SpaceNews 25th Anniversary | Taking Off into Winds of Change

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Timing really isn’t everything. Sometimes a lot of hard work, perseverance, the right people and the right product can overcome even the worst timing.

On July 20, 1989, just two months before SpaceNews published its first monthly prototype, U.S. President George H.W. Bush stood on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and unveiled his outline for the Space Exploration Initiative: continuation of what by then was called Space Station Freedom, returning humans to the Moon and eventually sending them on to Mars. Plans for the newspaper already were underway, but Bush’s announcement only added to the excitement that this might be a great time to start a trade publication focused entirely on space.

Bush had only been in office a short time, but seemed destined at that moment to carry out many of his predecessor’s policies, particularly a strong national defense and support for technology programs like the space station and the National Aero-Space Plane (NASP).

At the time, I was a political reporter for the Journal Newspapers, a chain of dailies serving the Washington suburbs that also happened to be owned by the Times Journal Co., the same corporation that was starting SpaceNews. Having grown up in Huntsville, Alabama, at the beginning of the Space Age, I loved everything about space, so jumping to SpaceNews seemed a natural fit.

My tryout piece was an interview with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that had authority over NASA’s budget. It ran in the October 1989 preview issue — the second of four released that year — and ironically ended up being about the skepticism in Congress regarding the Space Exploration Initiative. It got me the job and I started on Monday, Nov. 13, 1989, the same week the Soviet Union’s grip on Eastern Europe would dissolve. By the following Sunday, Germans from the east and west began tearing down the Berlin Wall with picks and sledgehammers — anything they could find.

In 1989 the space industry was dominated even more than it is today by defense companies that also build space hardware.  The collapse of communism began a wave of industry consolidation and belt-tightening that made advertising dollars scarce. The defense buildup under President Ronald Reagan, which had already slowed, suddenly went into reverse.

Nevertheless, by the time Vol. 1, Issue No. 1 came out in January 1990, there was a lot of excitement in the space side of the business that there finally was a publication that was only about space. It was an exciting time. There were skeptics. A question I was asked frequently in those first few months was how we would ever find enough news about space to fill a newspaper every week.

It was never a problem. The difficulty was finding the time to write about all of the things we wanted to write about with only six reporters on the staff.

It was a great staff, led by Theresa Foley, a veteran aerospace reporter. Andrew Lawler covered Congress, Doug Isbell wrote about NASA programs, Vincent Kiernan’s beat was military space programs and Dan Marcus did some groundbreaking work covering the satellite communications industry. And Peter B. de Selding covered the world, just as he does today.

As the last reporter hired I got the two beats no one else had wanted: the Soviet space program and advanced technology. I loved both. I traveled to Moscow and Star City that September and got interviews with some key people in the rapidly changing Soviet space program. I got to cover the development of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Pegasus rocket, and the final days of the NASP program.

We provided the kind of coverage many in the government and industry were not used to reading in the trade press. As Rick Barnard, the founding executive editor says elsewhere in this report, coverage of space had been focused on science and technology. Under Rick’s guidance, we approached the news as reporters at any of the big daily newspapers would, conducting multiple interviews and digging into the facts as best we could. Some loved it and others hated it, but we had a small band of loyal readers who were instrumental to our success.

There were a lot of exciting things to cover. The legendary Rene Anselmo, founder of PanAmSat, the first commercial satellite company, was shaking that world to its foundation and eventually forced the privatization of Intelsat and Inmarsat.  Milstar was just being built and GPS was coming together and spawning a huge commercial industry. Some forward-thinking young Defense Department officials like Mike Griffin, and military officers like Pete Worden and Pedro Rustan, were exploring the possibility of using smaller, less-expensive spacecraft to accomplish important missions.

The Hubble Space Telescope, also about to celebrate a 25th anniversary, was launched, and then found to be flawed. That was the subject of the first editorial I ever wrote for SpaceNews. I criticized Len Fisk, the NASA associate administrator for space science, for stating that the cost of repairing Hubble would be inconsequential compared with the contribution it would make to astronomy. I think it is more than fair to say that history has long since weighed in on the side of Mr. Fisk.

And while it was fun to cover for a while, the Space Exploration Initiative had a short life. I can still hear Andrew Lawler imploring anyone who would listen: “It’s never going to happen. It is DOA in Congress.”

Of course, he was right. The “90 Day Study” led by Johnson Space Center Director Aaron Cohen concluded Bush’s proposal would cost $500 billion over the course of 20 to 30 years. That figure proved too much for Congress or the White House to support. In August 1990, Bush asked Martin Marietta President Norm Augustine to conduct another study recommending an alternative approach for NASA that focused heavily on space science and came to be known as “go-as-you-pay.”

My contacts in the Soviet space program proved to be a godsend when the Clinton administration came to power and made cooperation in space with the Soviets a centerpiece of its foreign policy. They gave us a different vantage point to balance the views inside NASA that the Soviet space program was inferior. Perhaps that was the case, but without their considerable capabilities, the initial assembly of the international space station would have taken years longer than it did.

Under Clinton and NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, “better, faster, cheaper” became the watchword and something we would cover for years.

It was a long time ago. So long that it is hard to believe there was not a computer at every desk. Instead we had a room — disparagingly referred to as “the tube room” — that was filled with terminals that dozens of reporters from different newspapers would fight to use as deadline approached. We would not see PCs on reporters’ desks for another two years.

Happy Anniversary, SpaceNews. You’ve come a long way.


Lon Rains worked for SpaceNews from 1989 to 2008. He served as editor from 1993 to 2008.