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« Freedom Of Research | Main | Harnessing The Blogosphere »

Looking For Answers In All The Wrong Places

As Clark Lindsey says, why oh why do the media think that just because someone is a scientist, even a space scientist, he would know anything about space transportation or space tourism? There are many people who do understand this subject, but it's apparently too much work to go seek them out. Instead, they think that they can just go down to the local observatory, or university astrophysics department, and get the opinion of someone that's worth printing. Instead, they often get nonsense, and they don't even know it.

"The idea is great, I like the idea, but I am very aware that even people like NASA find it a challenge. Eventually it will come. Whether it will come in Richard Branson's time, and in his way, remains to be seen," he said.

"I take it as a declaration of intent, to look into it, rather than to take bookings straight away."

What does this mean? If it's a "declaration of intent" (which indeed it is, and a quite forthright one by my reading), then it's more than "looking into it." All of the pieces are in place, now that the technology has been demonstrated by SS1, and Branson is going to put up the money (or raise it from others, which he's fully capable of doing). I suspect that he will be taking bookings, if not "straight away," then certainly within the year, with all the concomitant marketing hoopla and tie-ins.

But it gets worse. He's supposedly a scientist, but he can't even get the science right:

The space tourists would not be completely weightless, he added.

"You can't have an orbit at that altitude, so you could not be totally weightless. It would be probably fairly close to it, but it is not an orbit, it is still within the upper atmosphere."

This is simply false, on two levels. You don't have to get out of the atmosphere to be weightless (though these flights do leave the atmosphere, for all extents and purposes), nor do you have to be in orbit to be weightless. And in fact, as I've pointed out, a suborbit actually is an orbit--it's just one that intersects the planet's surface, so it can't be sustained for long. The passengers will in fact be truly weightless, in free fall, for several minutes.

Of course, part of the problem, and reason that stories like this get published, is that Space Daily doesn't have an editor. It just has a publisher who thinks that it's more important to have quantity of content than quality.

Posted by Rand Simberg at September 28, 2004 06:06 AM
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That is an Agence France Press article, which Space Daily regularly runs. AFP supposedly has very low license fees compared to other wire services like Reuters or AP.

However, AFP's work is awful, particularly when it comes to space subjects. You can easily find a lot of howlers with not only bad sourcing, but worse. In fact, I think that they have helped perpetuate the "sex experiments in space" story. Any article with AFP in the byline is automatically suspect.

Posted by at September 28, 2004 08:32 AM

"'The idea is great, I like the idea, but I am very aware that even people like NASA find it a challenge. Eventually it will come. Whether it will come in Richard Branson's time, and in his way, remains to be seen," he said.

"I take it as a declaration of intent, to look into it, rather than to take bookings straight away.

Not only that put SS1 prove that the technology is already there. The real threat to keeping things at things at the intent only stage is the lack luster support of HR3752

Posted by Josh "Hefty" Reiter at September 28, 2004 12:51 PM

Okay its hard to type page comments, input customer problem descriptions into ticket software, and tell them to reboot their computer all at the same time :( Sorry for the poor typo/grammar display on the prior post.

Posted by Josh "Hefty" Reiter at September 28, 2004 12:58 PM

Rand, they talked to an physicist. You've met many, I'm sure. You know a certain chunk of them know squat about actual engineering and consider the topic rather beneath them anyhow. It's all just derivatives onto the wavefunction, the kind of thing best left to computers and idiot savants. I wouldn't be surprised if this fellow belongs to that group.

Indeed, had they talked to a physicist aware of his own limitations -- of which most good ones are -- I suspect he would have simply said 'I'm sorry but I'm not qualified to offer an opinion on orbital engineering challenges -- you should talk to my friend Dr. X over in aero/astro. . .'

As for why they do that kind of thing, I suspect it's because that's the way the journalistic mind works. Folks who write news articles for a living are often those to whom an automatic transmission is as mystifying as the Trinity. But they comfort themselves with the fact that mere engineering is implicit in the liberal artsy stuff they do understand, and so, really, they can feel they do understand it, kind of, sort of -- well, at least in its ineffable essence. . .

To such people, since astronautical engineering principles derive from the laws of physics, it follows that any physicist will have more insight into orbital machinery than the most experienced engineer. To believe otherwise would be to raise the disturbing suspicion that there are cases in which grubby experience has advantages over clever theory. Which leads directly to the proposition that people who have never done a speck of engineering work in their life may be manifestly unqualified to say dick about it. Which, of course, leaves the typical journalist covering engineering issues out of a job, or at least out of a story. . .

Posted by Joe Plaice at September 28, 2004 08:29 PM

It's annoying how liberal arts graduates (ie. journalists) lump science and engineering together without appreciating the differences in expertise and aims.

Scientists want knowledge about things that already exist. Engineers want to build things that have never existed.

You see things; and you say "Why?" But I dream things that never were; and I say "Why not?"
óGeorge Bernard Shaw

They are both noble pursuits.

Posted by at September 28, 2004 10:10 PM

what would you creeps know abt anything? who put you in charge of delivering wisdom? Like most bloggers you are nothing but self-appointed experts in precisely nothing. very handy with cutting and pasting. now try cutting and running.

Posted by Miranda Divide at September 29, 2004 06:03 PM

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