Humans have been gazing at the cosmos since the dawn of civilization, and for millennia this has spurred us to develop new technologies to help us map the planets and stars and understand our universe. For centuries we have used those technologies to measure time and location accurately on Earth. The value of those innovations has been incalculably vast – so much so, in fact, that we rarely think about it.
Yet we have been boldly going into space ourselves for less than the ‘three-score years and ten’ of the proverbial human lifespan. Sputnik 1, the first artificial/communications satellite, was launched by the Soviet Union as recently as 1957. This triggered the Cold War Space Race, which saw cosmonaut Uri Gagarin become the first man in space four years later, and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the Moon in 1969 – giant leaps in technology terms, enabled by rocketry, computers, spacewalks, lunar-orbit missions, and reams of mathematics.
Since those heady days, far more man made satellites have entered space than people. As of September 2021, 4,550 satellites were known to be in orbit – out of 8,900 launched since Sputnik. In 65 years, just 574 humans from 41 countries have ever been to space, including those on Space Shuttles and international space stations. Over time, the number of robots in space – exploring planets and moons – is likely to exceed humans, at least for the foreseeable future.
Those thousands of sensor- and technology-packed satellites – geostationary (moving west to east over the equator with the rotation of the Earth) and polar (orbiting north to south as the Earth spins beneath them, allowing them to scan the planet in strips) – connect us via smartphones and the internet.
They tell us where we are, and how vast areas of the planet are faring in terms of weather, environment, pollution, carbon emissions, and natural disasters. They beam TV to us, as without them those linear signals would fly off our spherical planet and into space.
They gaze at the planet with clear eyes from orbit, gathering more data about our world than can be collected on the ground. And they look out at the universe too, to help us study exoplanets, black holes, distant galaxies, dark matter, and dark energy, forging a deeper understanding of physics, which may transform life on Earth.
A huge variety of space-centric industries – satellite constellations, comms networks, sensors, big data analytics, AI and ML, robotics, remote maintenance, launch vehicles, R&D, new manufacturing techniques, terrestrial observatories, telescope arrays, and more – create new jobs, employ hundreds of thousands of people, and generate billions of dollars in economic value.
More, they help countless other industries to function, including the ICT, media, aviation, agriculture, and IoT sectors, and others that rely on global communications, location/positioning, or environmental data. They encourage ongoing innovation in science and technology too.
Plus, over the years they have created countless spinoff products, new materials among them, and have spurred the development of autonomous robotic systems. The latter help overcome the extreme environments of space and the communications time-lag that exists when controlling machines that are millions of miles from Earth: the Mars rovers, for example.
All such innovations have cross-cutting potential that may make life on Earth safer, especially in other extreme environments, such as deep-sea engineering, offshore maintenance, mining, aerospace, and nuclear decommissioning. In the future, satellite-based solar power could even help provide an abundant source of clean energy.
But despite 65 years of blasting technology into orbit, and centuries of developing it to tell us where we are on our home planet and what time it is, the vast majority of people have no concept of why space technology is important, or what its value may be. At least, according to a new 51-page report, What on Earth is the Value of Space?, by Inmarsat.
The company surveyed 20,000 people in 11 countries – citizens and business leaders – and found a scant understanding of the value of space technologies.
The second Space Age has arrived, but the public are not wholly aware of its significance. Astonishing innovations in recent years are not welcomed with the sense of wonder, curiosity, and hunger for knowledge that accompanied the first Space Age.
As memories of the first Space Age recede, maybe perceptions are being shaped more by popular culture – and less by the true role of space in everyday life.
The figures make depressing reading. For example, 97% see space as a threat. Meanwhile, 21% of people associate space with aliens, 20% with tourism, 14% with science fiction, and 10% with both Star Wars and billionaires – compared with just eight percent linking it with communications and connectivity, and three percent with broadcasting and television. The good news for Inmarsat, however, is that a large minority, 46%, at least associate it with satellites.
Baby Boomers and Generation X have more understanding of space tech’s importance to human lives and economies than younger people – thanks to epochal events, like the Apollo missions and Space Shuttle launches, in their lifetimes. But even many of them fail to make the connection between space exploration and terrestrial innovation.
The report says:
The 65+ year olds – who grew up during the first Space Age – are much more likely to associate space with research and exploration (33% of 65+ vs 19% of 18-24), rockets (31% of 65+ vs 26% of 18-24), and satellites (63% of 65+ vs 38% of 18-24).
The 65+ generation is also more likely to associate space with communications and connectivity (13% of 65+ vs 7% of 18-24). This is perhaps because, unlike 18-24-year-olds, they remember a time before these innovations became ubiquitous and ordinary, so they understand the life-changing improvements the technology has made.
Advances in digital technology and the internet over the last 30 years have pulled focus away from space. The space industry may need to work harder to demonstrate its unique value.
A handful of mega-wealthy businessmen, like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, have done little to improve public opinion; people now see space as a rich man’s plaything, or a rich nation’s – as a frivolous, horrifying expense, not as an investment; as tourism for out-of-touch billionaires.
They ask, why spend billions of dollars putting rockets, space stations, probes, and satellites in space, or robots, rovers, and humans on Mars, if we can’t feed our children, house vulnerable adults, or heat our homes on Earth? Why are the US and China heading to the Moon this decade? What did it achieve 50 years ago?
These are all fair questions – even for someone of my generation, who grew up in the world of Apollo, the Space Shuttle, the communications revolution, Major Tom, and the fantasies of Gerry Anderson and George Lucas. I was a child in the Space Age, if not quite of it; it filled me with hope and optimism for the future, and yet today I struggle with the same terrestrial problems as anyone else.
I’ve hosted space technology conferences and spoken to astronauts, including my boyhood hero, Buzz Aldrin; I was at NASA in Houston on the day America announced it was going back to the Moon, having lunch with the Head of Robotics during an Expert Mission for Innovate UK.
I was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena when they were testing the Mars helicopter and completing work on the lander and Mars 2020 (Perseverance) rover. I even left my footprints in the red sand on the Mars backlot there. I have come closer than most to space, yet even I struggle to justify the colossal expense of many missions.
But one thing is clear: space technologies produce far more benefits on Earth than most people realize. So, the opportunity is there for the space sector to educate and inform citizens rather than merely impress them. In particular, the likes of Musk – who has a huge platform, though he doesn’t own it – should spend more time speaking about the benefits of space to the billions of humans who are still on Earth and want to stay here, rather than tweeting up his crypto and being mystic about Mars. But sadly, due diligence is not really his style.