Insight - The Terminology Challenges of Communicating Value in Space Enterprises

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Speaking at the sixth meeting of the National Space Council on Aug. 20, 2019, Vice President Mike Pence argued“[M]ore than ever, space is recognized as the industry of the future. In the first half of this year, we’ve seen almost as much invested in space companies as we did in the entire year before. In fact, in the last decade, more than $22 billion has been invested in nearly 500 different space companies.” 

In an emergent environment such as this, having a common language for business practices can play a crucial role in shaping the way the space domain develops and engages new stakeholders. Today, however, there is a range of vague and seemingly broad terms used to describe participants and activities in the modern space industry. The terminology that is used to describe the activities of the commercial space sector can create confusion and contribute to tensions and uncertainties that affect the development of sustained economic value through space activities. As observed in other industries, vague terminology, or lack of common understanding, can be consequential for decision-makers and may have ripple effects for the industry. 

Space community stakeholders are actively trying to encourage successful and sustainable models to promote further development. However, what makes these models successful is not always well understood and is often described in broad, non-specific language. Terms such as "newspace" and "commercial space" are widely used but appear to mean different things to different stakeholders. Creation of new terms leads to inconsistent definitions and understanding. Terms with inconsistent meanings or applications may be used in conjunction with established and well-defined business terms, creating a lack of clarity.

Motivated by a desire to better understand the role terminology is playing in the ongoing development of the commercial space sector, Secure World Foundation recently performed an analysis of the role of terminology in describing commercial space activities. The effort had three primary objectives:

  1. Verify that language inconsistencies are occurring in the space industry, and identify significant examples.
  2. Investigate and illuminate challenges/points of tension emerging from these inconsistencies.
  3. Document these challenges in order to improve consistency in understanding.

From April-June 2019, SWF conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with stakeholders covering a cross-section of the space economy. Participants were predominantly from the United States; however, the sample of stakeholders also included individuals from the UK, France, Germany, Japan, India, China, and Canada. The interview group contained investors, industry analysts, entrepreneurs, business development executives, government policymakers, and trade association representatives. Table 1 below summarizes the interviews conducted during this analysis, categorized by profession and country of operation.

Table 1: Interviewees by Role and Country

Interviewees by Sector Roles Interviewees by Base Country/Regions
4 Investor 1 Canada
5 Analyst 1 China
5 Government/Policy 1 EU/India
6 Industry/Entrepreneur 2 EU
4 Investor Relations and Advocacy 3 Japan
3 Industry/Business Development 2 UK
2 Industry/Engineer 13 US
3 Trade Association Rep 9 US/Global

The key underlying challenge for the space industry that emerged from the interviews is that of communicating value. Much of this challenge can be tied to the term “space” itself. For those in the sector, “space” can be a key part of their identity. Many of those interviewed expressed pleasure and excitement toward sharing that they were in the space industry to those outside of it. However, many also recognized that the use of the term “space” does not convey any sort of value. The commercialization of space is being willed into existence – a large amount of advocacy, business and governmental strategy effort is being placed into enabling and growing a commercial space sector. Yet, defining “space” as an industry or economic sector does not make natural sense. The term “space” does not inherently convey any particular commercial potential. It is not a resource, nor a type of business. Space is an area of operations, a place to do business – but it is not an industry segment itself. 

Due to the difficulty of communicating value with the term space, terms such as “commercial space” and “newspace” have emerged to describe value propositions for the space domain. Yet, even with these relatively common and basic terms, the complexity of different contextual uses and understandings is significant. These terms are intended to be used to increase clarity about the existence of value propositions in space. However, the analysis in this project has found that these terms are used to convey different meanings by different users, resulting in some cases in tension points with implications across the space enterprise. 

This article does not aim to provide a full discussion of the results of this analysis. A  summary of interview findings is available from the Secure World Foundation website. Over the next several months, SWF will publish further results and descriptions of findings from this analysis. In October 2019, results and will be discussed in a paper and presentation at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, DC. A more detailed white paper building upon the information presented in the Summary and discussing communication challenges and tension points related to terminology in commercial space will also be published. SWF wishes to acknowledge and thank the more than 30 industry professionals who contributed their time in being interviewed for this analysis; as well as our project Research Assistant, Mr. Rob Ronci, who led the interviews; and Caelus Foundation, who collaborated with us on this project. 

Last updated on September 5, 2019