Too caught up in NASA's PR glow?

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CRITICS OF SPACE reporting often complain that the news media pay more attention to failures like the breakup of Columbia than to spaceflight's "routine" successes. They have a point. But what about the opposite bias of science writers who are so focused on the wonder of space exploration that we miss - or inadequately report - signs of incipient danger? We, too, present a distorted picture of that grand, but risky, quest.

Three disasters, including Columbia's loss, have made that point dramatically.

On Jan. 27, 1967, three astronauts perished in a fire in the Apollo 1 moon ship capsule during a launchpad test. Shoddy wiring and a pure oxygen atmosphere allowed a chance spark to ignite an explosive fire. NASA's legendary flight director, Christopher Kraft, wonders in his memoirs if critics where right to warn that rushing to be first on the moon could compromise safety.

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Many of us science writers reporting on the program also heard the criticism but failed to follow it up aggressively. Our perspective on spaceflight hazards was shaped by NASA's record of successfully managing risk.

When American rockets blew up in the early years, we reported that the failures produced useful data that helped the US space program gain its footing. Scientific satellites and planetary probes began making spectacular discoveries. Robot lunar probes brought the moon close up and personal on our TV screens.

Along the way, we saw engineers and flight controllers save many missions that to us had seemed doomed. It was hard to believe that quality control had slipped in the Apollo program. NASA soon redeemed itself with a "zero defect" effort that made the moon exploration an outstanding success.

Fast-forward to the Challenger explosion Jan. 28, 1986. Again there had been indications for several years that quality control and safety discipline had become sloppy. Yet it was a time when robot craft were sending back spectacular images as they passed the outer planets. Science writers covering space research as one of many fields did not take seriously enough warnings from some full-time space-writer colleagues. We did not realize that defect tolerance was no longer zero.

In recent years, there have again been scattered warnings about shuttle safety - about aging spacecraft, fragile tiles, curtailed funding. But the science-news focus has been on planetary exploration, Hubble telescope cosmic views, Earth-scanning satellites, and building the space station. Writers caught up in that story generally have little time to dig deeply into issues of shuttle program management. Now, with Columbia lost, the risky side of space flight again commands major media attention.

NASA will recover. Space exploration will continue. Science writers will have their plates full reporting discoveries and explaining their relevance to life on earth. The rest of the news media will treat space exploration with benign neglect unless there's another disaster. If that happens, many science writers probably will again be caught off guard along with the rest of the public.

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