"Cargo & Human Spaceships" Source: SpaceX
A fascinating but somewhat ominous article titled “Unpopular Science” has just been published. It includes an overview of the reasons for the ongoing decline of professional science journalism in the U.S. This is an important topic, but what relevance does it have to space commerce?
One answer to this question, according to the authors, is that the origins of the space enterprise played a significant role in the expansion of science journalism. Another answer in my view is that space commerce will increasingly involve support for the space research and development infrastructure that is driven by seeking answers to high-priority science questions. Space infrastructure elements that can support science include; launch systems, satellites, robotic systems, telecommunication systems, space data systems, GPS, and ground support systems. In the near-future space commerce will likely support top-level science milestones utilizing these elements to accomplish; research payload transport and orbital insertion, robotic rover transport to planets, satellite monitoring of the environment, planets, moons and asteroids, science data capture and distribution to ground systems and more.
If major science-related challenges associated with space (Earth climate changes, discovery of off-Earth resources and perhaps life, disaster mitigation, development of space-based solar power systems, etc.) are not widely understood, their relevance will be questioned and that can negatively impact space commerce markets, among others. High-quality but accessible science journalism is an important element for the future growth of commercial space for global survival and overall sustainability.
Full disclosure: my background is in space life sciences research and for several years I have been a science and technology writer. I am therefore naturally concerned about this topic but after reading “Unpopular Science” I was struck by the degree to which our space enterprise appears as an undercurrent in the story. The authors note that “science journalism began as a specialized beat in the early twentieth century…[and] the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik was an especially galvanizing event”. “US newspapers ramped up their science content and a generation of writers cut their teeth covering the ‘space race’.” "Another boom came in the late 1970s and early ‘80s when Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series reached 500 million people globally, and fifteen new science magazines, eighteen new newspaper science sections, and seventeen new science TV shows were launched in the fUnited States.”
The beginning of the collapse of science journalism is apparently linked to the deregulation of the media industry that resulted in its mass consolidation. Serious science journalism was produced mainly by well-trained professionals who made good salaries, and the cost-cutting associated with media consolidation eventually began to impact staffing in that area. The deregulation of the broadcast networks was accompanied by a proliferation of cable TV stations and an expansion of channels that were increasingly politicized and much less focused on broad national stories that profiled the relevance of science to our society. Now due to the loss of advertising and younger readers, newspapers are collapsing and their science journalists are being laid off in droves.
Many of the remaining science outlets, including the expanding online news sources, increasingly focus on “hot” topics written by people with minimal science training. Much of this writing and TV coverage now tends to focus on battles between competing viewpoints, not what has been demonstrated to be sound and useful. Several good science-related blogs have arisen, one of special note being ScienceBlogs.com, but they tend to be frequented by those for whom science is a necessary ingredient in their lives, not the broad public that needs to be better informed and from whom space commerce needs support and advocacy.
The departure of journalists like Mark Carreau, the former space reporter of the Houston Chronicle is mentioned. He covered the Johnson Space Center activity for 20 years. Also, a few months ago, CNN cut its entire science, space and technology unit. A prominent member was Miles O’Brien who covered the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster for CNN.
The authors conjecture that production of high-quality science journalism may shift to more nonprofit and university-based entities. They feel that individual scientists may need to become more involved too. One prominent example of this from government is Dr. James Hansen, one of the world experts in climate change within NASA, who speaks and writes often on the topic.
I anticipate that the Commercial Space Gateway and its user community can also help keep science journalism alive, especially as it relates to the future of space commerce, so please send us or point to any of your good finds. The increasing potential importance of microgravity science on the International Space Station and on future commercial suborbital science space plane flights requires general understanding of the associated benefits to companies and society. All the big national questions that relate to space require a basic public understanding of the science issues, and so we must care.