Press corps cheerleads for space probe till the end
CNN’s Frank Buckley (9/21/03) could hardly contain himself. “Dr. Johnson, we admire the heck out of you!” Buckley exclaimed on-air as he finished interviewing Dr. Torrance Johnson, project scientist for NASA’s Galileo space probe mission, minutes after it plunged into the atmosphere of Jupiter after an eight-year voyage through the solar system.
Buckley’s excitement was characteristic of the media treatment of Galileo’s finale: a chorus of cheerleading.
“The Battered but Undefeatable Space Explorer,” was the front-page headline of the Christian Science Monitor (9/23/03). “Goodbye to Gallant Galileo,” editorialized the New York Times (9/24/03). Alexandra Witze of the Knight Ridder/Tribune news service (9/19/03) wrote, “If any spacecraft deserved a dignified retirement, Galileo is it.”
“NASA’s Galileo spacecraft was purposely destroyed Sunday, ending its scientific career in a blaze of glory,” stated Leonard David of space.com (MSNBC.com, 9/21/03).
A Nexis survey found no reporting by any media about the dangers presented by the 49.25 pounds of radioactive plutonium-238 that fueled Galileo’s nuclear electric system (manufactured by General Electric, half-owner of MSNBC). Indeed, almost no account made any mention of plutonium at all. An Associated Press dispatch (9/21/03) perfunctorily related that the space probe’s electronic instruments were “powered” by plutonium.
There was not a word in or on any media found in Nexis about the litigation and demonstrations against Galileo, sparked by concern that the highly toxic plutonium could be released in an accident on launch or during the two Earth “flybys” NASA had Galileo perform. Although NASA had earlier used other planets for flybys–low, fast passes over a planet to increase a space probe’s velocity–NASA in 1990 had Galileo whip by the Earth 600 miles overhead, and in 1992 buzz the Earth 185 miles high. This marked the first time NASA had used Earth as a flyby target for a space probe–with or without nuclear material on board.
The Earth flybys were arranged because Galileo was originally to have been launched on a space shuttle for a trip to Jupiter in 1986, preceded by a shuttle lofting another plutonium-fueled probe, Ulysses, that was to do a survey of the sun. Then came the shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986; indeed, the next mission of the ill-fated Challenger was to have lofted Ulysses with its 24.2 pounds of plutonium fuel.
In the wake of the Challenger tragedy, astronauts balked at going up on a shuttle that carried in its cargo bay the liquid-fueled rocket that was to take Galileo directly from Earth to Jupiter. A less volatile–and also less powerful–solid-fueled rocket was substituted, and the Earth flybys were arranged-“slingshot” maneuvers that permitted Galileo to reach Jupiter with a weaker propulsion.
It was quite a gamble: NASA documents acknowledged that only after the second flyby and “escape of the spacecraft from the Earth’s gravitational pull” did the plutonium on Galileo “no longer present a potential risk to the Earth’s population.” If Galileo dipped into the 75-mile-high atmosphere during a flyby, it would have disintegrated–it had no heat shield–and the plutonium would vaporize as dust falling to Earth, an enormous lung cancer threat.
But not only was this aspect of the Galileo mission totally ignored by media as the Galileo mission concluded, but in reporting Galileo’s finale, media swallowed NASA’s line about directing Galileo into Jupiter’s atmosphere.
NASA’s line was that it decided to send Galileo into Jupiter to protect Europa, a moon of Jupiter with features scientists say are similar to those of an early Earth. CNN‘s Buckley said to Galileo scientist Johnson (9/21/03): “You didn’t want to potentially contaminate Europa? Is that right?”
“Galileo to Exit in Blaze of Glory, Protecting Potential Life on Jupiter Moon,” was the headline in Newsday (9/20/03), with the story, by Bryn Nelson, telling how “NASA engineers chose the crash course with Jupiter . . . negating even the slightest chance that [Europa] could be contaminated.”
In fact, from the start the plan was to send Galileo into Jupiter. Moreover, in another aspect of the story unreported by media in September, Galileo was the first space probe launched by NASA that was not sterilized before launch. Up until that point, the U.S. adhered to the Outer Space Treaty, which it helped initiate, and its provision that “parties to the treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination.” But NASA decided not to sterilize Galileo to save money.
It would only have taken some Internet checking of science publications a few years back to retrieve an article such as “The Dirty Jupiter Space Probe” by Linda Strand in Science Digest (8/92). “This is the first time that a U.S. spacecraft has been sent into an environment that is potentially habitable for terrestrial microorganisms without being sterilized. And some scientists are seriously concerned about contamination,” Strand wrote. She observed that on Galileo, “beneath its sparkling exterior are billions and billions of bacteria. And in 1998 [the original date for Galileo to be sent into Jupiter] these biological agents will be put to the ultimate test as they dive with the probe headlong into the Jovian atmosphere.” She reported, “For all its impressive airs, the Galileo probe is, deep in its heart, a garbage can.”
Among the scientists particularly concerned about the planned dive of the unsterilized Galileo into the Jovian atmosphere was astronomer Carl Sagan, founder and first president of the Planetary Society. In a paper entitled “Particles, Environments and Possible Ecologies in the Jovian Atmosphere,” he and co-author E.E. Salpeter wrote: “The possible existence of indigenous Jovian organisms is also relevant to the question of sterilization of spacecraft intended for entry into the atmosphere of Jupiter.” Life in “the Jovian clouds” would not parallel life on Earth but, they postulated, there could be organisms that could be impacted by “terrestrial contaminants” on Galileo.
Michael Benson in a lengthy article on Galileo’s end in The New Yorker (9/3/03), although not mentioning that Galileo was the first unsterilized NASA space probe, did report that NASA was sending it into Jupiter because of the microorganism problem–and that “obliteration” in the hot Jupiter atmosphere would solve the problem. Benson wrote: “Obliteration is precisely what NASA intends for the spacecraft.” NASA could have left Galileo “to circle Jupiter after running out of propellant” but was concerned that “it might eventually crash into Europa” and “NASA officials decided that it was necessary to avoid the possibility of seeding Europa with alien life-forms. And so the craft has been programmed to commit suicide, guaranteeing a fiery spectacular end.”
“We chose,” Johnson told CNN‘s Buckley, “one of the other options we had, which was to send it into Jupiter, where we had already put an atmospheric entry probe into Jupiter, and things burn up in the atmosphere. So that’s no problem.”
There was no media questioning of whether, in fact, the heat of the Jovian atmosphere would really destroy all the foreign microorganisms.
Correspondents in love
But an unquestioning stance by media toward U.S. space activities has been the norm since the space program began in the 1950s. Insert nuclear power, a subject on which the U.S. press has historically been soft or even derelict in its reporting, and the situation gets worse.
In the wake of the Challenger accident, William Boot, former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, wrote an article in CJR headed “NASA and the Spellbound Press” (7-8/86)–which charged that the press bore some of the guilt for the disaster because of its boosterish reporting on the space program. “Dazzled by the space agency’s image of technological brilliance, space reporters spared NASA the thorough scrutiny that might have improved chances of averting tragedy–through hard-hitting investigations drawing Congress’s wandering attention to the issue of shuttle safety,” he wrote.
“U.S. journalists have long had a love affair with the space program,” Boot continued. “In the pre-[Challenger] explosion days, many space reporters appeared to regard themselves as participants, along with NASA, in a great cosmic quest. Transcripts of NASA press conferences reveal that it was not unusual for reporters to use the first person plural. ‘When are we going to launch?'”
“Some new blood” was brought in to report on the space program after the Challenger catastrophe, wrote Boot, indicating that “the days of NASA as a journalist’s sacred cow are presumably gone forever.” He added: “It is sad that it took the deaths of seven astronauts to goad journalists into assuming the thoroughly skeptical role they should have been playing all along.”
In fact, media cheerleading of the space program has never stopped. Boot’s hope of NASA no longer being a “journalists’ sacred cow” never became reality.
New York Times space reporter John Noble Wilford gave a lecture on “Science and the Media” to scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1990, stressing, “I am a great admirer of science, of scientists.” I was in the audience and asked him about the Boot article and its points that space reporters were too cozy with and failed to challenge NASA. Wilford said: “This is one of the problems in journalism, particularly reporters who cover a specific beat. You get to know people, you get to be friendly with some and not so friendly with others. But you get to know them and you get to respect them, and maybe you trust what they say and maybe you do let your guard down and not ask the tough questions.”
Later, in an interview, Wilford said: “Some of the things that NASA does are so great, so marvelous, so it’s easy to forget to be critical. You go in and watch pictures of the back of Neptune and stand in awe, but then you read about some of the management snafus” and wonder “how did we ever do what we did?”
Wilford’s account of Galileo’s dive into Jupiter–“Many Miles, Many Moons: A Galileo Album” (9/16/03)–began by speaking of how “several hundred engineers and scientists will gather at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and await the end of the Galileo spacecraft. . . . They freely concede that they will be there at the end as an act of homage.” The words plutonium and nuclear were not used, nor did they appear in Wilford’s Times articles on the Galileo Earth flybys. Writing on the 1992 flyby (12/8/92), he reported that “Galileo’s course was true, with no chance of an errant plunge into Earth’s atmosphere.” His 1995 piece (12/9/95), when Galileo arrived in the Jupiter system after years of problem-plagued operations, was headlined “Jupiter Rendezvous Is Marvel of Perfection.”
Back to the future
The Columbia shuttle tragedy on February 1, 2003, like the Challenger disaster before it, resulted in official revelations of NASA’s dysfunctional ways, its bureaucratic bumbling, scientific hubris and “broken safety culture,” as concluded the report of the Columbia Accident Investigations Board.
“We get it,” NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe immediately told the press upon the issuance of the 248-page report (Washington Post, 8/28/03). And he promised changes including working for better “communications” within NASA and openness of internal criticism. Will it happen? Quite unlikely, especially if media continue to be a lapdog rather than a watchdog for NASA.
Consider how NASA is right now moving to substantially expand its program of using nuclear power in space–to conduct more plutonium-fueled space probe missions like Galileo, and to bring back the scheme of building actual nuclear-propelled spacecraft. And media are paying minimal attention.
Two days after the Columbia disaster, NASA unveiled its broadened space nuclear program–Project Prometheus–to cost $3 billion over five years.
The nuclear dangers represented by Galileo would be multiplied. NASA, in trying to build nuclear-propelled spacecraft, would be rocketing back to the past, bringing back a program of the 1950s and ’60s on which billions of dollars were spent. That attempt was finally cancelled, largely out of concern about a nuclear spacecraft falling back to Earth–a key problem still present. What if the Columbia shuttle had been nuclear-powered? A broad swath of nuclear debris would have spread over Texas and Louisiana.
Problems with using nuclear power in space are not theoretical. In 1964, a U.S. satellite carrying a SNAP-9A plutonium-fueled power source fell back to Earth, disintegrating and spreading plutonium worldwide. Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, has long linked that accident to an increased level of lung cancer on Earth.
The nuclear industry media–not the general media–have noted a main reason why NASA’s O’Keefe is gung-ho for nuclear power in space. “As a youngster,” related Nuclear Energy Insight (1/03), the publication of the Nuclear Energy Institute trade group, “Sean O’Keefe didn’t have to go far to learn about nuclear technology–his family’s dinner table was enough. There, O’Keefe’s father, a nuclear submariner, regaled his son with descriptions of the complex workings of the sub’s propulsion system. Decades later, those dining room tutorials would pay dividends to O’Keefe” as he moves to expand nuclear power in another dimension–space–and “envisions the development of new propulsion systems for spacecraft powered by nuclear technology.”
Not mentioned, however, in the nuclear industry media–or general media–is another big element behind the new program: the lobbying of corporations like Boeing and Lockheed Martin that produce the nuclear space systems.
After the Challenger disaster, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, a member of the commission that investigated that disaster, wrote in the commission’s report that NASA officials must “deal in the world of reality.” Very concerned himself about the odds NASA was placing on a nuclear accident on the Galileo mission, he wrote that NASA “exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy. . . . For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
Nature cannot be fooled, but the U.S. press sure can, and it’s been happily letting itself be fooled when it comes to NASA–then and now.
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury, has received the Project Censored Award six times for his reporting on NASA’s nuclear space program. He is the author of The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat To Our Planet and writer and narrator of a series of Nukes in Space TV documentaries available from EnviroVideo (1-800-ECO-TVGO).