Q&A: Development professional up for a new challenge? Look to space

Yvette Gonzalez, founder of Gonzalez Global Solutions. Photo from: Yvette Gonzalez

BARCELONA — Two years ago, Yvette Gonzalez was considering a career transition and looking for ways to use her development skills for even greater impact. After months of research and reaching out to different organizations and professionals, she discovered that Colorado's International Institute for Astronautical Sciences was accepting applications.

While Gonzalez had a background in public health, she hadn’t previously worked in science, technology, or engineering. But she applied anyway — and it changed everything, she said. She now speaks at events around the world on how space policy can support the Sustainable Development Goals and, through her small consulting firm, provides expertise on business development for aerospace, space, and human factors — the study of humans and their role in complex systems, and the design of solutions and environments — as well as emergency response.

“If you have resilience, human behavior, or human-centered design experience you have every applicable opportunity to work with engineers across several organizations that have contracts with NASA.”

— Yvette Gonzalez, human resilience expert, founder of Gonzalez Global Solutions

Devex finds out more about space policy and the SDGs — and where there might be career opportunities for development professionals in this field.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What exactly are the “space policy SDGs”?

They are the same SDGs that we particularly focus on for development, except we're looking at them from the perspective of how space technology applies to collaboration and cooperation on Earth ... How can satellite data be applied to learning about water systems, agriculture, population movements, environmental degradation? How do we apply it to humanitarian and development goals in a way that it tells a larger macro story [about] what we can do together?

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UNOOSA — the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs — focuses on bringing together the aerospace and space industry and saying how do your technologies apply ... to [humanitarian and development] crises, to collaborating across borders on earth for any myriad of topics — livelihood, nutrition, especially infrastructure, and climate.

Is this a relatively new practice within development?

They’ve been in practice for several years, I can’t say exactly how long because there are several different groups doing it [UNOOSA has its origins in the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, established in 1958].

There's a group of government space agencies that openly share free information and data from satellites for humanitarian disasters and responses. It was an agreement among 19 or 20 countries to do that. The data is made available so that in a disaster or a crisis it can be used for whatever is necessary on the ground.

It’s not as recent as it might sound when we talk about space policy SDGs. It sounds very futuristic. We [use space technologies to] learn about our own planet, about our people, about behavior and movements and resources, which are all factors in development and humanitarian reform.

How did your development background and skills translate to this new area of work?

One of the leading skill sets that has helped me is my human resilience work. Anybody who's worked in development or humanitarian aid for more than a decade or two can see that a lot of it is about human interaction and human behavior … [In a hurricane response, for example], what are the mechanisms that a community takes on quickly to thrive, to stabilize, rebuild, revitalize and go forward?

When I transferred my skills, I'm a proposal writer, I'm a business development expert, a relationship manager, but I also understand how people adapt to new environments, which apply to human factors and space.

For anyone wondering how they can transfer their development experience to working on the space SDGs or space engineering, where are there opportunities for them to do so?

There are so many options. One is if people are interested in human factors, which is a really transferable skill from development and humanitarian work, having the ability to understand human interaction is so key to engineering groups. I would call this, especially for development, human-centered design.

If you have resilience, human behavior, or human-centered design experience you have every applicable opportunity to work with engineers across several organizations that have contracts with NASA.

The second is for space policy. There are teams of space lawyers and space policy experts who focus, on what I have to say, is one of the more challenging and intangible aspects [of this work], which is who is in charge of space regulation and who's in charge of space policy.

How do we ensure that space lawyers are prepared for the myriad of potential litigation in space for imposing on each other's satellites, landing on the moon, and who's going to have jurisdiction? It's exactly the same semantics and language that we would use in development at a policy level.

Then you have program managers, program coordinators. These jobs, when you look at the aerospace and space sector, also transfer to how do you manage teams, how do you manage expectations, and how do you manage government funding.

One other one that I think is really fun is agronomists. There were so many experiments being done on how do we create food for space, what is human behavior around food in space, and what is the actual physiology of the human body in weightlessness. What is it that your body needs for nutrition and can we grow that sustainably on a ship, in a habitat on another planet, or on the moon.

Update, Oct. 11, 2019: The article has been updated to clarify that Yvette Gonzalez applied at the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences in Colorado.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.