Ground control to Now magazine: Space exploration is not frivolous: Peter Nowak


Every now and then someone comes along and criticizes space exploration—and 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 called Commander Chris Hadfield a PR-seeking glory hound and space exploration a waste of money.

Hadfield, the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station, 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 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 showboating, 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.