Communicators, Don Your Space Suits!

“Deprived of the ability to foresee the future, humankind received what we call ‘hope’.”  –Adrienne Mayor, Stanford University

The first half of 2020 has been undeniably tumultuous, riddled with so many unusual crises—a devastating global pandemic, the first global economic depression of our lifetimes, the resurgence of superpower conflict and social upheaval from the U.S. to Hong Kong—that merely recounting them is a feat.

Yet, the preceding months have also given us reason for hope. SpaceX, an American aerospace company, launched the first passenger space flight by a private company on May 30, safely transporting two American astronauts—Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley—to the International Space Station (ISS), onboard its state-of-the-art Crew Dragon spacecraft. Traversing the over 400 kilometers to the ISS, not much further than Dubai is from Muscat, took Crew Dragon about 19 hours, much of it spent orbiting Earth.

In a few days, on July 15, less than two months after Crew Dragon took off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, the Emirates Mars Mission (an APCO client), part of the UAE’s National Space Program, is set to launch its Mars probe. Fittingly named Hope, it will go on a multi-month, 493-million-kilometer journey to Mars, the equivalent of about 18,000 round trips from Dubai to Los Angeles.

The first probe to take a complete picture of Mars’ atmosphere and its layers, Hope will deepen our understanding of the Red Planet in its relation to our own. On Earth, it will, at a minimum, contribute to diversifying the UAE’s economy, enhancing its space industry, and empowering its home-grown talent. Ultimately, not unlike SpaceX, the UAE National Space Program strives for greater Mars exploration.

Both missions are remarkable, but what bigger picture are they pointing to? Three trends help bring it to the fore.

First, these missions come at a time of global unrest, given a pandemic, protests and geopolitical turmoil. This means today’s state-of-affairs is not unlike that of 51 years ago, during the Apollo Program’s 1969 moon landing. Then, the Vietnam War was raging, racial tensions were at an all-time high—less than a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—Soviet tanks had crossed into Czechoslovakia, and student protests in France and Mexico had been met with violence. In short, 1969 like 2020, was a year of global unrest and mounting calls for social justice.

Second, both missions mark a shift from government-driven space exploration—the latter a byproduct of the Cold War—to a more innovative, cost-effective space industry powered by public-private partnerships. The Crew Dragon launch, for instance, grew out of many years of collaboration between NASA and SpaceX, based on NASA contracts focused on functionality rather than design, and open to lesser known players in the industry. According to the Planetary Society, Crew Dragon cost NASA $1.7 billion, which pales compared to the $27.4 billion the agency spent on its Shuttle program; both estimates exclude the cost of rockets, but SpaceX’s Falcon is at least partially reusable.

Third, the two missions are an outcome of and provide impetus for increased competition within the space industry. The Mojave Desert, for one, is teeming with space startups, the vast majority of which are developing satellite technology, benefiting from efforts of billionaire investors like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk. Satellite technology, moreover, is in high demand, as governments worldwide are racing to deploy satellites for commercial and military purposes, some of them even work toward creating a forward operating base in outer space; China, infamously so, has its sights on the moon.

What these trends—namely, societal upheaval, public-private partnerships, and competition—invite is the participation of effective communicators, conscious of the big picture, the multitude of players and rising competition. Their mandate could be threefold:

1. Storytelling:

Space missions provide no escape from the recurring troubles of our squabbling planet, but they can help clarify our position in this vast cosmos, thereby, attesting to the preciousness of life on Earth. Like the 1969 moon landing, future space missions will be remembered for the stories they convey about our ambitious human project and the vistas of distant worlds—such as the stunning Earthrise—beckoning to be explored. The impact of these stories and the endurance of emotions images can trigger, depends on the ability of communicators to leverage their creativity and skills in composition, to bring to life far-flung swaths and, thus—paradoxically perhaps—shine a light on Earth. Communicators can transform transient distractions into potent, timeless epics.

2. Facilitation:

Though Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, estimates the space industry to be worth $1 trillion by 2040, its net benefits remain poorly understood, which contributes to a lack of and public opposition to investment. Communicators can help convey the return on investment and added value of space missions, liaising between players in the industry and their stakeholders across communities. By making the science accessible, contextualizing costs, outlining benefits, and tying these considerations into a larger narrative about human progress, communicators can facilitate deals and garner public support. With the number of players in the industry increasing, given the rise of public-private partnerships, communicators can act as a glue, enabling collaboration.

3. Lobbying:

Competition is what incubated and powered the space industry, but the rise of public-private partnerships, renewed superpower rivalries, and the sheer promise of $1 trillion in revenues raise the odds of conflict. In fact, space exploration unfolds within an antiquated, 51-year-old legal framework: the 1969 Outer Space Treaty. The 110 countries that have ratified it agree that outer space should be accessible to all, that its exploration ought to be peaceful and mutually beneficial, and that nuclear arms and cross-planetary contamination are not permissible; this applies to non-governmental actors in these countries. Communicators can play a critical role in helping enforce and evolve the Treaty by working on behalf of governments, international organizations, and a rising number of non-governmental players, to forge consensus and prevent conflict. In a matter of years, public affairs skills will be in demand in the space industry.

Now is the time for communicators to don their space suits and contribute their creativity as well as skills in storytelling, public relations, and public affairs to propel the space industry forward, while helping a deeply divided public see beyond its differences. With only days left until the UAE’s Hope probe heads to Mars, we must count on it being true to its name, restoring some of the hope in the human project that ever fuels our future.