Does European Sci-Comm Suck?

Does European Sci-Comm Suck?

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On 18 August, Avio Tweeted about the successful launch of the Jupiter-3 satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. The post shared a link to a SpaceNews article, an image of a Falcon Heavy from SpaceX with the Avio logo superimposed on top of it, and four different hashtags, one of which was #avio. The post received one repost, seven likes, and 422 views. This, for me, marked an absolute low point for European sci-comm efforts.

If the term is unfamiliar, sci-comm is simply shorthand for science communication and is an umbrella term for all communication around science-related topics.

What’s happening with Avio and the company’s comms is an acute example of a more widespread problem. The fact is that Europe has proven time and time again that it’s great at building space hardware and terrible at telling stories. This needs to change

Case study no.1 - Avio

Now, Avio was not involved in the launch of Jupiter-3 or in the construction of Jupiter-3 in any way. The company also has no financial interest in SpaceNews yet decided it would be a good idea to report on a story that it had nothing to do with and send free traffic to SpaceNews. What on Earth is going on inside the Avio comms department?

What’s worse is that in early August Avio had successfully completed a hot fire test of a new and improved M10 upper stage engine. The engine will be debuted aboard either the Vega E or a two-stage reusable demonstrator Avio is working on, both of which are currently expected to be launched for the first time in 2026. While Avio CEO Giulio Ranzo shared a video of the M10 test to his personal LinkedIn profile on 5 August, it wouldn’t get a mention on the company’s Twitter page until August 22. When it was finally mentioned, the company didn’t share the video or even an image. Engine start videos are social media gold and choosing not to share it when it’s already in the public domain is a bizarre decision. That’s not all, though. During the same timeframe, the company was also stacking a Vega vehicle that will launch Europe’s final mission of 2023. SAB Launch Services have also been integrating the payloads that will be launched aboard the mission. To date, there has been no mention of that process apart from images that were shared on Ranzo’s personal LinkedIn page. Noticing a trend?

It would be one thing if Avio had nothing going on, but that’s just not the case. The company has actively made the choice to not report on its own accomplishments and instead highlight the achievements of another company. It wasn’t a once-off either. On August 14, the company Tweeted about NASA and DARPA selecting Lockheed Martin to develop a nuclear-powered rocket. This time Avio gave The New York Times some free traffic.

Avio also appears to be embarrassed about a significant element of its own business. In addition to the company being the builders of Vega rockets, Avio also has a thriving defence business. Over the last year, the company has signed two major defence contracts. The first was actually a pair of orders awarded to Avio by MBDA with a combined value of €40 million. The first order was to increase the production of boosters for the Aster 30 missile system for a European and NATO member state. The second was for the development, qualification, and industrialization of the booster propulsion system for the Teseo MK2/E anti-ship missile system for the Italian Navy. In April 2023 Avio received a €90 million order from MBDA for Aster-30 boosters.

Neither of the company’s two defence contract signing announcements was shared on the company’s Twitter or LinkedIn accounts or in the press release section of the Avio website. Even the usually forthright Ranzo failed to share the news. The only place to find it is under the financial announcements section of the Avio investors website.

Avio appears to have no clear content strategy and seems to have now given up on promoting its own company altogether, at least for its Twitter coverage that is.

There are at least two instances of ESA absolutely dropping the ball when it came to storytelling over the last year. The first, in my opinion, was the more egregious of the two, although it may, I admit, not have been entirely within the agency’s control.

On November 16, 2022, Artemis 1 was launched aboard an SLS rocket on an uncrewed trip to the Moon and back. The Orion spacecraft that made the journey featured two distinct modules: the Orion capsule and the European Service Module (ESM) which provide power and propulsion to the spacecraft. While NASA is responsible for Orion, ESA was given the responsibility to produce the ESM. The €390-million contract to build this first service module was awarded to Airbus in November 2014. Another €1.1 billion over three contracts has since been awarded for an additional five service modules.

Artemis 1 was live-streamed practically from start to finish with some stunning high-definition shots of the spacecraft being viewed worldwide. And what did that worldwide audience see? Not one but three NASA logos. The so-called NASA Worm logo was, in my opinion, ostentatiously large, but I digress. The ESA logo was featured during launch and in a small section of the spacecraft that was most often covered in shadow and easy to miss.

Months after the conclusion of the mission, ESA published a report that stated that the Artemis 1 mission had attracted approximately 1 billion views. The question, however, is how many of those eyes knew that ESA played a significant part in the mission.

Reviewing coverage that was published at the time of the Artemis 1 splashdown, I found that CNBC, Scientific America,, PBS, The New York Times, CNN, Forbes, and even the Guardian coverage made no mention of ESA or Europe - none whatsoever. Gizmodo gave a brief mention of the European Service Module. Reuters included mention of Europe and ESA in the final three paragraphs. SpaceNews probably gave the most flattering coverage with mention of the European-built service module and the inclusion of a quote from David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration.

Even NASA appears to be comfortable with leaving ESA out of the conversation. In March, the agency published a review of the results of the Artemis 1 mission and made no mention of ESA. When describing the service module the agency simply referred to it as the European-built service module. Words are important and simply referring to the service module as European-built rather than European funded, developed, and built matters.

As branding exercises go, Artemis 1 was, in my opinion, an utter failure for Europe. What happens when ESA is in the driver’s seat, though?

In 2014, when the contract for the Solar Orbiter mission was awarded to Astrium UK, ESA explained that NASA would supply the launcher, one full instrument, and one sensor. For reference, the spacecraft features ten instruments. NASA is, as a result, undoubtedly a junior partner for the Solar Orbiter mission.

Last week, ESA announced that its Solar Orbiter had discovered tiny jets of plasma being expelled from the sun that may help explain how solar wind is generated. In the first line of the press release, ESA refers to it as the ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter spacecraft. Why? How is this suddenly a joint mission instead of an ESA-led mission with a NASA contribution?

The result is articles like this one from Insider which led with NASA's and Europe's Solar Orbiter discovered tiny jets erupting from a hole in the sun. ESA is just left out of top billing. Apart from image credits, the agency doesn’t get a mention in the article until paragraph 18, after another mention of NASA, this time referencing the agency’s Parker Solar Probe in a sentence that appears to suggest that this discovery is merely confirming what NASA’s mission had already discovered.

The Insider article isn't an anomaly either. CNN calls it a joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency. Reuters states that the spacecraft was built by the European Space Agency and the US space agency NASA. It was built in the United Kingdom by Airbus Stevenage. NASA supplied the launch vehicle, an instrument, and a sensor!

Now, I’m not saying that ESA has any control over what news outlets choose to publish. However, they’re not doing themselves any favors. Going back to the ESA press release that all of these publications would have used to write their respective articles, there is never an explanation of how this is actually an ESA-led mission with NASA contributions. The article only had two references that journalists or editors could have used to determine the ownership of the mission without doing further research. The first was the agency referring to it as the “ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter spacecraft.” The second is the final line, which states, “Solar Orbiter is a space mission of international collaboration between ESA and NASA, operated by ESA.” I don’t blame Insider, CNN, or Reuters for coming to the conclusion that they did.

When it comes to ESA press releases, the agency should never share the spotlight and this is especially true for agency-led missions. The Solar Orbiter press release should have called it the ESA Solar Orbiter spacecraft and given more information about the European companies and institutions that developed and built the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument that actually made the observations. NASA’s contributions to the mission should have been spelled out to ensure the division was well understood.

The above are just a few examples, but Avio and ESA are by no means the only offenders.

In Europe, it’s often seen as obscene or ostentatious when someone claims credit for and boasts about their achievements. Well, unless you’re a football player. Then, all bets are off. In all seriousness, though, we need to do away with this polite modesty. It’s an unnecessary weight we’ve strapped to ourselves that makes it impossible to get attention from not only a global audience but also the attention of citizens of ESA member states who are more likely to wear a NASA-branded t-shirt than one featuring the ESA logo.

Once we’ve made it over that hurdle, ESA, other European space agencies, and European space companies need to do a far better job at connecting with storytellers. And I don’t mean the bullshit that ArianeGroup does when collaborating with skateboard clothing brands and sound system companies.

If you have an example of a fantastic European sci-comms effort, please do share it in the comments below.

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