Posted inOpinion

Breaking out of the space echo chamber 

In the 1980s, I had the privilege of being part of a small group of space advocates that set out to change the conversation about space. We were spectacularly successful, especially within the space policy, space enthusiast and business communities. Unfortunately, our work remains undone, especially among people who are neither technically nor scientifically inclined.
Breaking out of the space echo chamber Credit: SpaceNews/Midjourney

Bob Werb is one of the three co-founders of the Space Frontier Foundation and served for many years as its treasurer and many more as chairman of the board. He is also a real estate developer. 

On April 14, 1970, less than a year after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface, Jack Swigert radioed, “OK, Houston we’ve had a problem.”  Mission control replied, “Say again, please,” so I’ll say it again.  We’ve had a problem; we still have the problem, and we’re going to continue to have the problem for the foreseeable future.  It’s not a technical, business or political problem, although it has serious technical, business and political implications.  It is fundamentally a problem of ideas.

My favorite quote is “Ideas shape the course of history.”  The reason I love this quote so much is that it comes from John Maynard Keynes, who all by himself demonstrated that both good ideas and bad ones shape history in numerous and profound ways.  

Billions of people see life as a zero-sum game: money spent on space could better be used to heal the sick, feed the hungry and house the homeless. Many who see climate change as the most critical problem confronting our civilization have no idea that the environmental community is completely dependent on observations coming from space. Many who are ardent supporters of their nation’s military do not understand the extent to which those organizations depend on space assets. Many think that Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are solely motivated by ego and greed — joy rides for rich guys.

As space advocates, we know these are bad ideas, but we are simply terrible at communicating our perspective, and as a result, the vast majority of people, including most with a “good education,” don’t understand what we are talking about. Our collective dysphasia makes it harder for space companies to raise money and dramatically more difficult to sustain support in Washington.

More than 40 years of space advocacy have convinced me that the heart of the problem lies in the fact that our community consists overwhelmingly of people who are comfortable with science and engineering.  Even the artists, lawyers, actors, writers and musicians active in our community are into science and technology.  This separates us from the vast majority of people making business and political decisions.  

One of the most basic ideas in marketing is to understand the people you are marketing to; and one of the most common pitfalls is to assume you can understand their perspective by looking in the mirror.  The danger of marketing to ourselves is that it creates a self-reinforcing echo chamber. It feels good to express ourselves from our own orientation and even better when the listener shares our enthusiasm. The problem arises when we carry the language that works so well among ourselves into domains where it is ineffective.   

I spent over a quarter of a century working with major donors to the Space Frontier Foundation, and the essence of the job was to understand their motivations.  It was fun and easy.  Our donors were much like me.  We shared a similar passion and perspective.  I’d pull them aside at a conference or other event and mostly listen.  The problem arose when we were joined by our spouses.  These were people we loved and lived with, yet it was perfectly clear that they were perplexed by our conversations.  They knew we were passionate about space but didn’t really understand why.  I searched for a solution and eventually came to what I am calling solargraphy.


I’m in the shopping center business, and you probably know that the three most important things in our industry are location, location and location. This has made me very aware of geography and a consumer of geographic information. Even though I’m personally interested in the underlying math and theory of the information I use at work, I know many people who make use of the same material without one wit of interest in how they are derived. I can see no way in which this disinterest restricts their ability to use the information or any hint that it constrains their careers. I long ago realized that the geography of the Solar System offered much the same opportunity to be useful in building understanding.  I probably used the phrase “geography of the Solar System” less than a dozen times before I made up the word “solargraphy.” 

(The only prior use I can find of the word “solargraphy” is to describe a photographic technique that takes a picture of the sun crossing the sky.  That word is also sometimes spelled “solography.” The word solargraphy strikes me as obvious, and it seems very likely that other people I don’t know about are also using it in much the same way I am.)

Just as geography is useful here on Earth, solargraphy is useful in the rest of the Solar System.  Geography offers up an improved understanding of our place on Earth; solargraphy offers an improved understanding of our place in the Solar System.  Geography looks at how the physical features of our Earth impact our economy, culture and environment; solargraphy likewise looks at how the physical features of our Solar System impact our economy, culture and environment.

There was a time when what we now call NewSpace was referred to as AltSpace, and I served on a committee with two other people who thoroughly hated the name and struggled to find an alternative.  (The others were Charles Miller, who is currently CEO of Lynk, and Bill Boland, who is currently the mayor of Corning, New York.)  For several years after we introduced the term NewSpace into the lexicon, people kept asking us to define it precisely, something we hadn’t bothered to do.  Not wanting to repeat this mistake, I will right now propose a precise definition for solargraphy.  

The Oxford English Dictionary defines geography as “the study of the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these, including the distribution of populations and resources and political and economic activities.”  Following their lead I hereby define solargraphy as “the study of the physical features of the Solar System, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these, including the distribution of populations and resources and political and economic activities.

Although I made up the word solargraphy it is not a new area of study. Scientists seeking to understand the nature, composition and origins of our Solar System have identified many of its physical features and found a number of potentially useful resources.  Working in parallel, technologists have designed, and sometimes built, many of the tools needed for human (including robotic and telerobotic) activity to spread throughout our Solar System.  Solargraphy can use this knowledge while adding economic and political considerations. 

I suspect that in the hands of the more academically inclined, solargraphy will someday prove a valuable area of study; but for me, it is a tool for reaching out to those who are not much into science and technology.  A short discussion about why their DirecTV antenna can be securely bolted to the balcony and always be pointed in the right direction requires no science or math to understand. Any gamer knows about latency, so it’s easy for them to grasp why all those broadband satellites need to fly just above the atmosphere.  With environmentalists, I send them a link to NOAA rather than NASA. With military types, I ask them to imagine what it would be like to lead a platoon into combat with neither mobile maps nor secure communications.  

I repress my desire to discuss rockets, space history, space colonies or the value of exploration. These things may be important to us, but most people are simply disinterested. Instead, I give them a taste of solargraphy before asserting that we can use the nearly unlimited resources of the Solar System to both protect Earth’s fragile biosphere and create a future that is freer, fairer and more prosperous.  This they can grok.

Try it for yourself.  Start with some active listening. I know this is hard. Keep your opinions to yourself for the moment – this is even harder – and listen for a lever where you can provide them with information they might not know but care about and easily understand.  Then listen some more. Once they are primed you might have a chance to slip in some of your opinions that maybe, just maybe, they can accept.