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The news yesterday that NASA will once again have to delay the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope due to a variety of technical issues and management errors not only exemplified the fundamental failure of the federal government, it also illustrated the routine failures of today’s mainstream press.
First, Webb’s new delay epitomizes the systemic incompetence of Washington. Despite being 13 years behind schedule and costing eight times more than originally planned, NASA and its contractors still couldn’t get things right.
Most of the problems have occurred with the spacecraft half of the project, which was built by Northrop Grumman in California and is undergoing testing there. During the teleconference, NASA officials, including acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, expanded upon technical problems first reported publicly by the agency’s inspector general last month.
These include leaky valves within the spacecraft’s propulsion system and difficulties encountered during deployment tests of the sun shield. Not only did the thin, five-layer sun shield snag during the deployment, but technicians also found seven tears up to 10cm long within the material. NASA and Northrop Grumman have identified fixes for these problems, but their repair has added months of delays to the project, and engineers cannot be sure that more issues will not crop up during further testing.
Such failures, in NASA and in all big federal projects in recent years, are hardly news. Only the willfully blind or those who support wasting tax dollars to distribute pork will deny they exist.
The failures of the federal government however is not the focus of this essay. Instead, the announcement yesterday and the coverage of it by the press provides us a perfect and very obvious signpost for differentiating between the fake news sources that are generally unreliable or too often allow their biases to influence their reporting, and those sources that do a good job.
That signpost is one simple fact: Webb is not a replacement or successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, despite NASA making this false claim for decades. Hubble is an optical telescope. Webb will view the universe in the infrared. These are too entirely different things.
Yet, too many news sources today repeated NASA’s false claim, illustrating how little they know about both telescopes and their design, while revealing their complete inability to do some basic journalistic research. Instead they merely rewrite old press releases, and thus prove clearly by their bad reporting why so many people have so little respect for the modern press.
The worst examples made this false claim right in the headline:
- Nature: NASA reveals major delay for $8-billion Hubble successor
- BBC: JWST: Hubble ‘successor’ faces new delay
- Bloomberg News: NASA’s $8 Billion Successor to Hubble Telescope Is Delayed to 2020
- PBS: James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s $8.8 billion successor, faces lengthy delay
Other news sources avoided this particular error in the headline, but then made it in the body of the story:
- New York Times: NASA’s Webb Telescope Faces More Setbacks
- Washington Post: Launch of NASA’s new flagship space telescope is delayed — again
- The Atlantic: Why Is NASA’s Space Telescope Running a Year Behind?
- Scientific American: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Slips to 2020, and Astronomy Suffers
- CBS: NASA orders another delay for James Webb Space Telescope
- Florida Today: NASA’s Webb telescope delayed, may exceed $8 billion price tag
- New Scientist: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has been delayed – again
- Space.com: NASA Delays Launch of James Webb Space Telescope Until 2020
Some of the articles above also contain some egregious errors. For example, the New Scientist article that says Webb is designed to study exoplanets. That is patently false. It will be able to do this research, but anyone who has done any research into Webb should know that it was optimized for deep space cosmology, and its primary research goal is to look back as far and as close to the Big Bang as possible (as noted by this well written Sky & Telescope report). Meanwhile, Space.com, which should know better, claims that the original launch date for Webb was 2018, not 2007, while the Atlantic appears to not even know that the telescope is thirteen years behind schedule.
The news sources that got this simple fact right, and also reported the overall story accurately, included not only Ars Technica above and Sky & Telescope, but Space News, NASASpaceFlight.com, GeekWire, the Verge, SpacePolicyOnLine.com, and Popular Science. These reports are all fine examples of good reporting, detailing the failures of NASA and Northrup Grumman while providing some historical context.
Notice a pattern? Almost all the news sources that got this trivial fact wrong are big name mainstream media outlets, while the good reporting generally came from newer, independent news sources focused on science, space, and astronomy. This pattern illustrates once again why the web makes it possible to get better information. Rather than go to mainstream sources that do a poor job covering specialty topics, the web allows ordinary citizens to go to news sources that focus specifically on the subject matter, and thus get the reporting right.
It is also no accident that the poor reporting noted above also came from mostly partisan leftist mainstream news sources. These sources generally claim they are objective, even as they time after time show themselves to be nothing more than operatives for the Democratic Party. That intellectual dishonesty has poisoned all of their reporting, so that they often to get some obvious facts wrong, not merely in their science reporting but in all their reporting. They no longer know how to do basic journalistic research, and thus make basic errors of fact repeatedly.
The Webb story today simply provides us a good and easily identifiable example of this. Because many of these liberal mainstream news sources are fans of big government space projects like Webb, they allow that bias to warp their reporting. Rather than find out what Webb really is, they sell it, as NASA has in the past, pushing Webb as a bigger and better Hubble. That Webb is not a bigger and better Hubble is irrelevant to them. They have a cause to push.
Ironically, in NASA’s own press release announcing this new delay the agency actually avoided making the claim that Webb is Hubble’s successor, something NASA had done routinely in the past. Instead, the press release merely noted that Webb will “complement” Hubble, working in different wavelength bands. It appears that NASA management has been called on this lie one time too many by knowledgeable space reporters in the new independent press, and has decided to back off from the claim.
That the mainstream news sources above are oblivious to this, and continue to spread the lie, is further proof that responsible citizens need to go elsewhere for their information. These news sources are simply unreliable.