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Alex Roland
While Alex Roland is a noted historian, his frequent pessimism about NASA and its programs is based very little on facts or experience. (credit: Duke Univ.)

Professor Grinch

Alex Roland is a grumpy guy. But that’s not exactly news.

The Duke University professor was quoted by a newspaper this past week concerning the resignation of NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe. Roland said, “The captain’s abandoning a sinking ship and he was assigned to the ship to keep it from sinking. So I think it’s doubly bad because, in my view, he is essentially confessing that there’s no hope for NASA on its current trajectory.”

Roland’s comment is pretty stunning for its pessimism, even for him. The agency’s harshest critics would have a hard time characterizing NASA as a “sinking ship” abandoned by its captain because he thinks he cannot keep it afloat. To be sure, it is arguable that NASA is in little better condition now than when O’Keefe took over. The space shuttle is still grounded, the space station crew is on reduced rations, and NASA has failed yet another financial audit (getting NASA to pass its audits was one of the primary reasons O’Keefe was sent to the agency in the first place). But to give O’Keefe his due, the agency received its first budget increase in a long time, it has a new mission, and it has had a spectacular year of robotic successes, including two rovers still rolling on Mars and a spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn, beaming back beautiful pictures and fascinating data. Most importantly, O’Keefe has done a good job at trying to change the safety culture at NASA that was cited as a significant problem by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

But a sinking ship? No. Why not simply acknowledge that O’Keefe saw an opportunity to triple his salary and took it rather than invoke doom and gloom?

Well, because Roland is the doom and gloom guy. The kind of guy who people avoid at social gatherings because he’s negative all the time. In fact, it is for exactly that reason that the media calls him. They quote him not because of his expertise, but because he is totally, completely, one hundred percent predictable. If a reporter feels that their story is likely to be a little too pro-NASA, they decide to achieve “balance” by phoning Roland, because he is listed in their Rolodexes as “hates NASA, provides good quotes.” He is an artifact of sloppy journalism, where reporters want a predictable source rather than nuance. There are several ex-NASA historians who they could call instead, but none give them what Roland does, which is predictions of doom.

Roland is an artifact of sloppy journalism, where reporters want a predictable source rather than nuance.

Want proof? Look at the record. Roland is a military historian at Duke University who in the past fifteen years has written about military history, technology development, and supercomputers. But a search of the Lexis/Nexis media database of major newspapers from January 1989 to today indicates that he is almost never quoted on the subjects he writes and teaches about. Out of approximately 150 articles that quoted Roland during that time period, he was quoted on military history or supercomputing or technology development less than five times. In other words, the only thing that the media regularly quotes Roland about—spaceflight—is a subject that he never researches or writes about. They do not call him for his expertise, they call him for his bias.

Roland is always cited as a “former NASA historian,” which supposedly lends weight to his comments. However, the reality is that Roland last worked as a NASA historian in 1981. Yes, you can be a “former” something forever, but two decades is starting to stretch things. A review of social science databases does not reveal any scholarly publications by Roland on the subject of human spaceflight in the past decade other than a few book reviews. In fact, it is hard to find any scholarly publications by Roland on the subject of spaceflight at all for the past two decades. And speaking as someone who has lectured at space history symposia and written and edited scholarly space history books and articles, I can also state that Roland does not talk to, or participate in, the space history community. He is not a space historian, he simply has an opinion that he boils down to sound bites.

While Roland did work at NASA, it is worth noting that mostly what he did there was write about the agency’s aeronautics research, not human or robotic spaceflight. So while he is frequently called upon to comment about spaceflight and cited as a “former NASA historian,” the media never mentions that he last worked for NASA 23 years ago and did not specialize in spaceflight history.

While Roland is frequently called upon to comment about spaceflight and cited as a “former NASA historian,” the media never mentions that he last worked for NASA 23 years ago and did not specialize in spaceflight history.

Making Roland even a worse source for informed commentary is the fact that when he does dabble in space opinion, he is really bad at it. He is sloppy and cannot get even basic facts right. In a January 30 op-ed piece for Florida Today, Roland committed numerous historical offenses. For starters, he had a hard time keeping track of names, even in his own essay. Roland referred to the “Exploratory Crew Vehicle” and later the “Crew Exploratory Vehicle” in his essay, neither of which was the correct name—the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Roland also incorrectly asserted that space shuttle development ran absurdly over budget. Now the space shuttle never lived up to its economic promises. It never flew as often or as cheaply as planned. But its development did not run excessively over budget. In fact, NASA completed the shuttle for only 15 percent more than its projected development cost, “a comparatively small cost overrun for so complex a program,” according to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report (page 23).

In that same op-ed piece Roland claimed that NASA wants to build a new large rocket that will cost $100 billion. That figure is ridiculous. Not even the Saturn 5 rocket, the most powerful ever built, cost that much, even when adjusted for inflation. The space shuttle did not cost that much either. Most of the cost estimates for developing a new heavy-lift vehicle range from $6 to $12 billion. Even if one accepts that NASA has done a poor job of estimating development costs (the Congressional Budget Office determined that NASA traditionally underestimates development costs by 45%) it is impossible to envision the cost being ten times what NASA estimates. That simply never happens. Roland invented the figure. It is not based on any historical data.

The real bias is not from the predictable source, but from the reporter who seeks a pundit to say what the reporter is too scared to say himself.

Now one might suspect that Roland is simply against human spaceflight in general and the shuttle in particular. But it turns out that Roland is negative about everything. Of those 150 or so Roland quotations by major American newspapers over the past fifteen years, not one of them was positive. Not one. He’s a total curmudgeon. A grinch. When SpaceShipOne soared high into the atmosphere in the summer, National Public Radio interviewed Roland, who concluded that “it won’t lead to anything or affect what NASA does. It’s just an interesting stunt with no imaginable commercial payoff.” He has also provided negative commentary about NASA’s robotic spacecraft and the Hubble. It also turns out that he is negative about non-space subjects as well. When asked about America’s romance with technology he responded that “we’re not entirely devoid of Ludditism from time to time.” In a book he co-wrote with Sydney Wise, Roland wrote, “It is just possible that the human instinct for self-preservation will eventually save mankind from extermination.” This, though, was too optimistic for him. So he added, “However, it is possible that it will not.” He’s the kind of guy who, when people say “Nice day,” will respond that it is going to rain tomorrow.

Ultimately, this is not Roland’s fault. It is clearly in his nature to predict the falling sky. The real culprits here are the reporters who call Roland for quotes. They want a negative quote for their stories and they know he will provide it. The real bias is not from the predictable source, but from the reporter who seeks a pundit to say what the reporter is too scared to say himself.


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