What we have achieved in civil space over the past fifty-plus years has been without a doubt impressive. We have put a man on the Moon, photographed far off galaxies, roved through martian craters and captured dust from the coma of comets. We, as the space sector, indeed should be proud of our achievements in space exploration and science.
As we stand here, though, at this watershed point in our civil space sector’s history, we need to understand that times have changed and we need to evolve our sector with the times. In the beginning, civil space was only for exploration and pure science. Today, we should recognize that space exploration and space sciences are now but components of civil space. Fifty years on, the sector has developed to the point where the offshoot technology and space applications are just as important if not more important to the health and future of the space sector. While I am a fervent supporter of space exploration and science, I think for the sake of the future of our sector we need to pay more attention to developing space applications. So how do we do this? The space sector should be viewed like any other industry and to grow our industry there are three things that we need to do which we have been neglecting: properly reaching out to our customers to make them aware of what we do and have to offer; listening to and developing with the needs of our customers; and proactively developing the future of our sector by reaching out to complementary sectors.
First, we as a whole civil space sector should do a better job at reaching the public and explaining to them what the daily benefits of space are in ways that they understand. In conversations with my friends, who are all university graduates and well-informed members of society, it baffles me that I surprise them when I mention that they need satellites for their iPhones to work properly or to get cash from an ATM. After expanding the explanation to what would happen if satellites were shut down for 24 hours (“No live World Cup?”; “But I don’t even know how to fold a map!”), they quickly begin to understand the value of the space sector. NASA by default has been given this job of heading public outreach for more than 50 years. Today, in a time where NASA no longer represents the whole civil space sector, we must all take responsibility for relaying the practical benefits of space. Space should no longer be sarcastically associated with a space wrench that costs $1 million taxpayer dollars. We all know there is more to the space sector than that. Now it is time for the public to appreciate it, too.
Second, our space sector must adapt to the needs and wants of the customer. The customer of our sector is no longer only an American hoping to beat the Soviets to the Moon. We as the space sector should understand that our industry, with the maturation of space applications in addition to space exploration and science, is now an international one and therefore our customer base is global. In my work with the Space Generation Advisory Council, an organization that represents university students and young professionals in space policy to the United Nations, space agencies, industry and academia, I work with this international community on a daily basis. These new customers are primarily looking to space for terrestrial benefits.
The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is among the many fora where I hear from these people. Last year, I was told by an ambassador of a non-spacefaring nation that he supported space development but simply did not care about exploration. Listening to presentations on it at COPUOS, in fact, was a “waste of time” in his mind. For somebody who grew up wanting to be the next Sally Ride, I had a very difficult time comprehending and accepting this. How could somebody possibly support space but not care about space exploration? Yet, I have heard this same sentiment repeatedly in the international community. Telemedicine, tele-education, telecommunication, crop monitoring, environmental monitoring and aid in disaster management are key examples of what the international community, particularly the emerging markets, wants from space. Whether it is European countries looking to study drug trafficking or developing nations in Africa hoping to bridge the developed-developing country gap quicker than ever before with the help of space technologies, these new customers want more and improved space applications.
This space application demand is not only the case now but appears to be a future trend as well. It is the job of the Space Generation Advisory Council to act as the forum to collect the perspectives of the up and coming generation on space policy. What I have observed is that this new generation continues to be supportive of the space program, but for different reasons than before. The space program, they say, should exist to see what is over the next hill or beyond the next galaxy, as it were, but also to support and improve the lives of humans here on Earth through space applications.
Now that we have established this demand for space application development, it is important that the space sector start to make proactive steps in developing the supply by reaching out to complementary sectors. These sectors are other industries that could greatly benefit from working with space technology, such as agriculture, education, and health. Unfortunately, like much of the public, they are also not aware of what our space sector has to offer. Rather than waiting for them to come to us, the space sector should work harder to make contact with them, explain our capabilities and start the brainstorming process of possible new terrestrial applications for space technology. By growing our reach and entangling space technologies into these complementary sectors, we are growing the relevance of our sector. This, in turn, ensures the future of all components of the space sector including space exploration and science.
Without a doubt, the civil space sector is at an important crossroads. As we make decisions about our space sector, we should be doing it in the context of the developmental state of the sector. We must continue to conduct space exploration and science, but space applications have matured to the level where their role in civil space is integral to the future of the sector. Turning more attention toward space applications should not be seen as competitive to space exploration and science but supportive. Through communicating better with the public about what the space sector has to offer, through listening to the demands of the changing customer of the space sector, and through reaching out to complementary industries to build our strength as a sector, we all stand to gain.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not those of the Space Generation Advisory Council.