Junk journalism


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In a piece today at the Huffington Post, science journalist Seth Borenstein declares the wonders of NASA’s next mission: to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, as declared by President Obama.

If you believe this is going to happen, then I have a bridge I want to sell you. To do it we need a spaceship in which people can live for at least a year, and a rocket to get that ship into orbit. Not only do we not yet know how to build such a spaceship, we no longer have the capability of putting it into orbit. In case you’re unaware (Borenstein acts like he is), the space shuttle no longer exists. And under this administration and Congress, any replacement we get isn’t going to be able to launch such an interplanetary spaceship anywhere in the near future, especially faced as we are with the present federal debt.

The disgraceful thing about this article, however, is the lack of skepticism shown by Borenstein.

Though the article is an opinion piece, Borenstein is still a science journalist of some note, and it isn’t the job of journalists to be the pitchman for government politicians or bureaucrats. Just because Obama has declared we have to get to an asteroid by 2025 does not mean that we should, or can. A good journalist would at least consider some of the serious unsolved political and engineering problems that face us in this matter.

Borenstein ignores these issues entirely, and instead creates the strawman argument that the critics of this mission are opposed to visiting the asteroids under any condition. As he writes, “They dismiss talk of asteroid visits.” This is crap. No one really opposes such a mission on its face. Putting a human on an asteroid would be exciting, adventurous, and scientifically worthwhile.

What the critics merely recognize, as Borenstein does not, is the technical and political realities. How do we build a self-sufficient manned spaceship that can be maintained and repaired by humans far from Earth? How do we conquer the problems of bone density loss that humans experience in weightlessness? How do we supply such a vessel with sufficient water and oxygen for years at a time? How do we protect the astronauts from the deadly radiation of interplanetary space?

And most important, how do we figure out any of this stuff, considering the lack of funds and the political turf warfare that presently exists in Congress, NASA, and the executive branch over what to do next in space?

For a science journalist to ignore all these realities and instead act as NASA’s — and Obama’s — salesman is downright embarrassing. In the end such poor writing will do more harm than good for the future of space exploration. And you can see this immediately by reading the hundreds of negative comments on the webpage itself.

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5 comments

  • Chris L.

    Stop me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the whole point of Flexible Path that we wouldn’t be setting arbitrary goals and timelines? I thought the idea was to work on the technology and let other administrations decide what to do with it. In defining a set mission (asteroid by 2025) you are setting yourself up for the next guy (or gal) in office to say “screw that idea, I’ll fund my own grand and glorious plan to conquer the cosmos”. It doesn’t sound like Obama was at all serious about the idea, he knows the technology isn’t there and won’t be there until he is out of office. By that time, another administration will be working on it’s own space priorities.

  • Chris, yes.. back in the late 2009, early 2010 time frame there was a clear “setting arbitrary deadlines doesn’t work” mindset. This was eroded and by Obama’s space policy speech the asteroid and Mars fly around missions and deadlines were added. Similarly, the Orion capsule was retained as a lifeboat for the ISS.. but they don’t talk about that anymore, now it’s the MPCV. In short, there’s no coherent policy here, it’s just regular political posturing.

  • AJ

    “And most important, how do we figure out any of this stuff”.

    For all the things you mention, the ISS is a truly excellent testbed.

  • Kelly Starks

    Junk journalism in the Huffington Post? I’m shocked – shocked I say!

    ;)

    Bob they are a font of junk science and uber-left political nuttyness. All in all about as credable as the National inquirer.

  • GaryChurch

    I disagree. It is 100 billion dollars of tin cans going in endless circles.

    De-orbiting it immediately would be the only contribution it could make.

    Going to a little rock is kind of…….dare I say it; ridiculous?

    If you are going to build a true spaceship that will support human beings for mullti-year missions you might as well go someplace interesting. And all those interesting destinations start in the Asteroid belt way past Mars.

    To go out there the first prerequisite is something besides chemical propulsion system- because that will just not work. Atomic bomb propulsion sounds crazy but it is the only candidate.

    The second is shielding against cosmic radiation heavy nuclei. And the only guaranteed solution is 14 feet and 400 tons of water. Water from the Moon. Water is the only candidate for several reasons.

    The third is artificial gravity in the form of a tether. And at the other end of this tether will be a nuclear reactor because solar power is not a resource out there. And the only kind of nuclear reactor that is practical is a thorium reactor. And there just happens to be thorium on the Moon along with water.

    And last a HLV is required to even begin. And vast funds for a high flight rate of at least 10 missions a year. And the only source for that kind of money is the DOD. And the only mission that the DOD can take on in space to justify expending such treasure is impact threat deflection. Which is one of the reasons to go to an asteroid in the first place.

    This is my first post on your site Bob. Thank you for the opportunity to express my opinion.

    Regards

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