While I was on vacation, Charles Seife’s recent story on Slate, “What Is NASA For?” apparently annoyed some space boosters. I read the piece. It’s an opinion. We’re all entitled to one.
Seife’s necessarily abbreviated review of the history of the U.S. space program is, yes, slanted. Most are. As someone who has studied history (science, technology, journalism) and dug into space history as well, I’d like to note that history is not an objective documenting of “facts.” History is an interpretive and analytic discipline. Every history of the U.S. space program has a different flavor. Each interpreter of history figuratively stands in a unique place and sees the world from a unique perspective. (For more on this theme, check out historian Carl Becker’s “Everyman His Own Historian.” It’s a great read.)
Not only the author lends a slant, but also the publisher lends its own slant. Slate, like many other trendy Web-based infotainment services (is Slate too old to be trendy?), likes to be edgy. (Slate’s editors probably would like to think of their site as edgy/”daringly innovative, on the cutting edge.” I think of Slate as edgy/”sharp-edged.” Both are dictionary definitions of the word.)
My review of the U.S. space program would be different from Seife’s. For example, I disagree with the latter part of his assessment that “human spaceflight was all but worthless for generating science or public excitement, and unmanned craft didn’t fill the void.” He’s referring specifically to the ‘80s at this point. It is the case that public interest in human space flight was, and is, not significantly higher or lower than it ever has been. I don’t recall that people were not interested in robotic space exploration missions. It’s certainly not true today. He’s entitled to his views. I’m entitled to mine.
I also disagree with Seife’s dismissal as “bunkum” McKay et al’s claims of finding fossil evidence of microbial life in a martian meteorite fragment – published in the peer-reviewed journal Science in 1996. Dictionary check: “bunkum” means “insincere talk.” The scientific consensus is that what McKay et al found was not fossil evidence of microbial life. The scientific community has not declared the claims “bunkum.” Like history, science is a matter of interpretation.
While Seife’s story didn’t bother me at all, something else about its publication did. Seife’s story appeared in Slate’s department, “Mysteries of the Universe,” which features this tagline: “The Future of Science Made Possible by Statoil.”
Statoil is a Norway-based multinational oil and gas company with operations in more than 30 countries in North and South America, Africa, Europe, Russia, Asia, Middle East. According to Statoil’s fourth-quarter 2013 financial report, its net operating income for the quarter was NOK 43.9 billion (7.1 billion USD) and its adjusted earnings were 42.3 billion (6.9 billion USD). Adjusted earnings for the full year 2013 were 163.1 billion (26.6 billion USD).
Call me touchy, but this bothers me….