MEDIA ROUND UP: Space & Astronomy: Steady interest in space fueled by broad implications

Space and aeronautics are hot topics, but it's no longer the idea of discovery that keeps the media coming back for more - it's the commercial side and the potential to change life on Earth, finds David Ward.

Space and aeronautics are hot topics, but it's no longer the idea of discovery that keeps the media coming back for more - it's the commercial side and the potential to change life on Earth, finds David Ward.

From Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon to the real-life dramas of Apollo 13 and the Challenger tragedy, the media - especially television - has given the world a front-row seat as man makes his first tentative efforts to explore what lies beyond this planet. More recently, Hubble space telescope pictures of the far reaches of the galaxy and reports of asteroids passing close - at least in cosmic terms - to the Earth, have continued to fuel interest in manned and unmanned space exploration. Though both sci-fi and real life, aeronautics and space have always been near and dear to the hearts of many people. As a result, the field has always garnered a large share of media attention. "Anything that happens in space is automatically national and international news," says Michael Becce, a partner with MRB Public Relations. "That's why it is always going to get coverage." Even space-themed stories that contain a touch of the absurd, such as teen singing idol Lance Bass' attempts to hitch a ride into the cosmos on a Russian rocket, get ample attention from the media. "We have something that a lot of agencies don't have, and that's a built-in interest and thirst for discovery," notes Bob Jacobs, director of media services for NASA (National Aeronautics & Space Administration). "So when we have those stories, they are easier to place." The business of space But space and, more importantly, aerospace, is much more than pure science these days - it's big business. Commercial and government satellites of all shapes and sizes orbit the Earth, delivering everything from detailed images of what's going on in an Afghan village to video, music, data, and telephone services. In many ways, that has changed the tone of coverage even as it expands the number of reporters interested in covering stories that involve space. "These days, there seems to be much more focus on the dollars and cents as opposed to the fantasy of it," notes Michael London, principal with Michael London & Associates, which represents satellite component manufacturer GKN Aerospace. "It's a debate in transition," adds Robert Walker, a former US congressman who chaired the House Committee on Science that oversaw NASA, and is now chairman of the President's Commission On the Future of the US Aerospace Industry. "In the early days, it was all about the adventure and the danger and the concept of exploration. Nowadays, there is a large enough commercial segment that a lot of the stories will be about the business of space." NASA is also a much bigger government story. Walker notes that his committee was regularly followed by 600 specialty and trade reporters, and that's not including hearings and legislative bills that attracted the general-interest press. "As NASA has evolved more into an operational agency rather than an R&D agency, those expenses at NASA have been scrutinized as budget items," he says. "In some cases, the press has led the debate, especially in exposing areas where they have been cost issues." Walker also points out that space is rapidly becoming a huge military story as well, especially as the Bush administration pushes its Strategic Defense Initiative. Increased PR presence Taking the space story out of the realm of the science beat has dramatically increased the ability of PR professionals to pitch stories, says Robert Stangarone, MD of New York-based Broadgate Consultants. "You can now cut it 10 different ways, from how a new aerospace development benefits satellite communications, all the way to focusing on where the technology is being built and how it will benefit the local economy," he says. Among the best business reporters covering aviation and aeronautics are Christopher Carey of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Barbara Nagy of The Hartford Courant, J. Lynn Lunsford of The Wall Street Journal, and Aviation Week & Space Technology editor-in-chief David North. Among the top reporters covering space from a science perspective are The New York Times' Warren Leary, William Harwood of The Washington Post, and AP writer Marcia Dunn. Trade journalists at publications such as Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space News, and Flight International tend to specialize only in space-based issues. But many of the reporters at newspapers and business magazines focus on aviation in general, which means they don't always have the time to cover every space-themed story, Becce says. "This whole group of reporters has sort of been tossed in with the airline-security issue," he adds. "They've got a lot more on their plate than they ever had." As Walker points out, space is no longer a subject covered simply with awe and wonderment. Space shuttle launches are no longer always covered live by the major networks, and even NASA has come under its share of criticism. "The fascination stage is over, and we're now in generation two - maybe even generation three," says Donald Levin, president of Tarrytown, NY-based Levin Public Relations & Marketing, which represents AeroAstro, a maker of nano-satellites the size of cigarette packs. To its credit, NASA has responded by being far more proactive in reaching out to the general-interest press to explain the purpose of every space shuttle mission well before launch. "You don't launch shuttles just because you can launch them," says Jacobs. "So we make sure the press knows whether it's a science mission or whether it's a construction mission for the International Space Station." Jacobs says NASA also makes sure that astronauts are available before the mission, not only to explain what they're going to be doing, but also to offer insight, aimed at children, on what got them interested in science in the first place. Jacobs says this proactive approach extends to inviting journalists to as many on-site interviews as possible, both to meet the human faces behind the technology and to see the launches firsthand. "Information technology allows a lot more coverage without being there, but there's nothing like that one-on-one contact," he says. "We actually prefer that they do come out and see it and really appreciate the thrill of a space shuttle launch, and feel and hear the power of the rockets as they are ignited." Showing NASA's relevance Another way for NASA to continue to prove its relevance is to show how technologies developed for the exploration of space can be adapted for life on Earth. Becce represents the space program and several private companies in the ERAST (Environmental Research Aircraft Sensor Technology) program, which adapts NASA-developed high-altitude unmanned air vehicles for commercial uses. But Becce notes that even that story gets redirected to tweak the imaginations of the American press and public. "The atmosphere at very high altitude is very similar to the Martian atmosphere, so they can test whether certain kinds of aircraft can fly above Mars," he says. "Reporters have been focusing on that, so there are some angles that can be played back into a space theme." If there is any lull in space coverage, Walker says it's only temporary. "It's only because we have not made the next great leap," he says. "Whatever the next big thing is, it's bound to capture the imagination of the world." ----------- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Huntsville Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Orange County Register Magazines Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report, BusinessWeek, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics Trade outlets Space News, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Flight International, Via Satellite, Satellite Week, Communications Daily TV & Radio Discovery Channel, Nova, NPR, CNBC, CNNfn, national and local newscasts Websites Spaceflightnow.com, NASA.gov, Aviationnow.com

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