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Expert Voices

Spread the Word: Space Development Benefits Earth (Op-Ed)

The International Space Station has supported scientific research in orbit for two decades.
The International Space Station has supported scientific research in orbit for two decades. (Image credit: NASA)

Karlton D. Johnson, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, is the chairman of the National Space Society's board of governors. He is a senior executive and respected visionary leader with over 31 years of  experience in strategic leadership, space operational support, partnership creation, organizational excellence and cybersecurity. Johnson retired in 2014 after 26 years of honorable service in the Air Force, where he held a variety of challenging senior leadership and command positions. He also has experience in leading international development of aerospace and defense business partnerships in Fortune 500 companies.

Ever since my father awakened me to watch astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take those first steps on the moon 50 years ago, I have had a passion for spaceflight. Wherever I go, I leverage every opportunity to discuss the rapid advances in space with anyone I meet. Almost daily, we see headlines about some new dazzling achievement, with words such as "Starhopper," "Blue Moon" and "Crew Dragon" becoming commonplace. There is little doubt that between the excitement surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the exciting advances by entrepreneurs like Elon Musk of SpaceX, Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin and Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, space is cool again.

However, the average person, if asked, seems to be hard pressed to articulate the reasons why it is important for us to continue our space endeavors. In fact, just last week, a young patron at a local coffee shop engaged me in a debate regarding the pros and cons of spaceflight. He felt that there had been little return on investment from America's space activities to the everyday citizen, and that barring tangible benefits, we should redirect this investment "to solve problems here on Earth."

As ever, I was well-prepared to set the record straight.

Related: How Space Exploration Can Teach Us to Preserve All Life on Earth

For years, society has benefited from technologies developed to reach and provide services in space. Satellites and global positioning system (GPS) capabilities have reshaped how we communicate and travel all around the globe via guidance systems implanted in cars, trucks, ships and smartphones. This benefits everything from cargo shipping, Amazon's same-day delivery services, and even your streamlined drive to the office. 

Streaming media, near-instant Facetime communication across international borders, and real-time news feeds are now routine, giving us broader access to information sources that empower and inform intelligent decision-making. Enhanced weather prediction and notification services have saved countless lives through early warnings and enhanced responses, and Earth-facing satellites provide us with critical climate indicators to track and model the dangers of global warming

Banking transactions, right down to ATM withdrawals, are enabled by satellites. Agricultural production has been greatly enhanced by orbital imagery. Even daily commerce is driven by satellite imagery — how do think Walmart tracks the activity of its competitors like Target on Black Friday? Satellite imagery is the answer. 

All these advances have driven an explosive growth of more than 2,000 commercial space companies, and tens of thousands of jobs, over the last few years alone. High-tech careers have been forged in the commercial spaceflight industry around the world, and cumulative revenues in excess of $277 billion globally are the result. 

These are easily verifiable facts, yet many still fail to connect these tangible benefits to space — they continue to be an abstraction for most people. How can those of us "in the know" successfully advance the conversation? The answer: communicate with the public, whether via a one-to-one conversation or by media outreach. Educate people about the benefits of space-enabled capabilities, and then follow through via feedback loops and strategic partnerships — working with groups that can enhance and amplify the conversation — to ensure that the message is heard, understood, and, hopefully, embraced. 

Easy enough to say, you might think, but how can this actually be accomplished in our day-to-day life? The answer is: through concrete, meaningful actions. In detail:

Communicate broadly

To obtain the maximum support and advocacy for advancing investment in space technology and activity, we must engage citizens working outside of space-related industries and ignite an engaging conversation that asks and answers this key question: What are some of the "problems here on Earth" that keep them up at night? 

This sets the stage to better inform them about how space capabilities have been employed to solve many of those problems, and it opens the door to a larger discussion about solutions to the vast and potentially life-threatening challenges to our planet, one notable example being climate change. The National Space Society (NSS) has engaged this conversation for over 40 years and has successfully communicated the positive impacts of today's space activities to millions. Those conversations range from conference seminars on space "spin-off" technologies such as cordless power tools, freeze-dried food, improved kidney dialysis, and even the lowly Dustbuster vacuum; to discussions of how increasing economic opportunities in commercial space and non-space sectors (e.g., not only high-tech jobs, but also everyday jobs connected to construction, food service, wholesale and retail, finance, etc.) benefit everyone. 

These conversations go beyond the layman, as the NSS also schedules meetings with elected representatives in Washington every year. The conversations ignite interest, convey understanding and demystify myths. They also communicate the strong return on investment from space investment. Here's the first tool in your communication toolkit: for each dollar invested in the Apollo program of the 1960s, between $7 and $14 and was returned to the U.S. economy, according to a NASA report. That's a powerful fact, one that is easily validated, and a model that holds true moving into the 2020s. Another powerful fact: space is one of the few areas in which investments directly benefit the U.S. economy; most of these dollars are spent here, right at home.

Look to the future

Next, via this broad communication, educate the public about future space-enabled capabilities. Communication is not enough; it is critical to ensure that we educate people about the potential of space-related activities in both the near and long term (20 years and beyond). The NSS recently conducted a study that identified 22 vital space development activities that they anticipate will create enormous earthly benefits in the coming years. That research identified potential advances in manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, medical and many other areas with direct positive effects toward solving critical problems we face as a species. 

Effectively communicating and educating the broader public is enhanced by organized gatherings such as the Space Foundation's Space Symposium, the Humans to Mars Summit, engagement with the Planetary Society, and the NSS' annual International Space Development Conference and annual Space Settlement Summit. These organizations and their events can provide a platform to directly inform the public and the media about space advancements, and provide them with opportunities to join in the discussions and to become part of the journey. 

Gather feedback

Finally, and oft-overlooked, is to follow through and gather feedback. This helps us to understand whether or not our message was received, understood and acknowledged. The pro-space organizations mentioned here (and others like them) are leading this charge today. Moving forward, it will be important for each to help the others in both sharing messages and providing feedback on what they learn from their audiences. 

The NSS' new Space Benefits report will be shared with and read by constituents within our partner organizations and freely distributed for debate and comment. From there, a broader audience — the  public — should be encouraged to read it, and feedback will be gathered to ascertain how the messages were received and understood. The NSS will do the same for key messages of interest from partner organizations, and together we can use what we learn to elevate the conversation to the next level. The overarching goal is to help increase global understanding of space benefits at the grassroots level. When we collaborate as a community, everyone wins.

I believe it is humanity's destiny to soar higher, go farther, and claim its place in the high frontier. Enabling the right conversations about return-on-investment for Earth-based needs will be vital toward achieving that destiny. And the people we have to convince will not be the space technologists, scientists or enthusiasts — they already know the truth. Ultimately, we must convince those whose lives have been, and will forever be changed because of space-enabled capabilities: the average citizen.

Let's start that conversation today.

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