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March 07, 2011

Commercial Space Industry Needs to Step Up PR Game

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

As the Space Shuttle program winds down and the United States public is left wondering what we do next, the commercial space industry has done a remarkably poor job of presenting its case to the American people.

On Capitol Hill, NASA is fighting a tooth-and-nail battle to increase commercial development monies in its budget while lawmakers in both parties continue to insist on micromanaging how the agency does business in order to preserve jobs in their districts. 

The average man on the street or typical high-school student has little idea as to the achievements made by commercial space efforts over the past decade. Most of the buzz has surrounded the sub-orbital tourism industry with well-heeled tourists getting a quick joy-ride to earn a pair of astronaut wings, but there's been nothing to bring the hoi polli to the table. 

If I walked into a high school and asked any random 10 students what Space X was, maybe one or two of them might have a clue. Bigelow Aerospace? If I rule out the high schools outside of Las Vegas where the Bigelow facility is and those in the Orlando area, I'd be surprised if there was one student in one hundred.

If you can't get a future labor force informed and interested in the "cool" of what you are doing, you are doing very little to ensure you have a good pool of affordable workers to choose from down the road. Less competition means more expensive labor which means higher prices. 

Instead, everyone knows all about the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station and the risks involved in flying on the (old, flawed) Shuttle.   It's a story NASA has successfully built over the decades -- and one the commercial space industry needs to step up and match. 

Why? Citizens are much more activist these days, be it by electing Tea Party candidates to Congress or fighting over union bargaining power in Wisconsin.   If people aren't aware of what is going on, they're just going to jump onto the "lower taxes" bandwagon, rather than make a more rational choice to invest a lower amount of money into developing commercial services in order to get more bang for the buck when compared to a fully owned and operated government manned space program.

In my dealings with the commercial space industry, I'm averaging around a 33 percent return rate on calls and requests for information.   I tried to arrange an interview with the new head of one trade association via email. After a brief exchange of messages, nothing. Zip. Follow up phone calls weren't returned. Another company didn't even have a press contact; it was the assistant to the owner along with a vague "Well, we'll get back to you if we have the time." 

To be fair, I'm not a name brand space industry reporter – but that's also the point. Some within the commercial space and satellite industry tends to be a bit cliquish in who they will and won't talk to, feeling they can blow off anyone who isn't from Aviation Week or Space.Com and not have any consequences down the road.

As a long term strategy, it's a false economy. The more people who are talking about the commercial space industry today – be it the kids in high school who talk to their parents or reporters building a portfolio of coverage – translates to more engaged and active voters willing to speak in support of the commercial space industry when it comes time to push for support in Congress. 

The three pieces of PR advice I'd offer to the U.S. commercial space industry at this point in time would be to 1) Be more open, forthcoming, and proactive about talking to the media outside of the small circle of "ringers" you have in the trade industry 2) Develop a grass-roots outreach program into secondary school education and 3) Start more aggressively and loudly telling the American people that commercial space has a key role to play in generating jobs and continuing the country's leadership in space – the future of U.S. spaceflight isn't stopping when the last Shuttle mission returns to Earth; private industry will keep it going.

Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Janice McDuffee

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