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Space – the final frontier?

Space – the final frontier?

By Alan Mercer, Programme Director for Sciencewise.

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Is space technology still in the realms of science fiction?  Well, that very much depends on your definition of space.  We may still be some way away from warp drives, matter transfer technology (beam me up, Scotty!) and the all-seeing tricorder, but for us all technological developments in space are creating significant benefits and potential issues for society.

Over the years, the range of civilian space applications has increased significantly.  We are now totally dependent upon satellite technology for modern day essentials such as weather forecasting, the internet, mobile phones, televisions and satellite mapping.  All the forecasts are that these uses of space will continue to grow, and that we will see more and more satellites for commercial and military use, and that we will see space tourism turn from science fiction to science fact.

These technological developments impact upon all of us, and Sciencewise has recently published research to understand what the public thinks about this commercialisation of space – with some very interesting findings.

Most striking is the limited amount of research or any form of dialogue that has taken place with the public.  Somewhat surprising given that a lot of the research into space technology is funded by the public! 

The Sciencewise report is part of a package of research to pull together what is known of the views of the public on emerging areas of science and technology. For those making investment decisions involving science and technology, many (me included) would say that it is essential that the views of the public are taken into account.  Having this as another strand of evidence can only lead to better investment and policy decisions.

The Sciencewise report concludes that the public has mixed views on the commercialisation of space.  It may be a feature of the timing of the research but the major public concern is that commercialising space is expensive.  The public do not associate investing in space research with economic growth, and given the economic benefits being achieved to date by the UK space sector, there is a case for raising awareness of the links between space research and these economic benefits.

Interestingly there is strong support from the public for high profile space exploration.  This is seen by many as an opportunity to arouse new interest in the space industry, to enthuse young people and as a way to invest in space education and engagement. 

Space tourism is where the views start to become more polarised.  For the younger generation, it is an area of great interest and enthusiasm, but the older generation are somewhat more cautious with concerns over cost.  Overall the limited information indicates that there is public support, but with an expectation that it will be private sector funded.  No doubt the likes of Virgin Galactic (other space travel companies are available) will be keen to find out more about the aspirations and concerns of the public.

But it is the area of the military use of space that appears to be the area of most concern for the public.  The use of space technology for surveillance and communications isn’t the main issue, but in this complex area, there is great uncertainty expressed by the public on how space and space technology is used in a military context.

Space, its commercialisation and its exploration will always stimulate debate, and it is highly likely that the views of the public will increasingly be taken into account in future decisions.  No doubt it was only after extensive dialogue with the public that the decision was taken for the USS Enterprise to embark on its 5 year mission to seek out new life and new civilisations, and to boldly go where no man has gone before.

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Interested in space exporation and what the future holds? Hear Maggie Aderin-Pocock speak in Newcastle on Saturday 7 September for the British Science Festival. You can find out more information about the event and book your tickets here.

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