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July 21 2011

14:30

With the end of NASA’s shuttle program, science journalists are rethinking the space beat

At 5:57 this morning, Eastern Daylight Time, the space shuttle Atlantis returned to earth, and NASA’s space shuttle program, for all intents and purposes, came to an end.

There’s been a lot of discussion about what that will mean for the people employed by NASA and its subsidiary organizations. But what about the journalists who have been covering them? What happens to this very particular brand of beat journalists after the end of the shuttle launch program?

“Those of us who cover launch and mission operations certainly face quite a bit of uncertainty,” Todd Halvorson, Kennedy Space Center bureau chief of Gannett’s Florida Today, told me.

Halvorson has it a little bit better than some his fellow space journalists, whom he called the “nucleus of people in the NASA press corps.” He’s stationed in an actual trailer-type office at Cape Canaveral, and Florida Today is located right on the Space Coast. But the outlook for some of the other journalists covering space full-time looks a lot bleaker.

In 2009, the Houston Chronicle laid off its full-time veteran space reporter, Mark Carreau, who had been covering the beat for more than 20 years. Carreau covered the Challenger disaster in 1986, and over his two decades on the job, spent most of his time at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. And still, “they laid him off,” said Eric Berger, the Houston Chronicle science reporter who took over part of the beat.

“It said something about what the Chronicle thought of the beat,” Berger explained, “but they also laid off a lot of people in one big cut.”

In 2008, CNN laid off its space reporter, Miles O’Brien — who also covered science and technology — though Miami bureau reporter John Zarrella remains. Around the same time, Aviation Week, a NASA-and-aeronautics-junkie trade magazine, closed its Cape Canaveral bureau.

From a pure business perspective, the scale-down of the space beat probably makes sense; though there’s still much to cover in terms of space exploration itself — the end of the shuttle program is, of course, by no means the end of NASA — Atlantis’ final landing will most likely mean a plummet in reader interest in the subject of space itself. Berger, for example, who covers science as a broad beat, has been writing 50-60 percent of his stories about space in the ramp-up to the final shuttle launch, he told me. That ratio, now, will change — drastically.

“People are transfixed first and foremost by accidents,” Berger noted, “and, after that, blasting people into space. And once you get beyond that, there is not a lot of public interest in the space program.”

The space beat, in short, is losing its automatic human interest angle. Or, at least, its American interest angle. After today, with Russia continuing its space program, “launches will occur half a world away,” Berger noted — not to mention “at odd times of night.”

“Most Americans have never seen a Soviet launch,” Berger said. “The space station is really cool, but it is not particularly sexy, what they are doing now.”

Space journalism has pushed on regardless of daily breaking news about human spaceflight, Irene Klotz of Reuters pointed out. “In reality, the space launch is just one day,” she said.

At the same time, though, “it’s a different type of story now, and there’s certainly a gap,” noted MSNBC science editor Alan Boyle. “There’s no two ways around that. And so it will be a challenge for people to tune into what’s been going on.”

And that will mean a challenge, certainly, to the people whose livelihoods have relied on the existence of the space program. But beyond the personal — the profound professional consequences for the reporters at outlets both national and local that have made careers of U.S. space explorations — what happens to the shape of the space beat itself?

The space and science journalists I spoke with had a few different theories about what might happen to the type of news we see about space journalism.

  • More focus on commercial enterprises in space, as NASA shifts away from public funding to encourage more private investment and innovation.
  • More stories about robotic space exploration.
  • A new policy angle as we start to learn about funding issues, rather than simply the next manned mission.
  • Attempts to get people jazzed about the International Space Station, an amazing feat of human engineering and one of the coolest untold stories out there.

In other words, not all is lost when it comes to the space beat, as these journalists were eager to remind me. The space program itself is still very much alive. NASA aims to build a heavy-lift launch vehicle — which will continue human expeditions beyond Earth’s orbit. President Obama has set a 2025 goal for a mission to an asteroid, followed by, it is hoped, missions to Mars. Our storied explorations of space are certainly not ending.

Still, for journalists like Halvorson, Boyle, and others, the launch of the U.S.’s last shuttle launch was certainly bittersweet. As Halvorson put it: “It was pretty emotional watching Atlantis blast off on the last shuttle launch. Terribly emotional. People who have been tied to this program for that many years…all feel the same way. You go about being professional and you go about your job, but yeah, it sucks.”

Image via NASA.

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