[Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series examining recent coverage of President Obama’s plans for the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The second part is here.]
Last week, President Obama plotted a major course change for NASA, scrapping the five-year-old Constellation project and its return trip to the moon, shifting responsibility for low-earth orbit transport to the private sector, and setting sights on a manned journey to a near-earth asteroid before a more distant trip to Mars.
In a speech Thursday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Obama defended a refined version of a plan that was first floated in February. Critics had complained that the plan lacked a crystallizing mission-destination, would kill jobs in a weak economy, abandoned $10 billion already spent on Constellation, and put the onus on unproven private interests to develop a safe ship to ferry cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.
Obama’s proposal marks a dramatic shift in the U.S. program for space exploration, worthy of debate. It’s unfortunate, then, but unfortunately not surprising, that some news outlets have turned questions of serious policy into political spaceballs. One week before Obama’s speech, a science reporter at FoxNews.com, who frequently provides a platform for climate change skeptics (examples here, here, here and here), zeroed in on long-standing plans to retire the deteriorating space shuttle this fall, a cost-saving (and perhaps life-saving) move that will force NASA to depend on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for transportation to and from the space station.
Citing “experts,” FoxNews.com’s Gene J. Koprowski endeavors to re-stoke Cold War fears, writing that the policy “could hold America’s astronauts in orbit hostage to the whims of the Kremlin.” To back up the claim, Koprowski quotes Jane Orient, described as a science policy expert and professor at the University of Arizona. “The U.S. has surrendered its advantage in space, conceding the high ground to others who are probably our enemies,” Orient is quoted as saying. She continues, racheting up the bathos: “We are apparently leaving seven astronauts in space as hostages. Their loss would be a tragedy, but only a small part of the total disaster. It would symbolize the lack of respect that America has for its pioneers.”
First, a comment on sourcing: Orient is neither a science policy expert nor a professor at Arizona, although she has been a clinical lecturer in the university’s College of Medicine, according to the director of the public affairs office. She’s an internist and executive director of the fringe-conservative American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, who last appeared in the news filing suit against the recent health policy legislation. The AAPS encourages doctors to opt out of Medicare and Medicaid, among other things. A Mother Jones article last fall, titled “The Tea Party’s Favorite Doctors,” reports that Orient worked with Philip Morris “to help the company’s ‘junk science’ campaign that attacked indoor smoking bans,” cranking out “’third party press releases’ in support of its agenda.” She is also a faculty member at the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, whose staff members are involved in the Petition Project, “opposed, on scientific grounds, to the hypothesis of ‘human-caused global warming’ and to concomitant proposals for world-wide energy taxation and rationing.” Her credibility on space policy issues is nil.
Orient, who gets the lead quote in the FoxNews.com piece (a quote recycled a few days later in another Fox story on the space debate), is followed up immediately by one Shannah B. Godfrey, cited as a “former rocket scientist.” According to a resume posted online, Godfrey’s highest educational credential is an MBA. The resume states that she used to work as a chemist for ATK, an aerospace and defense contractor, and now owns a company that sells phonics books. For the purposes of this story, she stands in as a space security expert. “Remember a few years ago when China ‘accidentally’ hit a satellite in space?” she says in the story. “They were subtly sending us a message that they could cripple us instantly by taking out our satellites.” The relevance of this speculation to the new NASA policy is not clear. The space shuttle did fly five missions to service the Hubble Telescope, but satellite defense was never in its charter, nor was it part of the scrapped Constellation project. NASA is currently developing robots to refuel and potentially repair satellites in hopes of showing the private sector that it can be done profitably, however.
In all, nine of 11 named sources in the Fox piece titled “Lost in Space” are hostile to Obama’s proposal. The two supporting voices are a NASA spokesman, John Yembrick, and a retired physics professor, who rebut the claim that NASA is endangering its astronauts by relying on Russian spacecraft to get to the International Space Station. In case of emergency, Yembrick notes, a Soyuz capsule is docked to the station with enough seats for a return to Earth. Responding to the insinuation that the Russians might intentionally strand astronauts in space, Howard C. Hayden, an emeritus professor at the University of Connecticut, says, “I can’t imagine that the Russians would avoid a rescue mission simply because relations had soured. That would bring very loud international condemnation. They’d go out of their way to establish their moral high ground.”
Fox’s Koprowski deserves credit for giving cooler heads a voice in a piece that sounds almost hysterical in places, but the gesture quickly gave way to more tendentious hand-wringing. Input from politicians is limited to three senators and one representative from states – Florida, Alabama and Texas – that will be maximally impacted by the cancellation of Constellation. (By the way, the two Florida pols referenced, Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Susanne Kosmas, went on to accompany Obama on Air Force One for his speech at Kennedy Space Center, where they offered conditional praise for the plan.) The piece also quotes science writer Michael Carroll despairing over the dependence on Russia. Last year, he published a book based on NASA’s big plans for a lunar base. Titled “Seventh Landing: Going Back to the Moon, This Time to Stay,” it may fall out of print soon if Obama’s plan to bypass the moon for deep space is realized.
The final word, however, goes to Lord Christopher Monckton, Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley and a former science adviser to Margaret Thatcher, a man listed by Mother Jones as one of the 12 loudest climate change deniers. Monckton reinforces the main thrust of the story, that the new NASA strategy, especially its dependence on Russian transport, will put astronauts in imminent danger and perhaps even be an existential threat to the United States. “The administration’s policy in space was calculated to do maximal damage to the defense interests of the U.S, and without even yielding a financial savings,” Monckton declares.
The thing is, the much bemoaned shut-down of the space shuttle program and the resulting reliance on the Russians, attributed in this story as “[t]he Obama administration’s decision,” was in fact decided in 2004 by then-President George W. Bush. Bush initiated a review of space policy in 2003 following the catastrophic failure of the heat shield on the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Both the Bush and Obama plans would result in a gap between the retiring space shuttle and its replacement, during which the U.S. would invest money saved on the shuttle in research and development, relying on foreign partners, namely Russia, to get to space in the meantime. No one is particularly happy with this arrangement, not NASA, much less certain politicians who still confuse Russia for the Soviet Union, but it’s the result of a lack of foresight that long predates the current president.
In resolving this problem, Obama’s plan differs from Bush’s in counting on the private sector rather than NASA to come up with a shuttle replacement. That’s a real and debatable difference in strategy, but with most everyone agreed that the shuttle’s life can’t be extended without a huge infusion of cash, and even then at considerable risk to the astronauts who would ride it, the discussion should focus not on old fears of the Russian Bear but on how NASA can best push further into the final frontier.
Later this week, we will take a look at the more responsible coverage that grapples with the promise and the risks of Obama’s new NASA policy.