In August we organized a workshop hosted by the Center for Aerospace Policy Research at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., to address the topic of constituency building for long-term space exploration. We invited space experts, professionals in market research and public relations, and a number of students and young professionals with interests in space and exploration.
The workshop started with a review of recent market research data. The space community is well aware of Gallup polling data that shows positive public support for space exploration. These results are aggregated across all age groups, however, so that the overwhelmingly positive support of the Apollo generation tends to swamp the far less positive attitudes of the younger generations.
Two surveys carried out by Dittmar Associates have looked at U.S. public attitudes towards space, the most recent study focusing specifically on the young American demographic segment, those 18-24 years old . The findings should serve as a real wake-up call for the space community. Among this age group:
- 45 percent are unaware that the United States is embarked on a new program to return to the Moon and go on to Mars with humans as well as robots.
- Support for lunar exploration is slim, with more than two-thirds neutral at best and uninterested at worst.
- Opposition to human missions to Mars is strong with three in four actually opposed.
The enthusiasm of the many young people in the space community notwithstanding, space exploration tends not to be relevant to youth today. More important issues are jobs, relationships, money and war. As some of those polled said, they “don’t know why we’re going there when we’re so screwed up here.”
Furthermore, the level of knowledge and interest in the space program in general among this age group is low and often misinformed: 27 percent expressed some doubt that the United States ever landed men on the Moon, and 39 percent think that nothing useful has ever come out of NASA.
Among members of the Apollo generation, there is a positive presumption that NASA’s space program delivers technical and societal benefits, even when specific examples of these benefits could not be cited. The majority considers NASA relevant to their everyday lives, and this degree of perceived relevance correlates with a willingness to support increases in NASA funding — even though most had no idea about the actual size of NASA’s budget. In public relations parlance, the NASA brand is strong with this age group.
Contrast this, however, with the reaction of the younger age group where a full 72 percent think NASA money would be better spent elsewhere. This disaffection of youth is the real long-term sustainability problem for space exploration. These young people will be the taxpayers, voters, policy makers and elected officials 10, 20, 30 years from now. They will be running the country, and they will be the ones deciding whether to continue the space exploration program we are embarking on today.
Our workshop recommended a serious strategic communications effort by NASA and the entire aerospace community. Our participants particularly recommended targeting the youth segment of the population. Such a strategic communications effort would involve market research to understand the attitudes and desires of young people and the development of messages specifically aimed at addressing what is relevant to them. Just as important, it would test and then distribute these messages in the venues that this generation uses to get its information.
It is important to note that it is not just an issue of communicating better about what we are doing. It is about making what we do better. “Better” here means that the space program must provide value to the public — value as the public perceives it, not value as we define it.
Space must be relevant to the interests and needs of the public. The young students and professionals at our workshop emphasized a major point of difference between us veterans and today’s youth: the latter do not take in information passively but rather demand a two-way street of communication. As one said, “If you can’t interact with it, it’s just noise.”
In a space context, they want to feel that they are part of the missions themselves. Our younger group further emphasized that public engagement needs to be made a Level One requirement for exploration.
In line with this concept, our younger participants came up with numerous ideas for “quick hits” to get space out there where young people would not necessarily be looking for it, but where it would find them and start to interest them. Here are just a few of these suggestions:
- Create champions who have the ability to communicate with openness, transparency and passion so as to generate excitement.
- Use non-traditional mass media to promote space exploration, such as reality television, sports shows, and magazines and movies aimed at young audiences.
- Use viral marketing opportunities in the new media. Develop podcasts, ringtones, personal Web pages and videos that are interesting enough to be distributed by young people to other young people.
- Put space in front of the young with guerilla marketing. Develop space video games and large community events, for example public screenings of shuttle launches.
- For young children, collaborate with toy manufacturers to develop space-related must-have toys.
- Offer zero-gravity flights or similar space-related prizes to winners of non-space-related contests like spelling bees, geography bees and the Little League World Series.
- Continue to promote proven interactive activities such as NASA student satellite-building competitions, science fiction and other writing contests, and public naming of missions.
According to plans recently unveiled in Houston at the Second Space Exploration Conference, NASA is looking towards settling astronauts on the Moon by 2020. Today’s 18-24 year olds will be in their mid- to late-30s in 2020. And, as much as we do not like to think about it, the Apollo generation will be moving on. Unless those who are passionate about space work quickly to make space exploration more interesting and relevant to today’s youth, NASA will lose the luxury it has enjoyed since its establishment — the massive public support under girding the political support necessary to maintain its funding.
Some space veterans have sought comfort by asserting that disinterest is the province of the young and that they will come around to space — just like we did — as they mature and take greater interest in the world around them. This argument provides, in our minds, false comfort. In the 1950s and ’60s and even the early ’70s, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo were all around us. The stories and their heroes captivated us because man’s conquest of space was iconic of our age. It represented our generation’s brilliance and our nation’s strength.
Fortunately or unfortunately, today there are new stories, heroes and icons. Today’s youth will not miraculously fall into line and fall in love with NASA as they get older. We all have got some heavy lifting to do to gain their support.
Peggy Finarelli and Ian Pryke are senior fellows at the Center for Aerospace Policy Research, School of Public Policy, at George Mason University. They were the co-organizers of the workshop.