The “story of space” is important. For all of the incredible discoveries made through space exploration and all of the ways that space supports our life on Earth, its value needs to be regularly communicated. People need to understand how and, more importantly, why we invest in our cosmic activities. Without support for space, our future use of it will be marginal and limited.
Equally relevant is how the story of space is told. It is not enough for the space community to “talk to itself.” Outreach about space should be broad, reaching and resonating with people who otherwise have little involvement or interest in space activities. This, however, is a challenging task. Who should be involved in space outreach? What groups should be the audience, and what messages should they hear? Are there better ways to tell the story of space?
These were some of the critical questions posed to attendees of the 2021 Space Generation Fusion Forum (SGFF). During SGFF – an annual SGAC event held in conjunction with the Space Symposium – participants, known as delegates, break out into working groups to discuss current topics in the space sector and arrive at specific conclusions and recommendations on how to address them. One of the 2021 SGFF working groups, generously supported by the Space Foundation, sought to tackle the key issue of outreach for the space community: “How do we better communicate the value and importance of space to those on Earth?”
This is, of course, a significant challenge with huge scope. After all, Earth is a global audience. And this global audience is not monolithic. There are many different types of people with varied perspectives, concerns, and interests. As a first step toward addressing the question, delegates agreed that no single “one-size-fits-all” approach for communicating the value of space will work. Distinct messages and narratives are needed depending on the particular audience. In considering these audiences that space outreach addresses (or should do better to address), delegates decided they could be generally broken into four different groups.
These groups included the “general public”: everyone who is not involved in the space sector or fields that are immediately adjacent to space. Space, of course, touches nearly everyone’s lives, but the “general public” may or may not be interested in space; may or may not be very informed about the past, future, and current exploration of space; and may or may not think space is a worthwhile investment. Next is the “political sector”: the leaders who oversee and control funding, policy, and direction for space programs. Space may be just one part of their overall purview, but it falls within the scope of things that the political sector can directly shape. Third are “science and STEM professionals”: individuals who work in the broader scientific and engineering field who likely understand, and can appreciate, the purpose and value of space programs. Finally, there are “underserved and underrepresented communities”: groups that have never “had a seat at the table” when it comes to space, or who have – directly or indirectly – been neglected or harmed through our space activities.
For each of these populations, delegates then identified the “why and how” of these space communications. For example, what specific messages should be tailored for each audience and how should those messages be conveyed? One specific message that crossed each population was emphasizing how integral space is to our daily lives. For the general public, space services such as GPS, banking, or weather updates are fundamental part of their way of life. For the political sector, space is a core element in national security and ensuring good jobs and education in the areas that politicians represent. For science and STEM professionals, space is a powerful tool for furthering research, innovative engineering, and discoveries. For underserved communities, space can be used to help close opportunity gaps.
Delegates proposed a messaging campaign focused on a day “without space” and tailored to each of these different populations. The goal was to clearly demonstrate the tangible value of space. A day without space would be a day in which our lives would be dramatically different. Delegates came to several conclusions and ideas on how to best communicate this campaign: among them were a documentary and film series for the general public; broadening space education in school curriculums, especially in underserved areas and communities; and active information campaigns to political leaders on the local impact of space in their districts and countries.
One recurring theme and key takeaway from the working group’s discussions is that space communicators need to do better to make outreach a conversation. It is not enough to simply explain and express the benefits of space or the value of investment into space activities, which has often been the case in the past. Rather, and especially with underrepresented communities, space communicators must do better to listen – to understand the “language” that different communities use, the different worldviews they hold, and how those shape their approach to understanding and appreciating space. Space communications should be about mutual and empathetic awareness between the space community and those outside of it, rather than “sales pitch.” This will require a much more personalized, tailored, and individualized approach to space outreach in the future. That, of course, will be more challenging, but it will hold more impact and value. .
The question of: “How do we better communicate the value and importance of space to those on Earth” is not an easy one, but it is just as important to our future in space as rocket science is. The discussion that SGFF2021 delegates had in the space communications working group only began to scratch the surface of new answers and approaches to space outreach, but left them with perspectives and takeaways that they plan to leverage in their own careers, communities, and networks. After all, the story – or conversation – of space is a critical one for us all to have.