Now Magazine is so, so wrong about space

16 May
Ground control to Now Magazine: get a clue.

Ground control to Now Magazine: get a clue.

Every now and then someone comes along and criticizes space exploration – and inevitably makes an ass of themselves in the process. Add Now Magazine to the list.

In a wildly dumb piece that ran this week, the Toronto alt-weekly trashed both Commander Chris Hadfield and space exploration in general as PR-seeking glory hounds and wastes of money, respectively.

Hadfield – the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station – of course returned to Earth on Monday evening, but not before posting a video of himself performing David Bowie’s Space Oddity… in space. That capped off a 146-day stint aboard the ISS that was punctuated by frequent tweets, photos and even an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit.

Hadfield’s return couldn’t happen “too soon,” according to the article, since he was wasting so much time conducting public relations for himself and space agencies in general, rather than actual scientific research:

Everyone else – the other astronauts who spent the term of their mission aboard the ISS as something other than a launchpad for a public speaking career – will shake their heads, embarrassed at the display: mortifying, needy, totally typifying Hadfield’s tour of duty as Canada’s first-ever ISS commander.

The rest of the article is equally cynical about space exploration and NASA in general, with references to the ISS as a boondoggle, or a big $100 billion box that the agency built just “to examine what it’s like to live in a big box.” Many of the experiments being done up there could be performed on Earth, and space travel has never been about science, but about “adventure” and “dick measuring.”

Joey “Accordian Guy” Devilla does a great job at rebutting the silly attack on his blog, poignantly pointing out that no, space exploration is indeed about science, and its earthly benefits have been enormous:

The space program is the tent-pole for the entire scientific enterprise, yielding manifold benefits, in ways we haven’t – and can’t yet – conceive. This is what Semley and NOW Magazione [sic] are pooping on: the seeking of knowledge. The expansion of our potential. The grandest human adventure. But please, be sure to carefully read NOW’s stereo ads!

The Now article reminds me a similarly dimwitted piece from the CBC a few years ago, which asked “Is NASA a waste of money?” It’s a question that butted up against Betteridge’s Law, which states that any headline that asks a question can generally be answered with a “no” – in this case, resoundingly so. Space critics such as the CBC’s Wendy Mesley and Now are usually opposed to the billions spent on agencies, largely because of their ties to the military-industrial complex and because they feel it’s money that could be spent on better things, such as education or social programs.

That’s really missing the point. NASA’s contributions to society through its various technology transfer programs are almost too numerous to mention, with the agency developing everything from better car tires and safer aircraft to margarine and super soakers.

One of its least-known but incredibly important contributions is the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system, developed to ensure safe food for the manned space missions of the 1960s. HACCP has since become the de facto food safety system worldwide and is directly responsible for preventing an untold of number of deaths and illnesses. That development alone is worth almost every penny spent on space programs, ever.

The Canadian Space Agency, for its part, also has a mandate to transfer its research and breakthroughs back to Canada and society in general. It currently has at least 20 different technologies, from data compression algorithms to thermal radiators, on offer for licensing. It too is paying off its budget – $488 million this year – in ways that short-sighted critics can’t fathom.

As for Hadfield and his apparent show-boating, the only answer to that is what Devilla said: Good. Commanding a space station isn’t American Idol – you need more than just a pretty smile and a good singing voice to get the job. Hadfield had to work incredibly hard and beat out scores of other highly skilled and trained individuals around the world to get the call, so if he does end up sailing off into a second career of well-paid public speaking gigs, more power to him. He will have earned it all, which is a fine inspiration to anyone whether they care about space or not.


Posted by on May 16, 2013 in NASA, space


5 responses to “Now Magazine is so, so wrong about space

  1. James Van Leeuwen

    May 16, 2013 at 12:41 am

    I’m all for space exploration, as long as it doesn’t require humans to go along for the ride. Most of the cost of manned exploration is because it is manned, and technological progress is making it ever harder to justify.

    For all the money we invest, we could do a hell of a lot more exploring if we weren’t so hung up on sending people into space. I get that it’s really cool, but beyond that it’s almost useless now.

    If we were to invest $100 billion to bring high-speed Internet connectivity to every person on the planet, we would have a far greater positive impact on the future of humanity.

    We already have a spaceship.

    It’s called Earth, and it needs our attention.

  2. Marc Venot

    May 16, 2013 at 12:59 am

    A challenge is good to test but in the case of Canada the money would be better spend to find a way to improve life in the great North, since it’s its frontier and the population there have lost their specific nomadic life and feel uprooted.

  3. bradfonseca

    May 16, 2013 at 8:26 am

    Reblogged this on The Emporium of Lost Thoughts and commented:
    Great comment piece on the dunderheaded piece NOW Magazine wrote criticizing Chris Hadfield and space exploration in general.

  4. russellmcormond

    May 22, 2013 at 7:27 am

    Something that always bothered me about these arguments is the false assumption of sustainability: that if $X were not being spent on Y, then it could solve problem Z.

    The reality is often that money isn’t the issue with the other problem. For instance, the issue with high-speed communications for people on earth isn’t a money problem but a political one. We (westerners, and then increasingly globally through backward “trade”/etc treaties) have created a communications exception to the utility model where the last-mile is granted as a monopoly to a narrow set of private sector entities (wired through right-of-way, wireless through spectrum, etc). Money wouldn’t solve this problem, and throwing public money at this would in fact be a backward-facing form of corporate welfare.

    The same can be said of health and education which equally have serious problems with government imposed monopolization, and the lack of a policy denying this monopoly even for publicly funded R&D or authorship.

    I hope I don’t have to dive into the extremely complex politics of Canada’s North and indigenous peoples (within what we call “Canada” and globally)….

    These are problems that can’t be solved by money alone, and where injecting money into the currently flawed system wouldn’t be as socially beneficial to those of us on earth as projects like the space program.

    I agree we have a lot of problems on earth we need to solve, but disagree with the sustainability with the space program or even the suggestion that the space program doesn’t benefit us on earth.

  5. craigbamford

    May 26, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    I was honestly flabbergasted by the NOW piece. It read like the sort of know-nothing anti-space drivel that I thought we’d left behind a decade ago.

    And, yes, Russell is absolutely right: if programs are worth paying taxes for, than they’re worth paying taxes for. Taxes pay for programs; that’s what it’s for. Pretending that you can’t raise revenues just forces government departments into destructive infighting that hurts everybody, including (and especially) taxpayers.

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