Media on the Moon

Anniversary of Apollo landing inspires stories both quirky and critical

The media loves to commemorate space-age milestones. In 2007, it was Sputnik’s fiftieth birthday. In 2008, it was NASA’s. This year—Monday, to be precise—marked four decades since the first moon landing.

Nearly every media outlet had comprehensive coverage of the anniversary: The New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, and the Associated Press all had great science packages on the original Apollo 11 lander, NASA’s current state of affairs, and prospects for exploring Mars. There have already been some extensive round-ups of the coverage, but here are a few pieces that were particularly unique.

Jennifer LaRue Huget wrote an interesting column and blog post at The Washington Post on the development of space food for NASA astronauts. She highlighted the challenges associated with trying to create nutritional food that can be preserved and still taste good, but explained how much food science has developed since 1969. Turns out, astronauts might have inspired the invention of energy bars. Whatever the case, focusing on their diet was a great way for Huget—the Post’s food and nutrition columnist—to connect the space and health beats.

Technology journalists also found ways to relate the moon landing to their readers’ interests. PC Advisor and Computerworld both had articles on technologies that were designed or inspired by NASA. Certain products, like cordless tools and wireless headsets, were originally designed for astronauts, but found their way to the mainstream market because they were so effective. Among many other media outlets, the Los Angeles Times and Information Week covered Google Earth’s recent release of its 3-D mapping program for the Moon. The program includes a virtual tour of the surface of the moon, panoramic photos, and historic videos. Reporters also informed readers about the recently restored Apollo 11 video archives. PC World’s Todd R. Weiss wrote that the improved copies are “Exhibit A in the evidence files that show the real beauty of the Web and its amazing technology that brings the world to each of us on our computers.”

The most pleasant surprise from all the hoopla surrounding the anniversary was the good local coverage that resulted. While there were plenty “Moon landing, where were you?” pieces, a few reporters found aspects of the space race and 1969 landing that directly impacted their readers’ home towns. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer had a blog post on the different ways Seattle was part of the space race, like the selection of University of Washington to participate in the Universities Space Research Association. Alaska’s Channel 2, KTUU, let viewers and readers in on a little known fact: the moon landing was Alaska’s first live TV broadcast, eighteen years after the rest of America’s first one. The post also included links to 1969 P-I coverage of the Apollo 11 landing. In fact, a lot of newspapers—The New York Times included—pointed readers toward their 1969 archives, a nice touch all around.

As warm, fuzzy, and entertaining as these stories are, however, NASA currently sits at a critical and controversial juncture. Thankfully, reporters didn’t lose sight of that point. On Wednesday, the Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein filed a great piece with a quote from NASA’s new administrator, Charles Bolden Jr., saying that he would be “incredibly disappointed” if we haven’t reached Mars in his lifetime. Borenstein came to the apt conclusion that:

That appears to be a shift from the space policy set in motion by the Bush administration, which proposed first returning to the moon by 2020 and then eventually going to Mars a decade or two later. Bolden didn’t rule out using the moon as a stepping stone to Mars and beyond. But he talked more about Mars than the moon as NASA was still celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing.

The AP article also noted that Bolden’s ambitions appear to be practically boundless. “I did grow up watching Buck Rogers, and Buck Rogers didn’t stop at Mars,” he told Borenstein. But Bolden will have to overcome serious financial, political, and technological hurdles to even put humans back the moon, according to a good rundown of challenges to future spaceflight in The New York Times last week. “No bucks, no Buck Rogers,” Dr. John Olson, who coordinates the lunar program within NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, told reporter Kenneth Chang.

President Obama’s “proposed spending on human exploration in years 2011 through 2013 was several billion dollars less than what President Bush proposed last year,” Chang noted. Although the choice of Bolden was viewed as “a boost for manned spaceflight,” according a May article in the Los Angeles Times, he questioned its value during the presidential campaign and ordered a review of the Constellation program (NASA’s plan to replace the space shuttle with new Ares rockets and Orion crew capsules) shortly after taking office. The media has also questioned plans for manned spaceflight. Last week, in an article about he anniversary of the moon landing, The Economist asked whether or not it’s worth going back. “In truth, NASA has never really recovered its direction since the triumph of the Apollo project,” the magazine argued.

But it needs to, and good journalism can help. NASA is fertile ground for space reporters right now and, as fun as it is to remember the agency’s past, the story is all about its future.

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Sanhita Reddy is a former Observatory intern currently living in Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship, studying the media sources people use to find health information.