Opinion | After Orlando, NASA-UAE deal gives reason to ponder space partnerships

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A reminder that national space agencies can be leaders in more than just science and technology

Space exploration can make for strange bed fellows.

On Sunday, June 12, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was in Abu Dhabi finalizing an agreement with the chairman of the United Arab Emirates Space Agency Khalif Al Romaithi. NASA noted the deal’s significance with the press release that followed:

“Both parties recognize the mutual benefit to be gained from working together in the exploration and peaceful use of outer space, and this agreement facilitates and strengthens the long-standing relationship between the United States and UAE.”

One has to wonder, in light of Sunday’s events in Orlando, is this a deal non-administration staff at NASA are happy with? How can we correct the public discourse on LGBTQ issues while acquiescing to nations who deplore their advancement?

To bring you up to speed on LGBTQ rights in the UAE… well there are none really, and there isn’t a ton of information on the LGBTQ community in the UAE. What we do know, according to both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International is that homosexuality, along with non-marital sex is considered a ‘zina’ offence. So-called ‘zina’ offences carry sentences ranging between a year in prison and death.

However, there is little reliable information on instances of LGBTQ people being sentenced under offenses classified as zina. In 2014 it was reported by Brazilian media that two visiting transgendered women from Brazil were detained and deported by UAE officials for “imitating the other sex.” According to a 2015 article by the Guardian, ‘zina’ crimes are open to significant interpretation by courts in the UAE, something BBC reporters also found out in 2015 while researching the case of a woman being sentenced to prison for non-marital sex. In realty she was raped and impregnated by her employer, with the pregnancy acting as ‘proof’ of the crime.

As you might expect, LGBTQ issues are not making significant strides in the UAE. As a result any LGBTQ people in romantic relationships (or simply being themselves) are open to the interpretation of zina laws.

Retuning to Sunday’s events, what does this mean for LGBTQ individuals employed at NASA or in the space community as a whole? We can expect that visiting space professionals will be safe from local laws, but how in good conscience are LGBTQ, or any, NASA employees expected to visit countries, where local women and LGBTQ persons are not afforded the apparent luxury of human rights.

How is anyone, who works at JPL or NASA Ames, where one is free to have a pride flag on their desk and has colleagues with pictures of same-sex partners at their workstation, supposed to travel to partner countries where such a thing is prison-worthy?

The enduring reality of partnerships in space exploration is that they too often skirt the values we share beyond scientific and technical expertise. We can’t be praising space exploration as a promotion of humanity’s potential, while also turning a blind eye to partners with laws stuck in the 14th Century.

It is not common in the space community to question these types of things, I am constantly reminded by my Lockheed Martin mouse pad (received as swag at a planetary science conference), that the space community doesn’t like to mix politics with science. Now sometimes there are good reasons for that (*cough* climate change *cough*).

But the timing of Sunday’s deal makes clear just how powerful it could be if the world’s leading organization in space science and technology were to also take a stance on, or at least recognize, social and political values of the 21st Century.


Danny Bednar (@SpaceProfessor2) is PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at Western University in Canada. He is a lecturer in space exploration and geopolitics researching environmental and Earth orbit governance.