6 mins read 04 Jul 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: Professor Melissa de Zwart

Women play a huge role in the Australian space sector, and each week will be sharing the story of an inspiring woman who makes our community so special. 

Professor Melissa de Zwart is Professor of (Digital Technology, Security & Governance) at Jeff Bleich Center for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Flinders University. Credit: Supplied.

Professor Melissa de Zwart - Professor (Digital Technology, Security & Governance) at the Jeff Bleich Center for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Flinders University, Security and Governance Deputy Chair, Board Member of both the Space Industry Association of Australia and the Australian Academy of Law.


What is your role at Flinders University?

I research the laws affecting the commercial and military uses of space and participate in public debate regarding effective and efficient regulation of space. This research enables me to engage in submissions to government, advice to industry and cross-disciplinary engagement with matters such as space security e.g. contributing to the debate on space debris, norms for responsible uses of outer space, space traffic management and law reform. 

My role with the Space Industry Association of Australia is a great privilege, to support and assist the growth of the space sector and space industry in Australia.  

How did you end up working in the space sector and what drew you to it?

My background in technology law and especially intellectual property and cyber led me into working with space startups and entrepreneurs trying to navigate the complex legal regime of space law. 

I have always been passionate about Australian scientific discovery and capability and was inspired by the work done at Woomera in the sixties to launch things into space from outback Australia. Who could not be inspired by the incredible achievement to launch our own domestic satellite? 

I learned so much from the generosity of the space sector in South Australia and their willingness to share their knowledge and experience. The 2017 International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide was also a fabulous experience and to be part of the work behind the creation of Australia's space agency (and to be present at that announcement and that amazing Opening Ceremony) was very rewarding. 

What advice would you give to people looking to start their career in the Australian space industry, whether they are new graduates or those looking to move their careers over?

The best advice I have is simply to show up! There are so many presentations and information and networking events on offer, now we have face-to-face events again. Go along, introduce yourself, listen to the speakers, and make notes. 

The industry-run events offer invaluable first-hand experience and advice. There are often career nights and information sessions on offer where you can meet people working across the space sector.

Who have you met that has had the most impact on your career journey so far?

So many people, as the space community is quite small and we tend to know one another quite well from the work we have all done to get this far! 

In particular, Michael Davis has been the inspiration to bring the Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot back to Australia and to get more lawyers working on important space law questions; David Ball provided quiet and dedicated mentorship and leadership at the SIAA; Matt Tetlow, Innovor and Paddy Neumann, Neumann Space, who have spent hours explaining space technology and space business issues to me; Joel Lisk, whose knowledge of the domestic space law regime is legendary and John Culton, ATCSR, who has great plans and a great rover competition. 

Most of all would be the friendship I have received from Sumen Rai, Defence Innovation Partnership; Alice Gorman, space archaeologist extraordinaire; Stacey Henderson, my partner in imagining human-space endeavours; Stephanie Wan, Jessica West, Cassandra Steer, Laura Grego, Laurie Blank and so many more generous people.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton is the principal investigator of the Psyche Mission, a mission to visit a metal rich asteroid orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. She is also is a Foundation and Regents Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Credit: Arizona State University.

Which women in the history of the Space Industry do you look up to? What was it about their achievements that resonated with you?

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who is leading the NASA Psyche Mission, which is a journey to a unique metal-rich asteroid orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. The mission is due to launch at the beginning of August.

Lindy, in addition to being Regents Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, ASU; vice president and co-founder of the ASU Interplanetary Initiative, author of numerous books, TED talker, photographer, nature observer, and all-round extraordinary person, still finds time to answer emails and provide insight and kindness wherever she can. 

For all of her own achievements, which are more than worthy of celebration, she spends more time praising the success of others and making links across her community for the common good. I admire her immense talent, dedication and work ethic, as well as her care and generosity.   

What do you think are some of the issues faced by women in the space sector and how do you think they should be resolved?

Gender should not be an issue in any industry, but we still encounter the belief that space science and engineering is a male domain. The right to be recognised as the leader or the expert is still hard to achieve. 

The resolution of this issue is certainly not up to women on their own. 

A simple approach may be to be more mindful of organising balanced panels, mentoring a junior colleague, listening rather than talking and opening events up to a greater diversity of voices.

What are you most excited about in the coming years for the Australian Space Industry?

The expansion of commercial space and its increased role in space traffic management and keeping the space domain open for all to use. I am also very excited about the return of humans to the Moon and beyond. 

I hope we make it to Mars before too long, what an incredible adventure!! The creation of an Australian Space Agency has certainly been a step-change for the industry.

What has been your most interesting discovery or been the most interesting space-related project you have worked on or been part of?

When I think about highlights, I think about the announcement of the Space Agency, the participation in the recent review of the Space Industry by the House of Representatives, visiting Woomera, and standing in the Arizona desert watching Chris Hadfield play his guitar: it really has been an adventure so far and it is only getting better.