What people don’t get about space 

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun12,2024

When people think of space, people think of stars, the infinite universe, the elite club of astronauts that are lucky enough to see the blue marble for themselves. Yet here lies a key issue: the general population imagines space as something far off and unreachable, when it is omnipresent in their daily lives. This lack of awareness is dangerous for the space sector, particularly public space agencies, that increasingly need to justify their existence and funding in an era of commercial space ventures and climate change restrictions. 

You use space everyday, without realizing it. When you drive to work and use Google Maps, you use GPS, a space positioning and timing satellite system which allows your phone to calculate your exact location and provide directions in real-time. When you buy a coffee for your colleague using a digital payment method like a credit card or mobile wallet, satellites ensure that the transaction data is securely transmitted from your device to the payment processor, providing a timestamp for the transaction. When you get home and switch on the lights in your bedroom, the electricity grid that powers your home is likely managed and coordinated using satellite communication that facilitates the monitoring and control of power generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure, helping to maintain a reliable supply of electricity. 

Space permeates every aspect of our daily lives and many industrial sectors, yet its widespread influence often goes unnoticed by both the general public and professionals in fields reliant on space systems.

Many organizations and charities fighting climate change, for instance, get their data from Earth Observation satellites. In fact, “space based observations provide more than half of the essential climate variables that are used to monitor climate change” according to the OECD. Yet if you ask any employee from those organizations, the relevance of space to their work will be the last thing they mention. Same goes for the finance sector. This field depends on timestamps from satellites to conduct transactions. If communication was cut, all the economic systems of the world would shut down. 

This ignorance of space’s impact on our daily lives is understandable, given the lack of efficient communication on behalf of space agencies and the fact that some organizations don’t want member states or the public getting too involved in its governance. Nevertheless, for their sake, this needs to change for several reasons. 

Firstly, to secure funding for space agencies, politicians need to be aware of the importance of space beyond a potential colonization of Mars and military applications. In OECD countries, essential infrastructures and services including transportation, energy, food supply and law enforcement, are already backed by space-based systems. If something were to happen to satellites, the world would fall into economic collapse. Space agencies need funding to insure the resilience and protection of their services, and this requires a more widespread understanding of the importance of space. Yet, as showcased by the electoral programs for the European elections this June (in which space activities are barely mentioned) this field is still considered a standalone bubble, and not as it actually is: the bedrock for many of Europe’s core activities.

Additionally, to guarantee public support for space activities and increase the scale and efficiency in addressing earth and space challenges, citizens and leaders need to understand the benefits space-based technology provides them, particularly through non-profit mechanisms. In an era of climate change in which we will have to increasingly justify the emissions of public activities, this is crucial. 

There are several ways to make space and its relevance more visible to the wider public. 

Firstly, there needs to be stronger communication and outreach. Space agencies need a better communication strategy if they want to make people understand space goes beyond Elon Musk. This particularly applies to space agencies in Europe and requires a change of mentality, as they tend to resist modern communication strategy lest they be confused for flashy Americans. Yet this might be necessary to catch the public’s eye and raise awareness. A wider American-style communication approach could involve numerous new forms of outreach, such as launching extensive advertising campaigns to showcase the benefits of space to the general public, sponsoring films and TV shows highlighting various space agencies, ensuring that media mentions of specific space projects include the affiliated space agency’s name (for instance in European media, journalists always mention Copernicus, yet the general public is unaware these are EO satellites or that the EU Space Program and ESA are involved) and even sponsoring video game contests to attract talent for tech jobs in space agencies. It’s crucial to actively engage people beyond the space community and explore creative outreach strategies. 

Another solution would be to develop and implement a Fresk for Space initiative modeled after the successful Fresk for Climate campaign in France. This would entail organizing seminars and interactive workshops at schools, businesses and government institutions to educate people about the significance of space and the challenges facing the sector. This would also be a good way to awaken a scientific curiosity and encourage younger generations towards STEM fields, while also educating older generations about the relevance of space activities. 

Finally, there needs to be enhanced public-private partnerships between space and nonspace actors, particularly through data sharing with private companies outside the space bubble. While some initiatives are already underway, additional collaborations and incentives could encourage private firms to utilize open-source space data, thereby increasing awareness of the potential benefits derived from space endeavors. 

Overall, there needs to be an increased awareness of everything space. When a sector is this vital to the functioning of so many industries, the people making the decisions and the people electing those that make those decisions need to become more educated on the matter. This is the only way to avoid a dramatic wildcard in which satellites become the single point of failure for everything we do on Earth.

Anastasia Nicolazo de Barmon is a Strategic Foresight Analyst (YGT) at the European Space Agency in Paris. She holds master’s degrees in International Security from both Sciences Po Paris and Columbia University. Anastasia’s previous experiences include roles at the U.N. Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate and the CyberPeace Institute. The opinions expressed in this article are solely her own and do not reflect the views of the ESA.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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