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.
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).
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.