in Space Commentary

Far too often, I see blogs and comments online complaining that the “mainstream media” isn’t covering their particular pet issue, for example ignoring a particular story because it doesn’t suit a certain narrative, and that this is a sign of their tribe’s persecution. I am not interested in engaging in a bravery debate, but I want to draw attention to something very disappointing, and in my opinion, very dangerous, about what information our biggest media outlets choose to focus on.

On Monday this week, the aerospace startup SpaceX successfully placed the ORBCOMM constellation of 11 communications satellites into orbit, and in the process landed the first stage of its Falcon-9 rocket so that it could theoretically be refueled and reused. Here’s the video of the event. Watch it now before reading on, I can wait. For those of you not already hip-deep in space news, this is, objectively, an event of gigantic significance. Not only is this completely new in aerospace history, but this promises to slash the cost of a launch, granting us unprecedented access to space. Yet it was barely mentioned in traditional media. This was a misstep on their part. In this post I will attempt to explain why, and what you can do about it.

There are several angles from which a good story could have been told, live on TV on our 24-hour cable news stations, as the events of Monday evening unfolded:

A Feel-Good Story of Novelty and Achievement

For one thing, there’s the pure novelty. No one has ever seen a rocket deliver something into orbit and then neatly return to its launchpad like this. After SpaceX has finished giving this rocket a thorough examination, it will be a museum piece for the ages next to the Wright brothers’ first aircraft or John Glenn’s space capsule. Beyond novelty, it is a story filled with patriotic pride. SpaceX is an American company, indeed the only American company putting things into space with American engineering, American manufacturing, and American manpower. Just after the Falcon-9 alights upon its landing pad at Cape Canaveral, you can hear the chants of “USA! USA! USA!” in the packed control room. The major competitor to SpaceX is using recycled Cold War era Russian rockets. I am not joking. That’s how sad the American space program was getting before SpaceX came on the scene.

The First Major Aerospace Advancement in Decades

Since the early days of the Space Race, relatively little has changed about how things are flown into space. Spaceflight has always been astronomical in cost, mostly because it is always done with disposable vehicles. NASA’s Space Shuttle attempted to be an exception to this rule, but in the end, versatile as it was, the Shuttle turned out to be far more expensive than the vehicles it replaced. The Falcon-9 could be the first development in years to seriously bring down the cost and complexity of getting things into orbit.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk likes to make a comparison to commercial airliners. Imagine if every passenger jet you’ve ever been on was single-use. The airplane was built specifically for your flight from New York to Duluth, and it would be unusable after you landed. Does that sound impractical? It should. But it’s what happens right now with space launches. Not anymore!

The Next Step to Conquering the Solar System

Radical innovations like self-recovering rocket stages cannot be properly understood without mentioning the broader vision that motivated them. Elon Musk is thinking about where mankind will be 1,000 years from now. He wants to see humanity spread across the Solar System, not permanently isolated on Earth. Changes in climate, astronomical events, disease and a host of other problems make it risky to settle for just one planet. We will need fully self-sufficient, viable human populations living beyond planet Earth. That means colonies of a million people or more at locations like Mars, the moons of Saturn, or the clouds of Venus. But this grand, science-fiction vision will be forever out of our reach unless we get better at escaping the gravity of our pale blue dot.

As you watch that fiery plume descend on Cape Canaveral, you are watching a piece of that grand vision become real.

No matter what part of this story grabs your imagination the most, the benefits of cheap access to space cannot be understated. The possibilities for resource extraction (space mining!), research (let every university have their own Hubble Space Telescope), communications (global orbiting Internet relays, anyone?) and even tourism multiply every time the cost comes down.

That’s all great, but what’s this got to do with the media?

If you’re a viewer of channels like CNN or Fox News, what was on your TV Monday night? What was on the front page of the New York Times or USA Today on Tuesday morning? I don’t have documentation about what was on those channels at the time, but I can guarantee you it was one of these things:

  • Someone running for a political office located in Washington, DC said or did something, and this person is Just The Worst / A Big Damn Hero.
  • Violence and suffering somewhere in the world.
  • A celebrity or Washington politician is having a personal drama. Judge them.
  • Politicians in Washington, DC are about to do something utterly unsurprising but we need to show you hours of squabbling over a few narrow details.
  • Never forget to be terrified of this particular group of politicians we oppose.

All that is to say: “mainstream media” revolves around the Washington beltway, and treats things in that narrowly-defined world as if nothing else matches their importance. Part of this is simply ignorance. They don’t know what else to cover. They’ve fallen into a comfortable rut. But at another level, these organizations know that they have influence over popular opinion, and consider it their job to shape it. So they choose stories that suit a particular view they want their readers and viewers to hold. That isn’t to say all the things they cover are necessarily unimportant. It is good to know things about your candidates prior to an election. It is good to know where and to what degree violence and suffering still exist, especially when we are wealthy enough to help do a little something about it.

However, what does it do to your worldview when your news focuses entirely on seats of political power, and crises everywhere? Do such events accurately characterize planet Earth? What if powerful rulers, atrocities, and the blessed distraction of sports and entertainment aren’t the only things going on? An argument can be made that the world is actually a lot better off than that.

I submit to you that the “mainstream media” is circling the drain already, and deserves to disappear. A hundred technological revolutions are providing replacements to the establishment piece by piece. Now that alternatives abound, it is easier to see that these gatekeepers of information are not serving you. At best they are serving themselves. At worst they are propaganda arms of political machines.

What if the nation’s news feed focused on acts of peace, of daring, of high achievement, of virtue and excellence? What if CNN gave weeks of coverage to this incredible feat instead of beating the drums of panic and rubbernecking at violence? I think our collective attitude as a nation would be a lot different. We can’t make the old media change its ways, but we can choose a new media.

I resolve to be very choosy about the news I consume in the new year; please join me.