What are the stories that will get Americans dreaming about the future of space in the coming year?

We have to create them. They’re not just waiting to be written. They’re waiting to actually happen so that you can write about them, and I strongly feel that if America doesn’t do it, others will. Somebody has to continue to expand the space frontier, and you might say that I’m biased, but the defense of my argument is simple.

Innovations in science and technology are the engines of the 21st-century economy, and steps into space tap the scientific expertise from many different disciplines in stem fields [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]. They’re also exciting and garner headlines in ways that other sciences do not. People read about space, and it inspires them to want to participate on that frontier or contribute to that frontier, no matter what their profession. Maybe you’re an artist, and you want to paint representations of the beautiful photos from the Hubble telescope. Maybe you’re an attorney, and you start thinking about space law and who owns the asteroid that you might want to mine. That’s what I mean by having an innovation nation where everyone shares in the common dream—that science and technology will bring us into tomorrow and be the source of our economic and cultural wealth going forward.

In the 1960s, the fruits of science and engineering and technology were writ large in the daily newspapers. That’s the kind of force that we need to put into play. But the shuttle was not advancing a space frontier, and many people said, ‘Oh, we’re bored with the space program. No one follows the next shuttle launch.’ Well, of course, because it was boldly going where hundreds had gone before. That’s not advancing a space frontier. So I would appeal to the budget-makers to fund all the sciences, not just space—but space would be the great carrot in society to get people interested in science to begin with.

We saw the media’s gravitational pull toward space stories in late November, when an excited quote from one of the leaders of the Mars rover mission was taken out of context and kicked up a lot of speculation about a big discovery on the red planet.

You don’t need to train journalists to sniff out the fact that people like these kinds of stories. The CBS morning program wants me to come on in the first hour on that Monday to talk about whatever this NASA announcement’s going to be from Curiosity [as Tyson guessed on the show, it ended up being the discovery of simple organic compounds], so I think there is a sense that science is important. Twenty years ago, that wasn’t true. I’d get a call from the evening news, or the morning news, because there was a cosmic thing and they wanted a comment on it, but if anything else flinched in the government, or the economy, it would get bumped. I remember driving to msnbc when it was in Secaucus, NJ, to talk about a meteor shower that was impending, but while I was there some story relevant to Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky came up, so they cancelled the asteroid story.

Now, they give it the same weight as what happened in the Middle East or around the world. The discovery of the Higgs boson was a banner headline in The New York Times—as was the story when we demoted Pluto from planet status [in 2000, in an exhibit at the then-recently opened Rose Center for Earth and Sciences at the Museum of Natural History], although it was below the fold. That’s a case where the media created a news story where there wasn’t one.

What do you mean?

It had been a year since we had demoted Pluto. The exhibit was sitting there. No one had talked about it. People saw that Pluto was not among the planets and said, ‘Oh, that must be the movement of science, and okay, fine.’ Then a journalist from the Times overhears a woman looking for Pluto who couldn’t find it, and the reporter calls that in to the Science desk and they do the story with the headline, “Pluto’s Not a Planet? Only in New York.” [The International Astronomical Union did not demote Pluto for another five years.] The headline was accusatory. We all learned about Pluto as kids. It was the underdog planet, and it’s in our culture, so they wrote this story. I don’t have a problem with it, other than it ate two years of my life fielding inquiries, and I got branded as the evil planet killer.

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.


More in Cover Story

My space

Read More »

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.