New report shows Canadians confused about the value of space

A global report on what on Earth is the value of space. Credit: Inmarsat.

Canadians enjoy space, but don’t really recognize how important it is for our everyday lives.

That’s one of the takeaway messages from a new Inmarsat report, which surveyed 20,000 people globally. Among the Canadian group, 40% say they are hopeful about the possibilities of space and 32% say they are excited.

But as for applications, it’s kind of all over the place in terms of where Canadians find value. Unfortunately, the full report does not include detailed methodology about where statistics are obtained – who was surveyed, their education, their employment, their age or gender, their pre-existing knowledge of space or even the validity of the results against the average population.

That being said, the top associations of space in the surveyed population appear to be climate change (34%) and the Internet (27%) – that latter finding is no surprise given the number of folks using SpaceX Starlink terminals and watching the launches every week. More folks associate space with aliens (23%) or Star Wars (12%) than communications and connectivity (7%) or weather (6%).

Among the surveyed 11 countries, the included Canadians were not alone in failing to recognize space’s full promise, Inmarsat spokesperson Jonathan Sinnatt told SpaceQ. (Sinnatt spoke with SpaceQ as the survey authors were on vacation.)

“We certainly saw it in other countries to varying degrees, but it was a global trend,” he said.  “We also, I think, saw a relatively clear lack of understanding of what the space industry actually did.”

While the company isn’t quite sure why the surveyed population seems unaware of some of space’s applications, they theorize that a part of it might be the invisibility of the infrastructure. These days, the typical person uses cell phone service, GPS, airplane trackers and the Internet without realizing from where these technologies commonly emanate – absent a major failure like the Rogers network going down across Canada for a day last month.

“Technology has just become so ubiquitous and invisible, that whilst people may have one or two ideas of space in their mind, they really don’t actually appreciate just how much it touches their lives on an everyday basis,” Sinnatt said. 

He urged space professionals to keep talking with people outside of the industry and not just to government or to people who already accepts it. The storytelling, he said, needs to be simpler and to be perhaps primarily directed at schoolchildren in lesson plans, as space interest commonly arises from a lifelong understanding and comfort with the technology.

In Canada, however, it will be difficult to proceed in any direction unless the government endorses a clear space strategy and action steps from which spending can flow directly into companies and the education system.

The Liberal government did release a Canadian space strategy in 2019 titled Exploration, Imagination, Innovation – A New Space Strategy for Canada, but hasn’t enacted all of it. To be sure, the Moon program and the start of an Earth observation strategy is already happening. But the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act (RSSSA) – to take one example – completed a mandated five-year review recently and stated emphatically that “dramatic changes” are needed.

Despite efforts by numerous government groups (ISED, Transport Canada and Global Affairs Canada) to update that act, we have already pointed to the limited resources these groups are working with along with the lack of direction from the top level in executing a strategy. Meanwhile, Canada also is lacking a National Space Council that reports to government – unlike our counterparts in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.

While integrating space more closely into our daily lives will take a sustained collaboration by government, industry and academia, a recent report by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute calls for national leadership, a national space policy, a national space policy, and a “considered and funded plan” to flow from the first three targets.

Canada, the report recommended, should continue to focus on niche areas like space-based synthetic aperture radar, robotics like the Canadarm line, satellite communications provided by Telesat and Kepler, maritime domain awareness, artificial intelligence, and remote health care. (The Canadian Space Agency has already funded a Canadarm3 robotic arm for lunar exploration, along with a Deep Space Healthcare Challenge to repurpose remote health care.)

But as a 2019 article in Policy Options reminds us, many of these engagement strategies still are the same people talking among one another. “Space exploration is complex and technical. Citizens may even regard their nation’s space policy goals as science fiction, such as establishing permanent human settlements on the Moon or Mars,” the authors wrote.

As such, it’s not surprising to hear of aliens and Star Wars to a greater extent than telecommunications in the new Inmarsat report. But one option that Policy Options does provide is the idea of a public deliberation, where ordinary people have the chance to attend town halls alongside the experts to come to an understanding about shared challenges and opportunities.

Such a conversation is already happening globally with space debris, which Inmarsat said is a secondary driver for the report – as they are looking for “an international regulatory environment whereby we all plan properly in advance for the sustainability of our fleet,” according to Sinnatt.

As examples of recent public engagement, the European Space Agency recently held a workshop for university students concerning space debris education. In 2020, Canada’s Outer Space Institute also held a public talk about space debris. 

Quite honestly, though, a great part of public education will likely come through “influencers” on YouTube and TikTok, such as this discussion by YouTuber Scott Manley eight months ago about Russian debris drifting near the International Space Station. This video alone generated nearly a million views.

Engaging the Canadian public meaningfully will require sustained effort, starting with a national space strategy that encourages numerous sectors to get the word out about our efforts. There are a number of people willing to step up to this – it’s just a matter of getting a direction, first.

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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