Curiosity for the unknown and the desire to do something she is genuinely interested in led Valerie Vlasenko to space. A journalist, a space lawyer, the founder of Vspace Media – she works for her every step to be just like space exploration – valuable and courageous. While discussing the endless possibilities of space, Valerie also told us a little about the path to her fascinating career choice, Vspace Media, upcoming Tech Touch online conference and other things connected to the mysterious space.
What inspired you to get involved with the space? When and how did you realize that this was something you wanted to do?
As a child, I was always filled with infinite curiosity for the unknown, and space was one of them. When I was five, I kept saying that I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up but of course nobody took it seriously, probably not even myself.
The first time when I started to take Space seriously was during my 5th grade at the University. At the time, I was an international law student and started working as a corporate paralegal already in my second year. As it turned out, the reality of the legal profession was not at all what I had imagined before entering law school. Having spent two years on it, I was completely drained, and needed a change. So, I quickly and decisively quit my job and went back to my studies. The stage was set for what would be the choice of my life. It was also the time to choose the topic for my thesis and I was struggling to find a good one. While browsing through the school book I noticed a tiny chapter in it called “Air and Space Law”.
Air and Space Law? There is such a thing? Whether it did, or did not – did not matter. This was it. This was my topic. Space law. It looked so strange and so unique, and it made the law seem almost fun. Without further ado, I drafted a proposal and submitted it to my professor. He got excited about the topic as well and gave me the green light.
Once I started, I became genuinely surprised. This was way before companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX hit the headlines. Space agencies seemed almost unreachable where only a few lucky ones could get. Not to mention that of course nobody talked about private space back then. Space law didn’t look promising career-wise but I decided to follow my intuition and study something I’m genuinely interested in. I have chosen passion over money and a prosperous career. Little did I know where this decision would take me.
Years later I realized that space is actually a massive industry, yet, relatively new one. I sensed that it carried a lot of opportunities and the more I explored it, the more mesmerising it appeared to be.
How did you come up with the idea of creating VSpace and what is your main goal?
VSpace has been around for around 5 years by now, and it started when I realized that space would be our future very soon. Since the beginning my main goal was to open up space to other people, to help them recognise what space means for them, who are we in it and what do we do to understand it better.
One of my favourite proverbs says: “Jump off the cliff, and build the wings on your way down.” There are two aspects to it that I use at my work. These are: courage and the ability to bring value, regardless of the circumstances. These have been two of my guiding principles at Vspace. It is important that everything I do brings value and takes courage to execute. Just as space exploration.
I don’t limit myself to one specific project or service, but I make sure that everything I do aligns with my main goal and principles. My main focus has been to help space companies with marketing and PR, and now I feel that I am ready to start my very own space startup in the field of space education for children called AstroBox.
What kinds of possibilities does the space hold for us, humans?
There are matters that we know, and matters that we don’t know. Space adds a new layer to both – the things that we do not know that we do not know. Once we explore this ultimate unknown, we come to understand better what we already know, and discover things beyond our imagination.
Therefore, space gives us a possibility to learn more about ourselves, through science, research, and or societal and economic development.
Technologies developed for space impact various industries, such as mobility, health, logistics, medicine or countless others – there is no limit. Thanks to space applications we now have fast internet on bullet trains and planes, are able to prevent natural disasters and tackle environmental challenges. But it is not just about the technology anymore. It is about new ways of cooperation between different players to make space more attainable in our daily life. Most importantly it fulfils our curiosity and our inbuilt desire to explore the unknown, and this is where the most exciting possibilities lie.
Does the space get the attention it deserves from the society? How has the society’s curiosity changed since the first man in space?
Space gets more and more attention because it becomes more and more prominent. There is more money in space than ever before, and when there is money there is attention – not only from the media, but from private enterprises as well. With companies such as SpaceX, Nanoracks, Boeing – space is becoming a lot more private than it used to be. Private companies know how to be loud, and that opens up opportunities for young entrepreneurs to tap into this fascinating domain. We are not yet there, but the trajectory is good. With a bit more fuel, I believe, space will become the dominant industry of Earth.
How does space related startups, hackathons and summits increase society’s interest in space?
Just like any other industry, space has its own ecosystem of players – education & research institutions, space agencies, startup hubs, entrepreneurs, investors, etc. International tech events such as, TechTouch, which bring together top names in entrepreneurship and innovation, ultimately become a meeting point for all of the above. They offer an efficient way to connect with the ecosystem, discuss ideas, gain insights and to build the right connections. If approached correctly, such connections may result in fruitful cooperation.
Hackathons are great for fresh ideas to get tested, and at least partially – to get them implemented too. They teach you how to work in teams, and how to get things done in a short period of time. This is valuable, especially for space entrepreneurs.
Think of it as a quick simulation of starting and running a business. The more of these we have, the more real businesses will graduate from the simulations into the real world. Hackathons are often organised in collaboration with universities and companies that may become a potential client of the services designed, so we are getting space companies to market – faster.
Hackathons are great not just for students and entrepreneurs, but for large enterprises as it opens them up for new ideas and new ways of work. The more activity there is, the better. Hackathons, startups, summits, talks, panels – there more buzz we create, the more action people will take. Unlike in many other industries – space buzz is real.
As a journalist, you have interviewed many of the top names of your industry. Who were the most memorable and interesting ones and why?
For me, the most memorable experience was my first interview with a real astronaut – an Italian astronaut for the European Space Agency Luca Parmitano, who at the time was the youngest astronaut to take on a long-duration mission. He returned from his second space flight earlier this year. Parmitano was also the only human in space, who had a near-drowning accident. During an EVA (extravehicular activity) in July 2013, he had a water leak in his spacesuit – by far, one of the scariest human emergencies in spacewalk history.
Setting Luca’s nearly-drowning story aside, here are the gold nuggets that opened my eyes to what it means to be an astronaut. They have helped me a lot in my own career, and I hope you will find them of value too.
First of all, as an astronaut – you must learn to be good at many things: medicine, engineering, leadership, problem solving, interpersonal communication, astrophysics, rocket scene, and so on. The more you learn, the less you fear the unknown and the more you are ready to build your wings on your way. It is a perfect example of a holistic way of learning and executing.
Second, you need to have a big vision. When we look at Earth from space, there are no borders between countries and no distinction between species – our planet is but one large living organism. Parmitano acknowledged that as a society, we can only go beyond our capabilities and explore the universe if we do so in unity. “Astronauts and agencies have one big vision. It’s not a dream. The dream is unachievable, but the vision is something we are working for. The more ambitious the vision, the more people will unite behind it.”
Finally, you need to be humble. “Many people see astronauts as superhumans. The truth is that astronauts are the most average people you can find on Earth. What sets us apart is our training. We are able to perform in an extreme environment like space because of the people that train us,” said Luca.
You have got a strong background in Space Law – a very specific field. How are laws useful in space?
Laws in space are not just useful, they are essential. They determine how we set our course on exploring these new domains. Space law as it is today might not be the most popular area of law but it will be. The industry will expand creating new cases and precedents. We have already seen new developments with asteroid mining, and I believe there will be more when space tourism becomes more pronounced.
Space involves multiple players, that may come from different jurisdictions. Thus, any relationships that occur between them need to be regulated and documented. This is what space law ultimate does – regulates the relationships and sets guidelines for acceptable behaviour in space. I believe legislative work in space will be quite exciting in the years to come. It is the uncharted land, and with it – we have an opportunity to look at things anew from all perspectives, including – law.
What are your expectations from Touch Digital Summit held in Tbilisi, Georgia?
Doing events during such unusual times is crazy. That’s why I am really excited about it! You are making the impossible – possible, with the tools available to you. Just like space exploration.
Everybody talks about how businesses are struggling during COVID, but let’s look at the bright side – many new companies will be created and many of those will succeed. Just as with every recession in history. My hope is that founders of these companies will find inspiration, knowledge and contacts through Touch Digital Summit.
For many people anything related to space remains as a childhood wish. What advice can you give to those who don’t want to give up on their dreams?
When people think about space, they usually think upstream: rockets, shuttles, space travel. However, space is much more than that. One doesn’t need to be a ‘rocket scientist’ to be able to work with space applications and to contribute to the results. Therefore, I am convinced that it is the diversity and the right combination of skills that makes the magic of space – possible. Space engineers are certainly at the core of the industry in many ways, but if it wasn’t for people from different backgrounds – lawyers, designers, psychologists, etc – many space-based applications would have never appeared on the market, and we certainly wouldn’t be where we are now in our space exploration endeavour.
Therefore, whatever your dream or vision for space is – do not let anyone stop you. What sets astronauts apart – is that they do everything possible to achieve their childhood dreams. How about you?