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Slate's Misleading Hit Piece on the Future of NASA

Instead of a thoughtful essay, they published an uninformed screed

Posted by Casey Dreier

2014/02/06 04:44 CST

Topics: Explaining Policy, Space Policy, human spaceflight, astronaut, Space Shuttle program, shuttle successor

The future of NASA’s human spaceflight program has significant and long-term implications to both our country and all of humanity. It is in a period of transition and faces many challenges. It is an important topic that needs to reach a wide audience, but Charles Seife’s recent piece in Slate is a tragic lost opportunity. It is a misinformed rant dressed up in the trappings of a thoughtful essay. Where it should be provocative, it is ad hominem. Where it should inform, it misleads.

The piece is full of rhetorical tricks, cheap jabs, lazy logic; it misleads the reader into thinking NASA is something it's not (i.e. responsible for its own policy) and is ultimately damaging to the critical discussions that need to happen in the public sphere.

Conceptual design for an asteroid capture and retrieval spacecraft

Rick Sternbach/Keck Institute for Space Studies

Conceptual design for an asteroid capture and retrieval spacecraft

Now, I’m no Journalism Professor, but I believe the goal of good journalism is to inform and educate the reader. Will the reader walk away from this article with a better understanding of NASA’s structure and how it sets its goals? Will a reader better understand the purpose and existence of NASA as a citizen and taxpayer? Does the article serve them with an accurate portrayal of reality? The answer to all of these is a resounding no.

Seife’s logic is fuzzy and his solutions non-existent. He wraps his screed in a veneer of respectability by saying that he wants to have a conversation about why we have humans exploring space, but the tone of his writing and the quality of his arguments would barely pass muster in the comment threads on space policy forums. After reading this article, I have no idea what Seife wants NASA to do, what he wants us to think, or what his solution would be, beyond that “NASA must adapt or die.”

Goodness, how profound.

If you want to read a piece that is truly thought-provoking, well-written, and educational for the reader regarding the future challenges to NASA, check out the excellent “Destination Unknown” series by Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post.

Below you’ll find a few big picture things that Seife misrepresents, ignores, or grossly simplifies in an attempt to preserve the pretense of a consistent argument in his screed.

1. NASA is not some centralized, shadowy cabal

Seife’s article adopts a similar point-of-view commonly found in Moon-landing deniers, UFO crackpots, and other space conspiracy theorists: that NASA is some top-down cabal with shadowy, decades-long agendas that it imposes onto the government and to its thousands of employees. Any employee or scientist that has ever worked with or for NASA can tell you how far this is from the truth. (Side note: did Seife actually talk to any?)

Seife does not understand (or did not want to explain) that NASA is more of a loosely organized mix of field centers, political appointees, civil servants and contractors. There are comparatively few “NASA Scientists” and many “scientists supported by NASA grant money” that actually work for universities and research institutes and can do and say anything they damn well please (particularly if they’re tenured). NASA’s leadership changes every 4 - 8 years (with a few exceptions) as Presidents change, meaning that the political motives and top-level decision makers vary from decade to decade.

If you were a reader just learning about NASA policy for the first time, would you understand this from his article? Or would you come out of it more uninformed than you were originally?

2. NASA’s Goals Are Defined By the White House and Congress, with limited input from NASA

NASA is part of the executive branch. Anything NASA wants to do, policy-wise, must be approved by the White House AND (eventually) by Congress via their NASA Authorization Acts and funding bills. Congress also gets to appropriate funding for projects they like, but NASA doesn’t need, like the $350 million structure built in Mississippi for the now-defunct Constellation program. Even though it's a criminal waste of resources, I don’t blame NASA for building this, because they had to by law.

The process to determine NASA’s policy on human spaceflight is a complex, years-long effort that takes into account scientists, politicians, and the aerospace industry, among others. In fact, the highly-respected National Research Council is working on this subject right now. They just had a meeting on February 4th, two days before this article was published. They also had an open call for public input. Strangely enough, I didn’t see Seife’s submission in the list of public submissions, which is surprising because he seems to care about this topic so dearly.

But again, if you were reading Seife’s article, would you know that the NRC was working on the problem of human spaceflight goals? No, you wouldn’t.

Over the years, NASA has seen many reports which provide a clear vision for human spaceflight. There was George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. There was George H.W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative. Reagan had Pioneering the Space Frontier. Spiro Agnew chaired a space policy commission that recommended the Space Shuttle and a space station. NASA has no shortage of grand ideas for humans in space.

But NASA doesn’t get to decide to pursue these grand ideas. Top NASA officials can argue, cajole, and plead, but only Congress and the White House can truly allow NASA to pursue a goal. And the common thread for all human spaceflight over the past forty years is that the United States doesn’t want to pay to do so.

3. NASA has clearly-defined goals for its science program

Seife simultaneously dismisses NASA’s science programs while blaming them for impeaching the agency’s good name. He mentions major issues in the human spaceflight program, which are legitimate, and, as I’ve noted above, currently the topic of intense discussion throughout all levels of government and the public. But he also neglects to mention anywhere in his article that NASA’s science programs all have clear, achievable goals, that are broadly accepted by the scientific and political communities. There are reports called Decadal Surveys which represent the official consensus from scientific community about the goals for astrophysics, planetary science, heliophysics, and Earth science. They are created every decade, usually over the course of some 18 months. They are highly-regarded by Congress and NASA, though not always implemented exactly as written.

4. NASA is not just human spaceflight

He obviously knows this, since he makes distinctions between the two, but when it’s convenient, he lumps them all together as “NASA.” He rails on and on about the lack of human spaceflight goals, and then uses that to impeach all of NASA. Human spaceflight is the largest part of NASA, but about 28% of NASA’s budget goes to space science. Another, smaller chunk goes to Aeronautics research, technology development, management of NASA field centers, etc. NASA is actively creating new industries for human and cargo launch capabilities. NASA does a whole lot of stuff, which is why it’s hard to pursue big human spaceflight goals given the current level of funding.

5. Seife uses rhetorical tricks and cheap jabs to manipulate the reader

Sure, every writer does this, but Seife’s are particularly manipulative, and uses them to obscure the actual facts in these cases. For example, the section about the Allan Hills martian meteorite, which featured the tantalizing (and ultimately non-biological) formation that looked like fossilized bacteria:

The first public hints came from a hooker. She had the details wrong—she told the tabloids that the aliens were from Pluto—but as crazy as it sounds, she was essentially correct. Within the week, NASA would announce that scientists had found life on Mars. Here was a piece of news that even the most addled of politicos—Clinton strategist Dick Morris—knew was sufficiently important to impress a prostitute. NASA had its sights set on bigger targets. By claiming that a recovered Martian meteorite contained tiny fossils of "nannobacteria"—little wiggly bodies too small to be Earthly microbes—NASA was able to get the attention of the president himself.

Anyone younger than 35 probably doesn’t remember Dick Morris too well, or that the hooker in question was patronized by Morris and had nothing to do with NASA (I had to look it up). Think about why he included this tawdry detail. Is that the act of an author confident in their argument? Does he blame NASA for Dick Morris, too?

But he’s able to associate the meteorite story with hookers. Why? Because he wants the reader to look down on NASA for the Allan Hills meteorite announcement, and hookers tend be looked down upon in society. He defames and degrades by artificial association, a cheap trick and not the sign of an author with strong logical arguments.

Also note the dismissive language “wiggly bodies.” The Allan Hills meteorite was big news. It has major philosophical and scientific ramifications. The picture is highly provocative. But the idea went into the cauldron of scientific debate and lost, though its discoverer, David McKay stood by his original statement until his death. This is an example of open scientific debate and is how. science. works. Why was this a bad thing?

Another example use of provocative language:

NASA kills roughly 4 percent of the people it launches into space. It's a very risky thing to pack enough energy into a vessel so that it can spin around the Earth at 5 miles a second. It's just as difficult to bleed that energy off and come to rest on the ground without burning up in the process or winding up as a sizeable crater. Some of the time, the process will go awry. Even if NASA's managers, engineers, and technicians were perfectly on their game all the time, astronauts would still die—maybe just 1 percent of them rather than 4 percent, but die they will, at an alarming rate. In vain.

I found this to be a particularly low blow. See how the active verb is deployed here in a sinister way? Did NASA “kill” its astronauts? Why not “NASA has lost roughly 4 percent of the people it launched to space.” NASA didn’t line these astronauts up against a wall. It’s a nasty thing to say and something you deploy if you want to distract from a weak argument. NASA is hellbent on astronaut safety, which is part of the reason that shuttle launches cost so much—a point that Seife uses to criticize the program. And, as he acknowledges, space exploration is a difficult, risky endeavor. The “whys” are crucial, but declaring that NASA “kills” its astronauts is not a way to engage in any kind of sensible debate. It’s linkbait for Slate in the way that tawdry photos of celebrities are to the Huffington Post (note also how Slate highlighted this quote in their layout).

6. He arbitrarily dismisses robotic exploration because it doesn’t fit with his thesis

Why bother with data to support your argument when it’s a lot easier to just dismiss annoying counter-examples for no reason?

Never mind that robotic eyes have gazed upon the methane shores of Titan's seas or that robotic ears and noses have plunged into the Jovian atmosphere and heard its lightning and smelled its ammonia tang. Some folks appreciate this kind of science, but as far as the general public goes, without humans aboard, merely sending a spacecraft to another world barely counts as exploration at all.

Apparently, the 1.48 million people following the Curiosity rover on Twitter don’t exist, or the tens of millions of people around the world that watched it land on Mars, or the thriving community of people at unmannedspaceflight.com, or 41,000 members of The Planetary Society (we are “some folks” in that quote).

Also, the “Voyagers didn't capture the imagination of the public.” Why? Because Seife says so.

There are many more problems, mainly in his shifting arguments (why is he blaming science if he thinks the science program is valuable? If people are so into humans in space, why does he dismiss low-Earth orbit space and the space station?) and other general misconceptions about how NASA works (did the human spaceflight program really embrace astrobiology after the Allan Hills meteorite? Does he understand that the phosphorus in DNA claim was from a researcher at the USGS using NASA grant money and not from a NASA employee? That NASA can’t control what their grant-recipients publish?) But big points I address above should be enough to convince you that Seife really doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and you probably shouldn't listen to him.

Next time, Slate should ask a real expert about space policy to write about the future of NASA. John Logsdon, Jeff Foust, Scott Pace, or Marcia Smith all quickly come into mind. Unlike Seife, they’ve thought about the problems facing the space program, understand how government works, and want make NASA better, not just start a “conversation.” There are real problems facing human spaceflight, but Seife buries the reality behind such disrepute that they languish, lost to the public.

 

Or read more blog entries about: Explaining Policy, Space Policy, human spaceflight, astronaut, Space Shuttle program, shuttle successor

Comments:

Ilkka Sillanpaa: 02/06/2014 05:22 CST

Your point 6. I read that completely differently in the Slate article. IMO, he was praising robotic missions (though some don't see much value in them) and points how much we could do with the resourses he believes are 'wasted' on human exploration or Hubble repairs.

Ilkka Sillanpaa: 02/06/2014 05:27 CST

The WaPo article you praise http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2013/08/17/nasas-mission-improbable/ may have been more 'professional' and but I felt it failed to address the bigger NASA picture and seemed to take human space exploration sort of for granted. However it did raise many important questions especially on the role of congress.

Ilkka Sillanpaa: 02/06/2014 05:37 CST

Last point: Ideally the Decadal Surveys work as you describe it. However, I feel that this time around NASA has walked up and down the most recent one (yes, in large part because of budget, true): 1)Mars2020 (now that HQ decided on doing another Curiosity, you tell us what we should do with it) 2)Planetary science continually struggles to be funded 3)Restricting conference participation; pract. preventing intl conf., without saving a dime for any project.

Mark Adler: 02/06/2014 06:32 CST

"Allan Hills". (Allan with two ells.)

Casey Dreier: 02/06/2014 07:05 CST

Mark: Fixed. Thanks.

Stephen : 02/06/2014 08:21 CST

"Next time, Slate should ask a real expert about space policy to write about the future of NASA. " What makes you think he WAS "asked"? The article itself seems more likely to have been one he wrote on his own initiative (as distinct from being one Slate invited him to write) and later sold it to Slate. I say that with some confidence since a professor of journalism seems an unlikely choice of expert for Slate to have itself chosen to write an article about American space exploration (and NASA in particular). One might as well invite (say) a physics professor to write an article on the state of American journalism as taught at NY University. That's one point. Another is that that statement is implicitly blaming Slate for Selfe's article by implying that they should have chosen someone more knowledgeable. Or rather someone whose views you might find more acceptable. IMHO that is unfair and against the principles of freedom of speech and of the press. I have seen similar screeds against NASA published in Britain's Economist magazine; and while I have found much in them to disagree with, the Economist has every right to publishing them, irrespective of how wrong (or wrong-headed) I myself might feel them to be--just as Slate does with Selfe's diatribe. On a more practical note, might I suggest you pen an article for Slate debunking Selfe's article? After all, it seems unlikely that most Slate readers are also visitors of the blog pages of planetary.org and therefore are unlikely to see this present blog posting.

Burke Burnett: 02/06/2014 09:52 CST

Following up on the point about Seife’s inappropriate rhetorical tricks: To say that "NASA kills roughly 4% of the people it sends into space" is very misleading, since a number of people were launched several times. If you count the number of people per launch, the risk of dying on a mission to date is 1.6%. This is either bad journalism or lazy math. He uses a number of other cheats. For example, assessing the research done on the last Columbia mission by the number of citations arising from the primary publication is a poor way of judging the value of the research. Presumably he's talking about the work done on sprites - which indeed generated important data used by later researchers, though the paper itself was not the primary citation. To say that "The hard drive might as well have burned up in the atmosphere" is not just insulting. It's wrong. (And I wasn’t even a big fan of the Shuttle program.) Yes, NASA faces a crisis of confidence and lack of a clearly define its mission. But I read Seife’s book on fusion, and it was similarly rife with unfair comparisons, general snark, and facile dismissal. As with his use of the flawed NASA handling of the Mars bacteria/arsenic research, his modus operandi seems to be using cherry-picked examples of mistakes in order to attempt to debunk the entire endeavor.

Stephen: 02/06/2014 10:24 CST

"NASA is actively creating new industries for human and cargo launch capabilities." IMHO you are overstating the value of NASA to private industry. You might as well argue that the US Navy is "actively creating new industries" through its need for aircraft carriers, battle cruisers, and submarines to defend the homeland. The problem is that if the government (or Congress) decided not to fund any more aircraft carriers, battle cruisers, or submarines (unlikely, yet not completely impossible; an equivalent decision was made by Australia many years ago when the government there decided the Australian navy no longer needed aircraft carriers) what happens to the industry? (Especially if the government insists on having a veto on who else such ships can be sold to, not unlikely given that many of the US models are nuclear powered.) So too with NASA. For example, how many Saturn V's or space shuttles did the US launch industry sell to anybody else? How many SLS launch vehicles wlll they be selling to someone other than NASA? If the answer to such questions is none, then where, pray tell, is the industry? The SLS, like the Saturn series and the shuttle, are essentially custom-built vehicles designed and built to suit the specifications of one particular custom. Imagine if the US auto-industry, instead of having mass assembly lines churning out vehicles by the tens of thousands designed and built cars, trucks, and other vehicles according to the custrom-crafted specifications of each individual buyer. How many cars (or trucks etc) do you imagine the auto industry would sell each year?

S tephen: 02/06/2014 11:16 CST

"NASA is not just human spaceflight." Very true. Unfortunately, much of the public support for NASA is arguably dependant on NASA's human spaceflight program. If that program were to end, much of the support for the unmanned program would fall away, especially for the larger and more expensive ones such as the Mars Sample Return missions and most outer solar system ones "He rails on and on about the lack of human spaceflight goals," That is actually a legitimate point Selfe makes. With the ending of the Constellation NASA's manned spaceflight program has become wholly dependant on the ISS. When that program eventually ends and the ISS is either dismantled or allowed to reenter Earth's atmosphere, what happens then? True, there is Obama's proposed asteroid capture mission, but AFAIk that is only a one-off mission like the Apollo-Soyuz one, not a whole series like the Apollo or ISS programs. What happens after that one is also over? True, such matters are not for NASA to decide; and blaming it for their lack is indeed unfair. Yet if NASA does not push (behind the scenes) for such matters to BE decided, who else is there? More to the point here, it is hardly wise to decide such matters the day (or week or even year) before the old program ends. Such decisions take years if not decades to achieve fruition. therefore, the time to study the options and make an informed decision of what NASA's human spaceflight goals are to be is now, not ten years from now in 2024. Which brings me to…. "NASA has clearly-defined goals for its science program" If NASA can have "clear-defined goal" for its science program why can't it have them its human spaceflight? (And why was it unfair to "impeach" NASA for a lack of the latter?) Are not both equally subject to government sanction and congressional funding and their assorted vagaries? (The power of a government veto over "clearly defined" science goals is surely illustrated by the fates of the MSR and Europa orbiter missions)

Casey Dreier: 02/07/2014 12:35 CST

@Ilkka: Check out the additional posts in Achenbach's series on the future of NASA, he's done four so far: http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/collection/destination-unknown/ (Sorry, I thought that the first part linked to and acknowledged the follow-ups, I'll update that in my post). For Decadal Surveys, I would strongly argue that the Mars 2020 rover *is* the top priority in the Planetary decadal survey (essentially a downgraded MAX-C rover), but the shadowy process by which led to its announcement did the project no favors.

Casey Dreier: 02/07/2014 12:46 CST

@Burke: excellent point about the percentage of astronauts dying in the line of duty. Thank you.

Casey Dreier: 02/07/2014 12:48 CST

@Stephen: I did email the editors at Slate to request a response. We'll see. You've given me lots to think about (thank you!), but here are two quick responses to some points you raised: Re: creating industries, I was mainly talking about COTS and CCiCap providing crucial early funding for SpaceX, Orbital, and SLC to create a new industry of low-cost launch services. This didn't stop at funding, as NASA provided use of their facilities and expertise to aid in development as well Re: blaming Slate. There were many red flags in Seife's piece (particularly in his use of language and tone) that should have alerted the editors that this was coming from a place not usually associated with clear writing. My feeling is that's what they like, since controversy drives up readership.

Jonathan Ursin: 02/07/2014 03:36 CST

Thank you for writing this! It irks me when I read scathing editorials from writers who are not involved in the subject with which they are writing. Anyone can pick up a pen (or plug in a keyboard) and be a critic. It takes a different kind of person to wake up every day, work hard against unforeseen complications, deal with drama and politics, listen to critics, and make any kind of accomplishment.

Stephen Van Vuuren: 02/08/2014 01:31 CST

Nice rebuttal Casey - well written and thought out. Hope you do get a chance with Slate to rebut there.

Torbj??rn Larsson: 02/10/2014 07:42 CST

@Ilkka Sillanpaa: " another Curiosity". It is a nearly fully different set of experiments (on the same chassis). I think there is an article on this very site describing how it will do other science. (Sample return, say.)

Telluric: 02/10/2014 06:08 CST

To @Stephen. Comparing NASA contributions to the private space industry to that of the US Navy to Maritime industry is not a good one. Maritime activities span all human history. It is far more established than space travel. NASA engineers laid down the trial and error, experimental vehicle tests, material dev and computer tech that set the stage for the present private space industry. Dreier's critical review is correct but I agree with Stephen that despite the poor arguments given, inaccuracies and hyperbole, at the heart of the article is a truth. NASA human spaceflight program is political pork barrel and a management disaster. Advocates of planetary science ignore at their expense, the loss of $10s of Billions to the development of a White Elephant- SLS/Orion. Constellation was poorly conceived, underfunded, revised. The delays and upcoming commercial reusable vehicles now make SLS/Orion obsolete. To build these custom-built vehicles will cost Planetary Science dearly.

Swatza: 02/11/2014 10:35 CST

@Telluric Commercial reusable vehicles making SLS/Orion obsolete is a false statement. The commercial reusable vehicles (the main ones at least) are the Orbital Science's Antares and SpaceX's Falcon 9 (and their associated capsules). Neither of these rockets lift very much payload to LEO as of now, talking about 30,000lbs. Their capsules are not designed as of now to go into deep space, the magnetic field from the Earth defends the astronauts from much of the radiation compared to deep space. Even SpaceX's Falcon Heavy barely beats the Saturn V payload that was developed 50 years ago. The Orion capsule is a step in the right direction for deep space habitation and the SLS (if finished) would carry 150,000lbs to LEO vs Falcon Heavy's 120,000lbs.

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