Whispers in the echo chamber
The new space vision
On January 14 President Bush announced his space plan at NASA Headquarters and indicated that he was advocating spending a total of $12 billion over five years on the plan, only $1 billion of it additional money. Many newspaper articles reported that this was not a lot of money, and in fact would come primarily from within NASA’s existing budget. But despite this new information, some reporters refused to abandon the $1 trillion number, while at the same time failing to check its origins. Others erroneously reported that the primary emphasis of the new program was placing a human on Mars. For instance, a January 26 Time magazine cover contained the headline “Mission to Mars.”
Some large newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post never mentioned the $1 trillion figure. They did, however, mention that the Bush plan would undoubtedly cost more than was in the proposed budget figures.
The combination of the widely-reported $1 trillion figure and the newly-released NASA figures created an ironic situation: some reporters and commentators assumed that NASA and White House officials must be lying (or worse) because the numbers were so completely different. Some reporters later wrote about the story as if the Bush figures had no validity at all, because other estimates had been much higher—$1 trillion.
At the time of the Bush speech NASA released a confusing budget chart that indicated how much money the agency would spend on various projects over the next 20 years. If one carefully separated out the exploration part of the chart from the rest, it was possible to determine that NASA planned to spend approximately $170 billion on various aspects of space exploration over this period, including robotic probes to Mars and Jupiter. Lunar exploration would be only one part of this figure and human Mars exploration was not part of it at all. But in the press coverage that followed the announcement, just about the only part of this that reporters acknowledged was a 20-year timeframe. On January 19 Paul Recer wrote another article about the space plan. Despite the fact that in the intervening 11 days the new Bush plan had been released and did not contain anywhere near $1 trillion in new spending, Recer repeated in its entirety his original paragraph on the costs of the mission.
Not everyone in the media automatically repeated the trillion dollar figure, but most of the cost estimates were extremely high. The Delmarva Daily Times, a small regional newspaper in Maryland, stated that the Bush plan “has been estimated to cost up to $500 billion.” The Denver Post ran an editorial stating that a Mars mission “may cost a half-trillion dollars.” A left-wing website, AlterNet.org, stated that the plan would cost “hundreds of billions.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed a generally supportive column that stated that “the cost of going to Mars has been estimated at somewhere between $600 billion and $1 trillion.” On January 18 the New York Times cited John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, as claiming that the cost of establishing a base on the Moon by 2020 could be $150 billion. The article also inaccurately reported that the 1989 cost estimate for a mission to Mars was “around $400 billion.”
A few reporters were skeptical of the high cost estimates that were being endlessly repeated by their colleagues. Florida Today writers John Kelly and Todd Halvorson, both knowledgeable space journalists, wrote on January 14 that “Critics pounced on the price tag given the nation’s other needs, some citing erroneous estimates that ranged as high at $1 trillion.” But there do not appear to be any other examples of reporters directly questioning the high numbers.
On January 20, the Seattle Post Intelligencer ran an article on the Bush plan by John Iwasaki that in many ways represented the high water mark for sloppy reporting on the space plan. Iwasaki stated: “Whether Congress and the American people will support an effort for manned flights to Mars is another question, given the costs—$12 billion over five years and perhaps a trillion dollars over 20 years—and other pressing needs.”
Iwasaki managed to incorporate at least four errors into a single sentence. First, he mistakenly assumed that the Bush plan called for a manned mission to Mars, rather than vaguely stating that this was to be an eventual goal at some indeterminate point in the future. Second, he incorrectly stated that the new plan was to spend $12 billion over five years solely on Mars. But the next part of that sentence was no better. The 20-year timeframe included approximately $170 billion on all aspects of exploration. The $1 trillion figure was poorly based upon the original 30-year timeframe of the 1989 Space Exploration Initiative. Iwasaki combined the new timeframe and the old grossly-inflated cost estimate, meaning that 30 years of expenditures would have to be crammed into a 20-year budget. But this would require the administration to spend the remaining $988 billion in fifteen years, an average of $66 billion per year, or nearly four and a half times the current NASA budget.
One unanswered question is why NASA did not choose to limit the damage and counter the widely-repeated $1 trillion cost estimate immediately. One of the rules of Washington politics is to get ahead of the story and control it, not be constantly responding to spurious charges, or worse, allowing them to propagate on their own. However, NASA apparently chose a different approach to dealing with negative press, and the agency soon found itself receiving more negative publicity about the decision to cancel the Hubble servicing mission.
On January 21 NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe spoke to reporters about the new space plan. O’Keefe said that NASA did not know how much the new space plan would cost. “Though he declined to offer a cost estimate,” wrote Knight-Ridder science correspondent Seth Borenstein, “he said figures of $500 billion or $1 trillion were ‘preposterous.’” O’Keefe’s statement was not widely reported. It also appeared to have no effect. On January 31 an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Mike Toner repeated the $1 trillion cost estimate. In mid-February an article in the Council Bluffs (Iowa) Nonpareil also repeated the $1 trillion figure. The continued life of this mythical figure suggests that it has now become the new media benchmark for a Mars mission, just like the $400 billion figure in 1989. Ten years from now, when some reporter is writing about the costs of sending humans to Mars, it seems likely that they will do a quick media search and find the $1 trillion cost estimate and repeat it without question, undoubtedly inflating it even more.
After nearly two weeks of wildly inflated figures circulating in the media, the damage had already been done. For instance, on January 20 the Washington Post reported the results of a poll that indicated dissatisfaction with Bush’s handling of domestic issues. “And his call to establish a manned base on the Moon and eventually send American astronauts to Mars is broadly unpopular,” the article stated. Perhaps one of the reasons for its unpopularity was that for two weeks the media had been claiming that the plan would cost $1 trillion and nobody had bothered to claim otherwise.
Of course this is the way that the media world works for many things in politics: reporters on deadline do not bother to check facts; complex subjects are summarized in such a way that information is not only lost but distorted; bad editing introduces major errors; political lobbying groups are willing to wildly exaggerate the costs of programs they oppose; hyperbole is repeated as fact by reporters; and pundits are also perfectly willing to invent numbers that suit their purposes. A gold-plated and unrealistic cost estimate from 1989 was accepted at face value nearly 15 years later, adjusted for inflation, then rounded up by nearly 60% by a reporter. Others then inflated it even more. And for weeks nobody in the media bothered to question it.
Another unfortunate lesson here is that although NASA has little credibility when it comes to cost estimates, neither does the press. There is certainly tremendous irony in the fact that reporters who are so skeptical of NASA cost estimates are themselves prone to wild exaggeration and inability to apply simple inflation adjustments. Gregg Easterbrook may ridicule NASA cost estimates, but unlike him, the space agency has never misstated the cost of a program by hundreds of billions of dollars.
What makes this entire whispering game so bizarre is not that it happened, but that it was totally predictable. After all, it happened in 1989. Yet neither NASA nor the White House did anything at all to stop it from happening again. In 1989 George H.W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative was dead on arrival largely because of NASA’s unrealistic $400 billion price tag. The ghost of that giant elephant in the corner had never been exorcised and it came back to haunt the second Bush administration in 2004.
Humor writer Dave Barry, however, may have summarized the situation the best. “The Bush administration says the Mars mission can be accomplished for only 143.8 zillion dollars,” Barry wrote. “But critics claim that the true cost is likely to be much more like 687 fillion dillion dollars. (These numbers are imaginary, but trust me, they’re as accurate as any other cost estimates you see about the Mars mission.)”