Status Report

MarsNow 1.13 The Demand Side

By SpaceRef Editor
October 24, 2001
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Effective marketing by the space community is virtually unheard of. If we can’t change that, we’re going to stay planetbound. Identifying the reasons for our consistent inability to craft and propagate a compelling message isn’t hard: anyone who attends a space advocacy conference or reads an entrepreneurial space business plan – let alone most NASA general-audience publications – can identify most of the problems. Fixing them, though, will require changing our habits, developing new skills, recruiting expertise we lack. I don’t have all the answers, but I hope at least to sketch the outlines of the problem and how to solve it.

The space movement, broadly defined, has reached the limits of growth in its little environmental niche, and is in fact shrinking. Letters in Aviation Week bemoan the shortage of aerospace engineers and industry’s inability to retain them. Space advocacy group membership is down. NASA centers face retirements from the Apollo generation unmatched by recruiting among the young. We’re poised to expand into new environmental niches – but honestly, we’ve been three to five years from breakout for thirty years. Breakout comes from expanding out of our core support into the wider world, and that depends on broadly conveying something compelling – on effective communication.

Why have we failed? Simply, during our formative years the space movement was populated almost exclusively by engineers under government contract. Engineers are wonderful, and we need more of them, but their communication skills tend to be lacking. Further, their training leads to a tight focus on “how.” Questions of “why” are outside their ambit and tend to be dismissed. As NASA was the single customer for space – engineering, science and advocacy alike – and NASA bought what Congress funded, no more and no less. There was no need for marketing, for increasing demand for space goods and services. We had only advertising and lobbying. The advertising message to a sole customer is “when you buy widgets, remember that we make good ones.” In a real market, the marketing message is “your job will be easier and more profitable if you include widget usage,” while advertising says “you need widgets – lots of them, and shiny new ones regularly.” Guess who sells more widgets – and, even more importantly, who gets more people thinking more often about widgets and how they make life better.

This engineering-monopsony perspective still dominates commercial space. Even now, most entrepreneurs are engineers who talk ISP to the exclusion of ROI. For all the ballyhoo this year about space tourism, only now is the first market study ever under way, at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

Before Sputnik, it was different. Tsiolkovsky was more than a first-rate scientist: he was an inspired, passionate advocate of the vision of humanity’s future in space. The early rocket societies all combined bold engineering innovation with proselytizing fervor. Perhaps the space movement’s greatest communicator came from that tradition: no one has ever put forth a clear, attractive vision of our spacefaring future as well as Wernher von Braun. We have had effective voices post-Apollo, but O’Neill and Sagan are gone.

It is the 21st Century, and the best that can be said of us is that we carry on in the shadow of those three. Each left an organizational legacy: the National Space Society, the Space Frontier Foundation and The Planetary Society, each still bounded by the views, politics, friends and enemies of their dead icons. There are many able people in the space advocacy community, but (with the notable exception of Robert Zubrin at the Mars Society) mostly they communicate intra-group, to other nodes in the Spacefaring Web.

Our first problem is that we don’t communicate enough to people who don’t already share our views. Of the tens of thousands of people whose livelihood or passion is drawn from space, fewer than a dozen published letters to the editor about space in a general interest publication in the past year. Perhaps a hundred were quoted in the media, and fewer than that gave general-audience talks. To be sure, many of us do work in schools, science centers and the like, dealing daily with the general public. We owe them immensely; they carry the burden of communicating for us all.

Beyond that, we really don’t have a clue as to how to construct a good message. In Leading The Revolution, Gary Hamer describes an effective message as credible, coherent, compelling and commercial. Von Braun’s articles in Collier’s Magazine were all four, as is the “Enterprise” opening credit sequence. Little else that we generate meets those tests.

One complaint that I often hear is that we don’t have anyone to reach a universal audience the way von Braun did through his affiliation with Disney. We acknowledge without fully grasping the utter fragmentation of news and entertainment media, growing out of the fragmentation of the audience. Nobody commands vast market share any more. Sixty thousand new books are published every year. Three television channels have become 75 or more. Five hundred seat movie theaters have been carved into multiplexes. Nobody, not even the proverbial Bill Gates or James Cameron, can command a majority of eyeballs.

Yet, memes propagate, and some can reach near-universal distribution quickly. I would imagine flag sales are up by four or five orders of magnitude in the past month. The long-dormant memes of patriotism have been reactivated with a vengeance. Late 1990s internet hype was comparable in breadth and intensity. Charismatic Christian churches have seen skyrocketing membership while overall religiosity and attendance are down. It is possible to propagate a message widely and effectively in an atomized culture. The process just isn’t well-understood, especially within the space movement, which tends to be short on ad execs, marketing gurus and Hollywood producers.

I believe we can advocate the development of a spacefaring civilization so that the concept becomes as universal as internet technology advocacy has been. We do have one successful contemporary data point: the Yuri’s Night world party to commemorate the first human spaceflight. The first celebration, this past April 12, was amazingly successful for an event assembled in about six months, holding 64 parties in 29 countries. It’s almost impossible to hear the concept without thinking that Yuri’s Night may still be celebrated when Earth itself is a half-forgotten legend.

What makes Yuri’s Night such a powerful meme? Well, it’s credible, coherent, compelling and commercial. It isn’t tedious, didactic or scolding, as so many “space is good for you” presentations are. But most importantly, its appeal is primal.

There’s a powerful graphic in Davenport and Beck’s The Attention Economy: it displays an inverted triangle, representing Maslow’s needs hierarchy upside down. The most compelling messages, they say, appeal towards the broad base of the triangle: sex, food, security, status. The least effective messages fall all the way down towards the apex: self-actualization, the betterment of humanity, etc. Guess where most space advocacy is pitched? Yuri’s Night appeals to sex, pride, fun, belonging.

A challenge for us all: in describing and advocating a spacefaring future, how can we craft a message with primal appeal that can spread like wildfire through the broad mass of people? I’ll be returning to this question again and again. For now, I have no better answer than to give directions to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

Mars Now is a weekly column © 2001 by John Carter McKnight,
Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.
Views expressed here are strictly the author’s and do not
necessarily represent Foundation policy.

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SpaceRef staff editor.