space treaties. She served as Special Assistant to the Legal Adviser in 2020 after returning from New York City, where she was assigned to the Legal Section at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. She has also completed rotations in United Nations Affairs and Ethics, and was detailed to the legal staff at the National Security Council in 2012. Emily is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Law School, where she teaches international organizations law. Emily was born and raised in North Canton, Ohio, but also counts herself as a Tar Heel after receiving her BA in Latin American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She enjoys knitting, patronizing the theatrical arts, eating cookies (or cake), and dancing on her own. Emily says her friends and colleagues call her a “Space Lawyer,” and she hopes that means that one day she will be able to take a work trip to space!
This is your first year heading the COPUOS’s Legal Subcommittee (LSC) delegation for the United States. Can you tell us about your path to become the State Department’s lead space lawyer?
During my more than ten years serving the U.S. Department of State and the Office of the Legal Adviser, I’ve had the good fortune and honor to represent the United States in the United Nations in New York, as well as other multilateral forums, including UNESCO. Multilateral processes and approaches through the UN and other forums are critically important tools for the United States and other countries to effectively tackle many of our most pressing foreign policy issues and problems. I find it deeply gratifying to collaborate and partner with other member states to achieve positive outcomes for all states. In this regard, working on space law issues – and serving as head of delegation for the LSC – was a natural fit. Space activities are evolving and flourishing, and many of the legal challenges or practical issues we face demand multilateral conversations and other efforts.
We’re interviewing you on the margins of the LSC. What, exactly, is the LSC and why does it matter?
The LSC is one of the two subcommittees of COPUOS and it discusses legal questions related to the exploration and use of outer space. As the U.S. Space Priorities Framework emphasizes – it is undeniable that space activities are rapidly accelerating, resulting in new opportunities in multiple sectors of society, as well as new challenges to U.S. space leadership, global space governance, the sustainability of the space environment, and safe and secure space operations. The LSC matters now more than ever. Along with COPUOS and its other subcommittee, the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee, the LSC is a principal forum for sharing information within the international community, discussing – and thus, better understanding – the challenges and issues we face, as well as promoting the implementation of existing measures and leading in the development of new measures that contribute to the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of space activities.
What are the USG priorities during the LSC?
Of particular importance for the United States for the LSC this year was that the National Space Council – chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris – issued the U.S. Space Priorities Framework in December 2021. This Framework underscores the United States’ commitment to preserving space for current and future generations, including through leadership in strengthening global governance of space activities. The LSC is a primary forum for the United States to engage the international community in promoting, upholding, and strengthening this governance framework.
In this regard, we were pleased that the Working Group on Legal Aspects of Space Resource Activities reached consensus on its multiyear work plan so that we can start to engage on the substantive work. While the United States, at this stage, sees neither a need nor a practical basis to create a comprehensive international legal regime for space resource utilization activities, we also recognize that there is strong international interest in discussing these issues in greater detail. We, along with many other signatories of the Artemis Accords, welcome the opportunity to do so.
Also, part of upholding global governance of space activities is calling out irresponsible behavior. In the last year, one LSC member state conducted a destructive, anti-satellite missile test against one of its own satellites. That test generated more than 1,500 fragments large enough to be tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network and millions of fragments too small to be tracked but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions. The United States made it a priority to call out the fact that long-lived debris generated by this dangerous and irresponsible action will threaten satellites and other space objects that are vital to all nations’ security, economic, and scientific interests for decades to come. In addition, it will significantly increase the risk to the human spaceflight activities of all nations.
Women have long faced barriers in the space field and STEM more broadly. The new chair of the LSC is a woman (Nomefuneko Majaja) from South Africa and not only are you leading the U.S. Delegation but both alternate heads of delegation are also women. Meanwhile, the Artemis Program promises to put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon. Can you tell us about your experience as a woman in the space field and any advice you have for girls and women aspiring to careers in space?
My professional career is built upon the sacrifices made, injustices suffered, and indelible legacies of all women who came before me, as well as those who are travelling alongside me. And I mean all women – everyone from Sojourner Truth (who delivered her famous speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio – just miles away from my hometown), Vice President Kamala Harris (who chairs the U.S. National Space Council), and women in leadership roles in the Office of the Legal Adviser, to my mother, older sister, and friends. I’ve also found exceptional support and leadership in other people, including countless men, so it’s important to recognize that it is not just a woman’s role to support women. My advice? Continue to lift each other up, celebrate and encourage one other. Listen, but also speak up and ask questions. Reach out to those women around and coming behind you, give them a hand up and push forward – and maybe, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to follow one of them.