WASHINGTON — In leafing through some of the earliest editions of SpaceNews, it’s hard not to be struck by certain storylines that are still around today.
In 1989, the space community was grappling with extreme budget pressures, rocket failures, cost overruns and program delays. NASA, tasked with more missions than it had the budget to execute, was casting about for something — anything — to recapture the glory of the Apollo years. There was much hand-wringing over fears that the United States would abdicate its leadership in space.
The European Space Agency was being criticized for geographic return policies that ensured that contract work was doled out among member states in proportion to their contribution to agency programs. Arianespace, Europe’s government-backed launch services provider, was falling short of its annual launch goals.
The U.S. military was eyeing small “tacsats” that would plug gaps in existing capabilities and be more responsive to commanders in the field. U.S. government officials debated the role and use of anti-satellite weapons.
Robotic servicing was seen as a promising way to extend the life of on-orbit satellites.
These themes remain prevalent today, to the point that many stories from the early days could be republished almost verbatim today, with the most prominent changes being of dates and names.
Speaking of which, most of the names and faces that regularly appeared in SpaceNews back in the day no longer do so; they’ve since retired, switched fields, passed away or, in a few cases, gone to jail.
A notable exception is the indefatigable Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who still, as always, wields a big gavel as the top Democrat on the committee that funds NASA.
The things that have changed over the last quarter-century are as obvious as those that haven’t. The NASA-led space station, for example, figured more prominently in yesteryear’s coverage, largely by virtue of having near-death experiences or some other high drama on what seemed like a weekly basis. U.S. astronaut access to space seemed assured through NASA’s fleet of space shuttles; today they are museum pieces.
Government programs like shuttle and station dominated the early coverage. The commercial space industry was in its infancy; Iridium was the name of an element and Elon Musk was a teenager, still 10 years from co-founding PayPal.
But commercial space was poised for a big takeoff, nudged along by factors including the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to a decline in defense spending and unleashed low-cost Russian rockets and propulsion technology on the market, the 1990s telecom boom, and feisty entrepreneurs like Rene Anselmo, whose agitations as founder of upstart satellite operator PanAmSat helped force the eventual privatization of Intelsat.
By the mid-1990s, commercial space had found near-equal footing with government programs on the pages of SpaceNews, as the investment floodgates opened and the policy and regulatory framework grudgingly adjusted to the reality that technologies that were once the exclusive — and jealously guarded — province of governments were inexorably seeping into the private sector. A backlash came near the end of the decade when the U.S. Congress, motivated by politically fueled allegations that China was using technology acquired in the process of launching Western satellites to improve its military missiles, cracked down on exports of U.S. space technology, a move that sent a chill throughout the industry whose effects were news fodder for more than a decade.
This of course did nothing to halt the advance of China’s space program: Over the past 15 years it has grown into one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated. Of symbolic note, China today has its own space station and, unlike the United States, an independent astronaut launching capability.
Other countries advanced dramatically as well. India sent a probe to the Moon in 2008 and followed that up in 2014 with a Mars orbiter that arrived within the same week as NASA’s latest visitor to the now much-explored red planet. Just a short while later, the European Space Agency once again captured the world’s attention with humankind’s first landing of a spacecraft on a comet.
Meanwhile, technology’s march has spawned a whole new generation of entrepreneurial space companies looking for gold in places where so many before them found bankruptcy. Whether these new companies enjoy an extended place in SpaceNews coverage or disappear as quickly as they arose remains to be seen.
Time and technology have inevitably changed SpaceNews as well. In its early years, it was strictly a weekly, and as such occasionally was scooped by the dailies. Even in the early days of widespread Internet access, SpaceNews clung to the notion that a story on the Web somehow carried less gravitas than one in the paper and was thus reluctant to scoop itself.
No more. Today’s SpaceNews is not so much a newspaper as it is a multimedia outfit that embraces and takes full advantage of the Internet’s immediacy.
What hasn’t changed is SpaceNews’ mission to provide the most accurate, timely and comprehensive coverage of the events, people and policies that affect this industry, whatever shape and direction it takes in the years ahead. Hopefully the publication and its mission will continue well after the current members of the editorial staff have moved on.
Warren Ferster joined SpaceNews as national affairs reporter in 1994. He has been the editor since 2008.