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Donna Lawler

Donna Lawler is Assistant General Counsel for Optus Satellite, an Australian satellite operator, and a member of the International Institute of Space Lawyers. Over more than eighteen years in the satellite industry she has had key involvement in the build and launch programmes for six satellites on behalf of Optus and its parent company SingTel. These include the Optus C1 satellite, which is a hybrid civilian and military spacecraft, jointly owned by Optus and the Australian Defence Forces. Today she is relied on by Optus for advice on all legal aspects of its satellite business, including securing the use of orbital slots, advising on risk, liability and insurance issues for space-related projects and negotiating civilian and military satellite-related contracts. She has served on the advisory board of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering & Research, has published joint papers on Space Law topics internationally and has been a presenter on Space Law at civil and military forums in Australia (including the International Space University’s Southern Hemisphere Space Program), Europe, South Africa, Canada and the United States. Donna is also the Deputy Chair of Performance Space, a Sydney-based experimental arts company. Donna was interviewed for the WDSN in May, 2018. 

Thanks for chatting with us Donna! Can you start by telling us more about how you got into the area of commercial space law?

My background is commercial technology, telecommunications and intellectual property law in Sydney and Hong Kong. On my first day as an in-house counsel at Optus almost 20 years ago, I was stunned to find a copy of the Space Activities Act 1998 on my chair, together with the five international space treaties. Optus’ resident rocket scientist, Dr Gordon Pike, then paid me a visit. ‘If you’re going to be advising the Satellite Business, you’d better read these’ he said. That was the first time I heard that I’d been assigned to this amazing part of Optus’ business. Not many people know that Optus started as Australia’s Government owned satellite operator known as Aussat more than 30 years ago. I found myself working on the programme to build and launch the Optus C1 satellite, a hybrid civilian and military spacecraft, which was a very steep learning curve. Years later I discovered that it was possible to study Space Law at University – a subject that didn’t exist when I was at University. I wrote to the Professor teaching the course, then Associate Professor Steven Freeland (now Dean of Law at Western Sydney University), who kindly invited to me to give a guest lecture in the course. To cut a long story short, we are now married, so Space Law has certainly given me more than just a career.

What advice do you have for women wanting to get into the space industry?

Now is a great time. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) aims to increase participation by women from 38% to 50% by 2025, championed by its Director, Dr Simonetta di Pippo of Italy, as part of its ‘Space for Women’ initiative. At the same time, the space industry in Australia is seeking to involve more women in all fields, but particularly in engineering. Whilst in the past, Optus was one of a very small number of employers in this area, now there are now increasing numbers of companies either starting up or beginning initiatives that involve outer space. My advice to women who are interested in this area would be to attend as many workshops and other events relevant to your sphere of interest as possible – the space community is still relatively small and it’s possible to get to know many of the key players by being in situ. If you don’t find work in a specifically space-related company at first, think about other commercial, technical or legal skills that you can glean in other industries. Breadth of experience can really be of value once you do enter the industry.

What podcasts are you currently listening to?

I love listening to a good podcast while I’m cycling around the park. Radiolab is a great one for quirky stories that often have a scientific bent – usually with a surprising twist at the end. It’s spinoff, More Perfect, reveals the stories that underlie major decisions of the US Supreme Court. You don’t need to be a scientist or a lawyer to find these narratives deeply thought-provoking. I love having my own perspective challenged.

How could we manage the space domain in terms of space and telecommunications law when many governments are struggling to maintain law and order on the ground and relations between major global players become ever more tumultuous?

The Outer Space Treaty 1967 and other international space instruments came into being during the Cold War, when relations between nations were anything but easy. Yet despite these difficult circumstances, some lofty and binding principles were agreed by the states parties, such as ‘the exploration and use of outer space... is the province of all [human]kind’ and the notion that the moon and other celestial bodies are to be used exclusively for ‘peaceful purposes’. The scope and meaning of this last phrase has, of course, been much debated, and rightly so. However, some would now seek to disregard the Space Treaties entirely in favour of expediency, arguing that international space law has little or no relevance when it comes to assessing the legality of their own proposed activities in space. My personal view is that it would be a grave error to leave these ideas behind and treat space as if it were the same as any other domain. We may not have an international police force to enforce norms of behaviour in space, but asserting and abiding by international legal norms remains an important value.

Finally, who inspires you?

There are some amazing women working in Optus Satellite who inspire me every day. They are technical experts, helping to operate our satellites. It stuns me that they can issue commands from the little suburb of Belrose in Sydney to control an object 30,000 km away.

Updated: 18 Dec 2018