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Survey shows unsettling ignorance of space — how to change that

FILE – This photo made available by NASA shows Hurricane Harvey over Texas on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, seen from the International Space Station. Studies show that climate change are making hurricanes wetter, because warm air can hold more moisture, and are making the strongest storms a bit stronger. (Randy Bresnik/NASA via AP, File)

We now have sobering insights on the knowledge people have about the benefits of space. British satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat just released a survey of 20,000 people in 11 countries.

The report, “What on Earth is the Value of Space,” asked what people associate with space. The findings included 21 percent noting aliens, 14 percent said science fiction, 10 percent associated it with “Star Wars”  — while just 8 percent answered for communications and connectivity and 3 percent for broadcasting and television.

“This suggests that perceptions are being shaped more by popular culture — and less by the true role space plays in today’s economy,” the report states.

The report also notes a “generational divide” in attitudes toward space.

“Younger people (18 – 24) are more likely to link billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk with space than 55 – 64-year-olds. Perhaps this is because people aged 55+ remember the Space Race, NASA’s shuttle [program] and all the wonder attached to space at that time. Whereas 18 – 24-year-olds have grown up associating technological innovation with the internet and are more likely to follow billionaires like Musk and Bezos on social media,” the report says.

Among respondents, 37 percent associate space with going to the moon and Mars; 20 percent associate it with space tourism; and 25 percent associate space with “research and exploration.”

A small core of people have some understanding of how space might benefit people on Earth. “For example, 7 [percent] of respondents said that space can alleviate poverty. While another 7 [percent] thought space can support the goal of producing enough food.” That number is awe-inspiringly tiny, however.

What can be done about this disengagement from space and the benefits that it offers? NASA certainly has a strong web presence and is active on Twitter. The print media has offered information about the benefits of space exploration, especially in regard to sciencecommerce and even soft political power. But not enough people seem to be paying attention.

The fact that many people get their information on space from popular culture is also concerning. For every wonderful movie or TV show like “The Martian” and “For All Mankind” in my view, there are arguably horrible ones such as “Moonfall” and the recently canceled “Space Force.” Popular culture is not a reliable source for accurate information on space and its benefits.

The TV news media’s coverage of space has been spotty at best, especially compared to how it approached the Apollo race to the moon. The big three cable networks do not cover space missions wall to wall, as the networks did in the 1960s. Everything is available on live stream, including every SpaceX Falcon 9 launch and Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital jaunts for the rich and adventurous. However, little or no thoughtful analysis and debate occurs on the cable news networks. Indeed, sometimes, commercial space comes into mockery, as was the case when Fox News’ Tucker Carlson compared Jeff Bezos to Dr. Evil.

Once NASA’s Project Artemis to return to the moon begins in earnest, with launches of the SpaceX Starship and the NASA Space Launch System, cable news coverage of space is likely to increase. But can the TV media be trusted to provide accurate and nonbiased coverage? Or will it go for the sensational and controversial?

There is not much more that NASA can do that it is not already doing. A fine line separates education, which is part of the space agency’s mandate, and advocacy, which is frowned upon.

However, the commercial space billionaires, such as Bezos and Musk, are under no such constraint. Thus far, the marketing that Blue Origin and SpaceX has undertaken has been business to business or even business to government. Neither company has undertaken business-to-customer marketing. However, since ordinary citizens of the various space-faring countries pay the bills their government contracts, this needs to change.

One can imagine Musk and Bezos, ordinarily bitter rivals, combining forces to finance a multiplatform marketing campaign to sell the exploration and economic development of space. They could hire an ad agency to do the research for the campaign.

The time for imagining that space could sell itself has passed. Everything from fast food to automobiles is sold through advertising. Why not voyages to the moon, Mars and beyond?

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags Blue Origin Elon Musk Jeff Bezos Mark R. Whittington NASA Space Space exploration SpaceX

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