Insight - Telling the Story of Space Activity

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Given the exciting developments in space activity - from new launch capabilities to expanding commercial satellite services to government research and missions to the Moon - how does the public view space activity? Is the average citizen of this planet interested, excited, and supportive? Or are they skeptical, worried about wasted resources, and wanting to focus more on terrestrial research for climate change and other pressing problems? What about politicians, investors, and other stakeholders who are key in providing funding and policy support for our work? 

We in the space industry understand and value the contributions that space research and technology provide as tangible and intangible benefits, not to mention the inspiration, but often we mistakenly assume that others have the same knowledge and enthusiasm that we do. 

A recent report by Inmarsat calls this assumption into question. This document, based on a survey of 20,000 people in eleven  countries, showed that respondents were largely unaware of the contributions of early space activities to current technology and also did not have a strong sense of interest in or knowledge of current commercial capabilities and services. In fact, only eleven percent of the participants associated “space” with about ninety percent of services offered by satellites. This gap highlights that public understanding of the value of space is not widespread. A casual glance at social media sites like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram as well as mainstream media headlines also highlights this problem. Social-media influencers question how much launches contribute to climate change, often citing incorrect data. Media headlines often focus on the “billionaire space race” rather than the benefit of human space activities. While there is certainly enthusiasm and interest from certain segments of the population, there is also concurrently a lot of criticism about the benefits of space and an overall lack of knowledge about it. 

Social media memes and misleading headlines may not seem like a major concern for our industry, but these issues have the potential to affect future funding, policy decisions, and workforce development. Recent research carried out by AGH University of Science and Technology found support for space activities but little interest in actually pursuing careers in the field among its survey participants*. The next generation of space professionals, from engineers to data scientists to policy professionals, will have come of age during a time where media coverage of space activity is much more mixed than in the past. Misperceptions about the value of space, its perceived negative contribution to climate change issues, and its ties to wealthy, controversial individuals will likely influence their career decisions. 

Secure Word Foundation is seeking to better understand this problem of space and public relations through a series of events and collaborations. At SWF’s Summit for Space Sustainability, held in London in June, experts from the launch industry, media, and public relations offered their insights on this matter. Key themes that emerged included the need to better engage with mainstream media and to improve how we tell the “story” of our industry rather than just release data and facts about technological advancements. The video of this panel is available, as is an article on SpaceWatch.Global about the themes that emerged. Additionally, as part of an ongoing collaboration with SpaceWatch.Global focused on creating a new communication language, strategies, and outreach environment for the space domain at large, Secure World Foundation has also supported a series of radio interviews with experts on this topic. The first, with Temi Shogelola, of the UK Space Agency, highlights the needs of the space domain to implement policies to further space sustainability, while the second with Farzana Baduel takes a deep dive into communication flaws and potential strategies for the community to consider. Finally, Secure World Foundation collaborated with Astroscale to present a paper at the International Astronautical Congress 2022 which explored ways in which the space sector might better create and connect its value to society by building better relationships with other sectors, the public, and the media.

These efforts represent only the first steps in exploring how the space industry can better represent itself to the public and other key stakeholders as well as respond to our growing number of critics. Future work will include additional research, workshops, and articles delving deeply into what kinds of communications strategies can be most effective.

*Pyrkosz-Pacyna,  J., Cieślak, K., Zwierżdżyński, M. (2022). Space exploration perception and engagement intention among STEM university students – results from a mixed method study. The New Educational Review, 69(3), 191-208.)*

Last updated on June 30, 2023