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Media Botches Story on Obama’s NASA Plans

Panic over "tearing down" barriers between military and civilian space programs is much ado about nothing.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

January 6, 2009 - 12:35 am
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We’ve all played it, as kids or adults, perhaps at parties. Take a group of people, have one of them write something down on a piece of paper, and whisper it in someone’s ear. Then the whisperee passes it on to the next person via the same method of communication, and so on, until everyone has “heard” it. The last person says out loud what the message was, and it is compared with the original written version. Quite often, and hilariously, there is little resemblance between initial input and final output, due to accumulating translation errors.

The same thing happens in the news business, particularly when the reporters aren’t very familiar with the field on which they’re reporting — and particularly when they think they are more familiar than they actually are. We had a good example of this over the holidays, when Bloomberg news came out with a “scoop.” The Obama transition team was considering recommending a merger of NASA and the Air Force, to address the threat of the Yellow Peril — Chinese beating us to the moon. Shortly afterward, it was breathlessly picked up by Fox News, DBTechno, and the Register in the UK, probably among others.

The story was nonsensical on several levels, right from the very first paragraph:

President-elect Barack Obama will probably tear down long-standing barriers between the U.S.’s civilian and military space programs to speed up a mission to the moon amid the prospect of a new space race with China.

While there may be “long-standing barriers” between civilian and military space programs — this is, in fact, why Dwight Eisenhower originally established a purely civilian space agency half a century ago — there is nothing in the article to indicate that they are going to be “torn down.” The only evidence that they come up with is that one of the options being considered for future human spaceflight is the so-called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), specifically Boeing’s Delta IV and Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V:

Obama’s transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency’s planned launch vehicle, which isn’t slated to fly until 2015, according to people who’ve discussed the idea with the Obama team.

The only problem with this is that — unless they are talking about some other vehicles, and if so, it’s hard to imagine what they are — the EELVs aren’t “military rockets.” Their development was subsidized with Air Force funds, but they were developed with Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s money as well, and they are commercial rockets, available to the military, commercial users, and NASA. There is no need to “tear down a barrier” for NASA to use them, as evidenced by the fact that NASA is already using them. For example, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was blasted to orbit and off to Mars with an Atlas V/Centaur over three years ago.

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