AJR  Columns :     TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   March 2003

Lost in Space?   

The news media havenít covered the shuttle program very well.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

When someone yells "Stop the presses!" we all know what is meant. But only newspaper people know how rarely the phrase is literally employed anymore. For one thing, with so few afternoon papers left, most dailies are printing at 2 and 3 in the morning--not much news breaking then. And even if it does, it's got to be pretty jaw-dropping stuff to bring a roaring Metroliner to heel.

As an editor I had but one occasion to stop the presses, and would that I never had to. It was a fine January morning in 1986. I was running the Columbus, Georgia, Ledger and Enquirer newspapers--the Ledger a p.m. product, the Enquirer the a.m. That morning I had walked down the street on an errand. I was away from the newsroom maybe 15 minutes.

The managing editor, Jack Swift, caught sight of my return and intercepted me almost before I got through the newsroom door. His countenance was as stony as I'd ever seen. "Where have you been?" he barked, his tone almost desperate. I told him I'd been at the bank; what's the crisis?

"The shuttle blew up."

Right, I said, after a moment smiling at what I took to be a stab at black humor.

"The shuttle blew up." He nodded toward the television, which was showing those contorted smoke plumes against the crystal blue sky.

As the presses had just begun rolling with that day's Ledger, I picked up the phone and had them stopped. We slapped together a new front page with that gripping, sickening sequence of photographs that documented the demise of Challenger and her seven-member crew.

Challenger was a kick in America's solar plexus. In a world with few sure things, it was an article of faith that when we sent astronauts into space, they came back in triumph. Seventeen years later, in a world with no sure things, we understand that sometimes astronauts don't come back at all.

Maybe that's why the explosion of the shuttle Columbia hit me as less shocking than immensely sad. Certainly it was proof positive that we have moved from the Space Age to the Media Age. Consider the ridiculous irony of the first moments of the disaster. At the same time Houston's space engineers stared at computer screens, trying to figure out why they had lost all contact with Columbia, viewers of television screens around the world were getting the answer in the multiple entrails streaking across another blue sky. We knew the truth of it before the engineers because we were watching MSNBC.

I'm one of those with decidedly mixed feelings about manned space exploration. I was an enthusiastic child of the space race and even now can readily conjure Jules Bergman explaining the intricacies of Saturn rockets and LEMs. (Could there have been a better name for a space journalist than Jules Bergman, with its suggestion of Jules Verne?) On the other hand I've never really been clear on the point of the shuttle program. Aside from the almost religious glories of the Hubble images, what are we supposed to be getting for an investment of $500 million a launch, which is about 100 times the cost NASA once promised? What is the real payoff of the shuttle program's science? What technological breakthroughs has it promulgated? What strategic defense advantages?

Maybe the shuttle's record of achievement is in fact brilliant. But since the news media quickly became bored with the prosaic "space truck," they have done a consistently lousy job of explaining the shuttle program or holding anyone accountable for it. (See Free Press.) And a full month after the Columbia disaster, we still don't have much in the way of a fuller reckoning, as the retrospection focuses narrowly on tiles and heat sensors instead of the program's dividends and shortcomings.

The quest for knowledge is reason enough to be in space and stay in space. The mission doesn't need to be tarted up with extravagant notions about colonizing Mars by 2030. Considering that such an affluent nation can't feed all its children or even conquer potholes, I for one am not holding my breath waiting for the transporter.

Ronald Reagan told us that the space program permitted us to escape "the surly bonds of Earth." A lovely sentiment, surely, but increasingly the space program seems to be about escape, period. Let's keep exploring the universe, by all means. But let's put our beautiful toys in harm's way, not any more of these beautiful men and women, no matter how badly they want to go.