A vast nothingness of news in space


The American media do two things extremely well: They cover things that go boom -- wars of the kind now looming in Iraq and tragedies of the sort that overtook the space shuttle Columbia's seven astronauts. They also chronicle consumerism -- who's accumulating what, in what quantities and at what cost.

Beyond that, things get spotty, and particularly so when the subject at hand involves ideas, processes, technical subjects, things that require an adult attention span.

Nowadays, the National Aero-nautics and Space Administra-tion and its manned space program are on the spotty part of the media spectrum. In the 1960s, NASA was a prized assignment on newspapers and magazines and, particularly, on television.

Today, few newspapers have a reporter assigned to the space program exclusively. Neither ABC, CBS nor NBC has a single correspondent whose responsibilities include covering NASA. CNN has a "space correspondent," Miles O'Brien, but only one-tenth of his on-camera appearances in the last year have involved NASA.

Partly, of course, this is because manned space flight in the form of the shuttle program -- while of incontestable value -- amounts in a certain sense to paddling around in the interplanetary shallows. Near-Earth exploration simply lacks the cachet of moon flights and expeditions to Mars.

Then there's the money. In Tom Wolfe's celebration of the Mercury astronauts, The Right Stuff, there is a scene in which the Edwards Air Force Base PR man explains to a table of skeptical test pilots what it is that really propels them aloft. "It's funding," he says. "No bucks, no Buck Rogers."

Government spending also is what propels a lot of journalistic assignments, and on that count NASA is a minor player, getting smaller. The 3 percent increase assigned to the space agency in the $2.2 trillion budget President Bush proposed last week brings NASA's total budget to only $15.5 billion. Of that, just $6.1 billion is earmarked for space flight.

To a certain extent, declining interest in the space program is also another consequence of the Cold War's end. Popular fascination with NASA ran highest when it was conducting "the space race" with the Soviet Union. The moon was the finish line, and once the United States crossed it first, the match was over in many minds.

In part, the indifference in the decades since Apollo 11 may stem from an unforeseen consequence of Neil Armstrong's first step onto the lunar surface: No one weighing its implications at that moment -- nor anyone who had previously thought or fantasized about space exploration -- ever imagined that man one day would reach the moon, and then just stop going.

Speculative scientific thinking, like science fiction, had envisioned lunar colonies, sites of scientific exploration and mineral extraction, jumping-off points for new voyages of exploration farther and farther into the solar system.

It didn't happen. It cost too much and there were no stories there.

Poised on the verge of infinity, man turned from the stars and looked homeward. And thus, the vanguard of interplanetary exploration passed to the machines.

For most journalists, reporting on them -- no matter how valuable the science they do -- is about as alluring as writing about a big power lawnmower.

Tim Rutten writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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