Survey shows troubling ignorance of space – how to change that


We now have some sobering insights into people’s knowledge of the benefits of space. The British satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat has just published a survey of 20,000 people in 11 countries.

The report, “What is the Value of Space on Earth,” asked what people associate with space. Results included 21% noting aliens, 14% said science fiction, 10% associated it with ‘Star Wars’ – while only 8% responded for communications and connectivity and 3% for broadcasting and television.

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

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

“Young people (18-24) are more likely to link billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to space than 55-64 year olds. It may be because people aged 55 and over remember the Space Race, NASA’s shuttle [program] and all the wonders attached to space at that time. While 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 said.

Of the respondents, 37% associate space with going to the Moon and Mars; 20% associate it with space tourism; and 25% associate space with “research and exploration”.

A small group of people have some understanding of how space could benefit the people of Earth. “For example, 7 [percent] of respondents said that space can reduce poverty. While another 7 [percent] thought space can support the goal of producing enough food. This number, however, is incredibly small.

What to do with this disengagement from space and the benefits it offers? NASA certainly has a strong web presence and is active on Twitter. The print media offered information about the benefits of space exploration, especially in regards to science, commerce, and even soft political power. But not enough people seem to pay attention.

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

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

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

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

However, billionaires in the commercial space, such as Bezos and Musk, are under no such constraint. So far, marketing undertaken by Blue Origin and SpaceX has been business-to-business or even business-to-government. Neither company engaged in business-to-consumer marketing. However, since ordinary citizens of the various space nations are paying the bills for their government contracts, this needs to change.

One can imagine Musk and Bezos, ordinarily bitter rivals, joining forces to fund a cross-platform marketing campaign to sell space exploration and economic development. They could hire an ad agency to do the research for the campaign.

The time to imagine that space can be sold is over. Everything from fast food to automobiles is sold through advertising. How about trips to the Moon, Mars and beyond?

Mark R. Whittington is the author of the space exploration studies “Why is it so difficult to return 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.


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