Saadia Pekkanen watches for threats above the sky

Saadia Pekkanen has always been fascinated by space. A famous photograph of Earth from afar connects her to that interest—and reminds her of our planet’s fragility. “Earthrise” captures a cloud-swirled Earth rising over the stark lunar horizon. Astronaut William Anders shot it in 1968 as Apollo 8 circled the moon. A half-century later, the image is considered the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.

“That was a picture I hung above my desk,” says Pekkanen. “It’s just inspiring to me.”

That inspiration has led the international relations scholar to develop an expertise in space policy and security. Here on Earth, Pekkanen holds several titles. An associate director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, she is the founding director of the school’s doctoral program. She also holds the Job and Gertrud Tamaki Professorship of Japanese Studies.

As the daughter of a United Nations official, Pekkanen “grew up all over the world” before arriving in the United States in her 20s. With master’s degrees from Columbia University and the Yale Law School and a doctorate in political science from Harvard, she was recruited to the UW 12 years ago. It was a promising perch from which to pursue her work on international relations with Asia.

“Little did I imagine that the Pacific Northwest was going to become the amazing regional space player it is becoming, both in terms of technology and policy,” she says. “It’s not just about space technology anymore, but also about how the geopolitical context within it is being developed.”

Pekkanen has leveraged the UW’s proximity to aerospace companies like Blue Origin, Aerojet Rocketdyne, SpaceX and Boeing. She is working to gather these stakeholders for regular discussions related to this new space age. In her column for Forbes, Pekkanen writes about the new efforts to dominate outer space. One piece describes how orbital debris not only endangers human missions and space assets, but could provide cover for the maneuvers of ambitious military space powers. This is a potentially “dire threat” to peace and sustainability in space, she says. Technologies developed to remove unwanted material from orbit could also be deployed to destroy an adversary’s communications or space-based navigation systems.

“Our civilian, commercial and military life depends on those assets,” she says. “So, for a dependent space power like the United States, that’s a huge concern.”

These issues—the need for cooperation in space and the dangers ahead—bring the conversation back around to “Earthrise” for Pekkanen.

“As I got to know space, my image of that picture began to change,” she says. “Because now what you’re actually seeing is the heavens covered in debris.”

Read a Q&A with Pekkanen from UW News.