The recent loss of an Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus cargo vehicle to the International Space Station shocked the space community and the public alike. In some ways, that’s good. Launches to the space station have mostly gone well in recent times, and a launch failure is seen as highly abnormal. Kudos to the space safety community and range safety officers.
While the launch is chewing up media bandwidth in aerospace circles, it has also featured prominently in the mass media. The space community has sometimes bemoaned the obsession with space disasters over successes in the media, especially when launch failures cost lives. But the high media coverage of this latest catastrophe is probably good for us all.
For a start, the launch failure is a major newsworthy incident. It should be covered. The space community cannot expect censorship or disinterest in the event. Let’s also remember that the media feeds on negativity in other areas apart from space. The media was neither unfair nor biased in its coverage of the event. In fact, it was probably some of the best media coverage ever placed on a launch accident.
The media were quick to report that no lives had been lost. They also avoided any silly remarks about dangers to the station or its crew. Much attention was focused on dissecting why the incident occurred, a very clear and obvious subject in this story. The media selected experts to interview, who gave accurate and professional statements. There was an absence of lunatics or conspiracy theorists. And all of this happened in the middle of a politically and commercially volatile flux that pervades spaceflight as a whole.
The media held their ground and did not engage in lobbying or partisanship. It was technical, objective, and perceptive.
The general public got the right message fast. There was no panic or outrage. We should all take note of how this unfolded.
A Clear Reportage
As with other technical disasters such as the Fukushima nuclear shutdown and the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, there was a strong focus on scientific and technical issues. The media sometimes treat these matters as too cerebral for a general news report, but they delved deeply into the operations of rockets, logistical issues for the space station and the overall complexities of operating this huge project. In addition to clear reportage on the explosion, the public just received a concise and informative background briefing on the ISS program as a whole.
Clearly, it would have been better if this failure had never occurred. But incidents like this can sometimes snowball into greater disasters when they are not managed properly. This didn’t happen with the Antares launch. A media conference was called fairly quickly and run well, but the media were already giving a clear picture with their own resources.
This analyst has often warned of the problems the space community could experience from a hostile and misinformed media. This latest incident is hopefully a sign of a better future.