High-profile personalities from academia, government, the space sector and the media met in Leuven, Belgium on 4 February 2003 to discuss important challenges as Europe moves forward on its new Space Policy.

Leuven’s flamboyant 15th century town hall was built in an era when great voyages of discovery were capturing public attention. It was therefore an appropriate setting for a meeting focused largely on recapturing a sense of discovery, this time in the midst of the space age.

In his opening address, AndrĂ© Oosterlinck, Rector of the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL), said, “We know one thing: space is our future, and it is therefore our duty to respond to the challenge of a European Space Policy.”

Moving the space debate forward

The meeting was the fourth and final in a series co-organised by Systemics Network International (SNI) and the KUL’s Institute for International Law, and supported by European Space Agency (ESA), the European Commission and the British National Space Centre. The theme of this instalment was raising public interest in space.

“Not since the 1960s have average citizens been so focused on space,” said Panel Chair Kevin Madders of SNI. “With ‘cars on Mars’ and ‘eyes in the skies’, people are watching and waiting, and this means a great opportunity for us to form public opinion, but we have to face the fact that media coverage today is scattered and haphazard. We are simply not taking full advantage of this opportunity.”

America to China – the space experience

Virtually all of the speakers agreed on the critical importance of public support for space in a democratic society. Joan Johnson-Freese chairs the Department of National Security Studies at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, USA, and is a highly respected media consultant, having appeared on CNN and CBS News. She has written and commented extensively on both the Chinese and American space programmes.

“The Chinese space programme is to China today as Apollo was to America in the 1960s,” she said. “The Chinese government has provided its public with a rallying issue, as well as a boost for its economy, and it is clear that China is now looking for space partners. It has unveiled in a very spectacular way, by sending a man into space, a programme run entirely by its military and which, until now, had been shrouded in secrecy. While Chinese citizens were certainly interested and pleased, the subsequent celebrations were choreographed by the government in a clear attempt to gain publicity and to present a positive media message.”

Speaking on the American experience, Johnson-Freese said, “Symbolism is everything in space. Unfortunately, scientists and technicians don’t have much time for public relations and, frankly, they’re not very good at it.” To illustrate her point, she recalled a certain shuttle landing in the early 1980s. The vehicle was scheduled to return to earth on the 3rd of July. Then-president Reagan, who was to attend the event, asked NASA to hold the landing until the next day, the 4th of July. “NASA scientists couldn’t understand why it might be a good idea to hold the event on American Independence Day,” said Johnson-Freese, to the amusement of workshop attendees.

The view from Parliament

Eryl McNally is a Member of the European Parliament and group coordinator on the Industry, External Trade, Research and Energy Committee. “With elections coming soon, this is a period of vulnerability for politicians like myself,” she said. “If the public decides that space is a prime issue, politicians will have to listen, but for that to happen the public has to understand what space means.

“Most people just want to know ‘what’s in it for me?’ Those of us who want to move forward in space have to respond to the public on this same level. We have to talk about initiatives like GMES, with its variety of applications, about the medical spin-offs of space research. What about satellite communications, space tourism, the trade-offs of human versus robotic exploration? The public must understand all of these issues before it can express a meaningful opinion.

“But more than that,” she continued, “we have to come back to the sense of awe and wonder. This is something that everyone can share, that dates back to the origins of humankind.”

And the view from space

Frank De Winne. The former Belgian Air Force pilot has been a one-man public relations powerhouse, travelling extensively and speaking to a wide variety of groups since the Odissea Mission took him to the International Space Station in October 2002.

“A human presence in space is still a major inspiration factor,” he said. “But today, public funding is driven by perceived benefits, usually expressed in terms of hard numbers – numbers of jobs, numbers of applications, etc. But what about the intangible benefits? What about the dreams, the prestige, the sense of pride? All of these are important too.

“There is no single way to communicate to the public about space. There are different groups with different concerns. We have mothers and fathers, businesspeople and politicians, the aged and the very young. Each of these groups should be approached on its own level.

“What I can say is that people remain interested, but it is the human factor that draws the most interest. When I travel around, talking to people about space, the questions I get are always about the human experience of space. ‘How did it feel? Were you scared? What does the earth look like from space?’ No one wants to know about how the rocket worked. They want to know what it is like to be an astronaut.”

The media as messenger

Participants agreed that the media has an important role to play in educating the pubic on space issues. “The public needs to be able to project itself into the question, to feel a part of the space age,” said Charles Frankel, a geologist and science writer who has worked on a number of audiovisual programmes about space exploration. “By mixing fact and fiction in entertaining television programmes,” he said, “we can educate the public in a range of fields, including medicine and biology, geology and space science.”

A portion of Frankel’s recent performance in a ‘docu-fiction’ TV programme called ‘The ascent of the Red Planet’ was played for workshop attendees, followed by further presentations by radio and television experts.


Speaking on behalf of Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, Kurt Vandenberghe hailed the organisers for the work they’d done over the course of the European Space Policy Workshops, begun in September 2002. By presenting this series, bringing together so many excellent speakers and personalities, he said, they have played a major role in the ongoing European Space Policy debate, and their influence will no doubt continue to be felt for many years to come.