The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Panelists debate how the value of space should be communicated to the general public during an AIAA-sponsored forum June 12. From left: Ed Morris, Roselee Roberts, moderator Brian Berger, Brett Alexander, Matt Jones, and Guillermo Söhnlein. (credit: J. Foust)

What’s the value of space?

One of the long-running challenges faced by proponents of space exploration has been finding compelling reasons to sell such efforts—particularly big-ticket government programs—to the general public. This is a challenge in large part because, at least in the United States, there are few coherent attitudes about space. Public reaction to space in general and NASA in particular is a mix of wonderment, primarily in response to images returned by the Hubble Space Telescope, Mars Exploration Rovers, and other missions; and skepticism about the costs, risks, and problems associated with the shuttle, station, and the new exploration initiative. The prevailing attitude, though, might best be classified as apathy: most people pay little attention to space on a day-to-day basis—and have little reason to do so.

In an effort to form a strategy to help sell space programs more effectively to the public at large, the AIAA organized a forum on Capitol Hill June 12 titled “Making the Business Case for Space: Where’s the Value?”. A panel of experts from the public and private sectors weighed in on the issues associated with raising awareness about space with the public. However, if the results of that session are any indication, the space community has a long way to go before it can hope to change the attitudes of the general public.

Unsurprising evidence

Before the panel debated the subject, a consultant provided new evidence of how the public perceives space exploration. John Unland of The Unland Group was hired by Lockheed Martin to study the public’s perceptions about the space program. Unland carried out a number of focus group sessions in three US cities—New York, Chicago, and San Diego—that featured both “influentials” (people involved in their communities and schools) and “non-influentials”, as well as advanced placement science students. In those sessions participants were asked questions about NASA and the Vision for Space Exploration.

“I still don’t see the value in it,” one person said after watching Bush’s VSE speech. “What is our true goal?” asked another. “What is the purpose of exploring new worlds?” asked a third person.

One question asked people to estimate what percentage of the overall federal budget went to NASA. At the Capitol Hill event Unland showed several video clips where, to few people’s surprise, focus group participants overestimated—often grossly—NASA’s sub-one-percent share of the budget: answers ranged from five to fifteen percent, with one person saying “somewhere in the thirties”. Those anecdotes confirmed previous surveys where people also overestimated NASA’s budget. (See “The gaps in NASA’s support”, The Space Review, August 18, 2003)

More damning, though, for the space community are the reactions participants had after watching a portion of President Bush’s January 2004 speech where he announced the Vision for Space Exploration. “I still don’t see the value in it,” one person said. “What is our true goal?” asked another. “What is the purpose of exploring new worlds?” asked a third person.

“The American public is generally disconnected and disengaged with what is going on in space,” Unland concluded. “What this work shows isn’t that the public doesn’t want to care, but that the public today is largely without context about space and its value to care.” Worse, he said, that based on his discussions with key policy stakeholders in NASA, the Congress, and the White House, “no clear and cohesive strategy to address this situation exists.”

Creating public outreach strategies

With the impression left by the Unland Group research that the general public is neither well-informed nor terribly interested in NASA and its major programs, the panel took on the question how to craft such a strategy. Unland saw the lack of strategy as a problem, but also an opportunity. “What I see is that those who don’t see the value [in space] could see the value with proper communications messages and strategy and would then, with context, support more robustly many of the endeavors in which many of you are involved,” he said.

“From our members’ point of view,” said Matt Jones, chairman of the US Chamber of Commerce’s Space Enterprise Council, “we view space as an opportunity, but it’s been an opportunity for a long time.” Jones agreed with Unland that the public is not very aware of space. “I do believe it’s a situation where support and knowledge of the relevance of space activity among the general public is essentially very, very shallow,” he said. “I think it is important, and this is a good forum to start this process, of figuring out how do we increase the understanding of what space means to everyday life.”

“We’ve got a good program, we just haven’t necessarily explained why,” Jones said.

Jones outlined his strategy in greater detail later in the meeting. He said the key was developing a goal or set of goals that would resonate with the public. “One way to do that is the way businesses do that, by taking the pulse of potential customers, people who are going to pay your bills: American voters and American taxpayers.” That would be done through surveys, questionnaires, and focus groups. Those would be used “to get a nice clear picture of what it is that the public is looking for.”

Those results would need to be converted into programs that the public would support—something that Jones thinks has already been done, but just not explained. “We’ve got a good program, we just haven’t necessarily explained why,” he said. That requires marketing and advertising “as we would a commercial product or service” (a “Madison Avenue” approach, as he later described) as well as the development of metrics to know how successful those marketing efforts were.

One question that approach raises, he said, is whether the government should be marketing one of its programs. “Would they [the government] really be comfortable with taxpayer money going into advertising benefits of space programs?” A solution to that, he said, might be some kind of partnership with the private sector.

One solution to that is contained in the NASA authorization legislation signed into law last year, which gives NASA the latitude to carry out more advertising-like public outreach. “Actually, NASA, even before the authorization, was allowed to do some of the public affairs we had in mind, but they were not doing it,” said Roselee Roberts, Congressman Ken Calvert’s designee on the staff of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee. “Part of the reason we put that language in there is to really try to encourage them to do it.” Such an effort, which would not have to be “extravagant”, she said, would be particularly helpful for NASA’s existing supporters in Congress. “It helps us keep the message sold up here.”

Is this necessary?

The event was predicated on the assumption that because the public is not very aware of space activities, an education/marketing campaign is needed in order to raise that awareness. But is that really the case? Does the public need to be aware in detail of the role space plays in our everyday lives, as some on the panel suggested, in order to support it?

One need only look at the private sector to see that’s not the case. The most successful commercial space applications, like direct-to-home TV and satellite radio, have been successful not because they’re space-based, but because they provide a service that is better and/or less expensive than competing options. While these companies may occasionally use space imagery in their advertising (usually in the form of a satellite in orbit), that’s not the message that wins over consumers. People sign up for DirectTV because they can get a better deal than from their cable company; people subscribe to Sirius Satellite Radio to listen to Howard Stern.

“By and large, the public is disconnected from everything in their lives that is brought to them by space,” said Brett Alexander, vice president of government affairs for Transformational Space Corporation (t/Space). “Their use of ATMs, the credit card at the gas station, the weather service, GPS, all of those things, don’t say ‘space’ to them, nor do I think they should say ‘space’.” He noted that the value provided by space is like the value provided by the Internet: people don’t care how they get Internet access so long as it works and allows them to do what they want online.

The most successful commercial space applications, like direct-to-home TV and satellite radio, have been successful not because they’re space-based, but because they provide a service that is better and/or less expensive than competing options.

The public, Alexander added, identifies space primarily with human spaceflight programs, and secondarily with robotic science missions. “I think the problem has been—the reason that there’s been a level of support that hasn’t fluctuated very much over the last thirty years—is because that part of our space program has had the least amount of change and the least amount of accomplishment.” That creates a disconnect, he believes, since many people have a latent interest in traveling in space themselves, but don’t see the current program as a way of making that become reality.

So, to use a term popular in business circles, what is the “value proposition” of space? What is a “value proposition”? As Unland described in a document distributed at the Capitol Hill event, “Understanding our clients’ value is to understand their uniqueness, their worth, their value in the markets they serve—and relative to their competitors. This is that a ‘value proposition’ is.” [Emphasis in original.] What is it about space that makes it unique, worthwhile, and valuable? One suspects that, at the end of the day, it’s more than just communications and navigation. There is something innate about space that captures the imaginations of so many people: figuring out what that is and how to capitalize on it—be it the exploration of new worlds or enabling more people to go into space themselves, to offer two examples—seems a higher priority in the near term than crafting advertising campaigns.

As Guillermo Söhnlein, chairman of the International Association of Space Entrepreneurs, put it, “If you’re not sure internally why you exist, it’s very difficult to expect anyone outside to understand why you exist.”