AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   March 2003

Taking a Walk on Space   

Columbia disaster spotlights news organizations' fading interest in space

By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.     

It was an early press conference--5:44 a.m. on a Wednesday.

But Florida Today reporter Chris Kridler showed up at NASA's Cape Canaveral to wait for a communications hookup to interview the space shuttle Columbia's crew as they passed overhead on the 13th day of their 16-day mission. Despite the presence of Israel's first astronaut on the mission, the turnout at the press conference was light.

Besides Kridler, a CBS News correspondent, a reporter from Space.com and a lone freelancer were the only members of the media who showed up. It was telling, Kridler says, that the last chance for the press to interview the doomed crew of the Columbia from space could draw only four reporters.

"There are very few people covering space," she says. "Obviously, people should be paying attention to it."

The scramble to cover the February 1 loss of the Columbia highlighted what reporters have been noticing for years--the small army of press that covered NASA and the space program in the 1960s has dwindled to next to nothing. Only a handful of newspapers, radio and television outlets, and Internet sites have reporters covering space full time. And as NASA struggled to learn what caused the destruction of the shuttle, some journalists wondered whether the lack of press scrutiny of the $15 billion agency might have somehow contributed to the deaths of the seven astronauts.

The same thing happened in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster in 1986. "Many of the news media felt they failed in their watchdog role," says Dan Billow, who splits his time between covering space and local spot news for WESH-TV, the NBC affiliate in Orlando.

But vows by news organizations to beef up coverage of NASA after the Challenger explosion ended up being just talk. "That all dropped away in a number of years," Billow says. "And that has held steady. Now, there is this little cadre of space reporters."

"I've noticed a definite thinning over the last 10 or 15 years," echoes Michael Cabbage, the Orlando Sentinel's veteran space reporter.

The Houston Chronicle, Orlando Sentinel and other papers near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Johnson Space Center in Texas still have reporters covering the space program full time. Florida Today, based in Melbourne in the state's "Space Coast" area, has three space reporters.

Other major news organizations--including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post--have science or aerospace reporters who cover NASA as part of a broader beat and freelancers who step in when needed.

Space coverage among the television networks and radio is even spottier. Most of the local stations near Cape Canaveral and Houston have reporters who cover NASA as spot news or as part of larger beats. On the networks, CBS space consultant Bill Harwood and NBC's 69-year-old space correspondent Jay Barbree were praised for their knowledgeable coverage on the morning of the Columbia disaster, along with CNN's Miles O'Brien.

But even O'Brien, perhaps the most prominent of the broadcasters who cover the subject, isn't really a space reporter anymore. He has moved to a CNN anchor position and only covers NASA occasionally.

The National Association of Science Writers does not keep track of how many reporters around the nation are devoted full time to space coverage. But it is clear that their numbers have steadily declined, says Diane McGurgan, NASW's executive director.

It's easy to see where newsroom resources have gone, McGurgan adds. As space flight became more and more routine, science writers covering health and fitness stories for the aging Baby Boom generation squeezed NASA off the front page. "Your big thrust is health," McGurgan says. "We did all become complacent about the shuttle's taking off and landing.... There is not enough coverage."

Trade publications and a small band of online reporters working for burgeoning Web sites have picked up much of the day-to-day slack. The most notable is Space.com, a three-year-old site run by Lou Dobbs for a stint before he returned to CNN.

Space.com specializes in saturation reporting, covering every launch, every landing, every press conference without fail, says Managing Editor Anthony Duignan-Cabrera, adding that the Columbia investigation will be no different. "We have to cover it, because no one else will," he says.

Space.com's Jim Banke and a freelancer waited near the landing strip producing live coverage from Cape Canaveral on the morning the Columbia was scheduled to return home. They were among a few dozen reporters--including many from Israel there to cover their countryman's first flight--waiting to spot the shuttle on the horizon.

Reporters say the first indication that anything was wrong was the silence of the loudspeakers near the landing site. Mission control repeated, "Columbia, Houston. Com check," several times and got no response. By the time the flight clock near the tarmac clicked down to zero and started to go up again, it was clear something major had happened.

"Jim Banke said, 'This is not good. They're not coming home,' " says Duignan-Cabrera, who oversaw Space.com's coverage. Within a few hours, the site's visitors rose from 15,000 to 150,000. With its team of veteran space reporters, Space.com had the expertise to cover the initial story and the weeks of follow-up stories as they developed. But many reporters with no space background, including science, technology and general assignment reporters, were airdropped into Florida and Texas.

To help get reporters up to speed fast, the Poynter Institute's Web site posted a link to Charles Choi's "Reporting on Space: A Space Primer for Journalists Covering Space". Choi, who wrote the primer as a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, was thrilled his 2001 master's thesis was reaching a mass audience.

Now a freelance science writer, Choi felt for reporters in the middle of a big story, suddenly having to deal with NASA, a notoriously difficult agency to crack. But Choi says he was happy to see NASA and space flight finally getting the coverage they deserve. "The shuttle was in some ways a disaster waiting to happen. There were a lot of memos out there," Choi says. "That should whet any investigative reporter's talent."

Very few news organizations covered Richard Blomberg, the former chairman of NASA's advisory board, when he appeared before a House subcommittee last spring. He testified he had "never been as concerned for space shuttle safety as I am right now.... The current approach is planting seeds for danger."

Whether the loss of Columbia can be traced back to problems at NASA and whether the disaster translates into deeper coverage of the agency or space remain unclear. Just five days after the loss of the shuttle, Orlando Sentinel space writer Cabbage noticed the number of reporters attending NASA press conferences had dropped by nearly two-thirds. "You can already see people losing interest," Cabbage says.

Dee Ann Divis, United Press International's science and technology editor, says there comes a time when editors have to decide where to best invest their resources. "If you're an editor and you're making these calls, you go with what impacts your readers the most," says Divis.

UPI had a Florida-based freelancer covering the shuttle landing the day the Columbia did not return home. Much of the science and technology staff ended up working on aspects of the story, Divis says. Divis, who worked in the aerospace industry before switching to journalism in 1996, also pitched in. But she says UPI will probably continue to use freelancers to cover space on a day-to-day basis. It would take an outpouring of reader interest for UPI to offer more space coverage, she adds. "If we find we have a lot of people who are really interested, we would," Divis says. "But that hasn't happened so far."

With a war brewing in Iraq, unrest in the Middle East and dozens of other stories draining resources, it will be difficult for any news organization to adequately cover the dangers and promises of space travel. "To really do that you're verging on poetry," says Divis. "It's hard to write poetry right now."