What on Earth is the value of space?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Rajeev Suri, Chief Executive Officer, Inmarsat Global

  • Global satellite communications company, Inmarsat, conducted the world’s largest study of its kind to determine the extent of the public’s general knowledge about space.
  • The study found that only 8% of those surveyed associated space with their daily connectivity needs.
  • Inmarsat’s new platform “What on Earth is the value of space?” aims to inform the public about the vital role space plays in facilitating development on Earth.

Have people lost sight of the value of space and its role in their daily lives? Do they view it more as science-fiction than science?

As CEO of the leading global mobile satellite communications company Inmarsat, I am fortunate to be at the heart of one of the most exciting and dynamic industries that are currently seeing record investment and giant leaps in technological innovations – the space industry.

From connecting people on land, sea and air, and keeping trade flowing, even amidst a global pandemic, to enabling sustainable travel and business as concerns around climate change becomes more critical, I am constantly aware of the tremendous opportunities space affords us.

But what is the extent of the public’s knowledge and understanding of space? When Inmarsat decided to conduct the world’s largest study on global perceptions of the value of space, we wanted to show its magnificent possibilities as well as the potential risks it holds.

Interest in space

Although we expected a disconnect between industry and public views, no one anticipated the stark reality of the results in our landmark report, What on Earth is the value of space?

Of the 20,000 people surveyed across 11 countries, only 8% associated space with connectivity and communication satellites and a mere 38% wished they knew more about it. Yet, without satellites and space-based technology, the world would come to a grinding halt. Planes would not be able to fly safely, ships would not be able to navigate the oceans, and everyday technologies we take for granted – such as cash machines, satellite TV and car satnav systems – would simply cease to exist.

So why is there such a marked lack of knowledge or, to be frank, even interest in space?

The world was captivated by the first Space Age and all the wonder it brought with it, like rocket launches and Neil Armstrong’s iconic Moon landing. Yet the feats achieved today, many of which were unimaginable back then, such as missions to Mars, the first all-civilian spaceflight and the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, do not elicit the same excitement.

Those surveyed aged 55+, who will have experienced the first Space Age, still associate space with exploration, but there seems to be a lack of understanding about its real value to their daily lives today. There is also a clear generational divide – Gen Zs, who have grown up with technological advances, seem to take the data and virtual voice they rely so heavily upon for granted, without considering its cradle. Instead, they are more likely to think of aliens and science-fiction movies when it comes to the subject of space.

Enabling sustainability on Earth through sustainability in space

And while people are hopeful about what space can deliver in the battle against poverty, food shortages on Earth, and even in the race to cure cancer, there was an overwhelming sense of fear about space, with 97% seeing it as a threat.

Their top three concerns – space debris and collisions, polluting space and damaging the Earth’s atmosphere – echo mine. Space is a precious asset that is already helping us tackle climate change on Earth.

A vast network of satellites collects data on our planet’s climate system, including monitoring greenhouse gas emissions, tracking soil moisture, and measuring the temperature of our oceans.

Communication satellites reduce emissions in our skies by optimising flight routes and enabling planes to fly more safely and closer together. Satellite technologies also allow the shipping industry to reduce its carbon footprint by implementing more efficient and cost-effective operations. And through satellites, farming can adopt IoT technologies to maximise crop yields. The list is endless.

But – and this is an important but – for space to enable sustainability on Earth we must ensure sustainability in space. I have said this many times before and will continue to say it as I push for safer and more sustainable operations in space. Only through the international cooperation of regulators, industry and operators can we protect the space environment. As we continue to witness the rise of mega-constellations, which will see hundreds of thousands more satellites launched, alongside a mass injection of capital into space – estimated to break the $1 trillion barrier in the next decade – we must act fast to ensure balanced regulation, with more formal policies on space traffic management and orbital debris mitigation.

Protecting our most valuable asset in the Second Space Age

In entering the Second Space Age, it is the responsibility of the space industry, myself and Inmarsat included, to ensure that the value of space is understood by all, to realise its full potential, and protect this invaluable asset for the generations to come.

We hope that What on Earth is the value of space? will provide a platform to promote the extraordinary ways in which space improves life on Earth, provoke discussions on how the industry can protect the space environment, and inform and inspirit future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

Because without them, how can we hope for the space sector to continue the incredible journey it began on 4 October 1957, with the first ever satellite launch?

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