What has Happened to "News & Reviews" in The Planetary Report?

Last updated: 30 March 2000

My regular column in The Planetary Society's bimonthly magazine, which has run continuously since Volume 1 #1, last appeared in the Sept./Oct. 1999 issue. As discussed in my Sagan Medallist Address, my next column (which is reproduced at that link) was threatened with censorship by the Society's Executive Director, Louis Freidman (he gave me his reasons on Oct. 1st "why we should not print this column"). That column, written the day after Mars Climate Orbiter crashed into Mars, discussed the history of redundancy in NASA deep space missions. Concerning NASA Administrator Dan Goldin's "Faster /Better/Cheaper" approach to missions, I wrote what now seem to be prescient words: "Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far from the expensive, redundant, but too-few missions of the 70's and 80's and a new balance must be found. Certainly NASA will be wrestling with these issues in the year, and millennium, ahead."

At first, Friedman complained that I had strayed from my mandate to review books and publications, since my Mars Climate Orbiter piece "came on the heels of" my commentary (in my last published column) concerning JPL's false hyping of the scientific and technological "success" of the failed Deep Space One mission (which has been in a disoriented safing mode for many months). As readers of my column know, I commented on "News" even more than writing "Reviews" during the two-decade-long history of my column. Apparently Friedman hadn't ever noticed my column's title, "News & Reviews". Friedman apparently usurped the role of the magazine's Editor, who never once contacted me from the day I submitted the column, 24 September, until 5 November when she tersely wrote to me that the issue had gone to press and, "Your column is not in it."

In the autocratic, "success-oriented" mood of support-NASA-or-be-fired that has predominated at NASA and JPL during the 90's, even my modest questions were too much for JPL managers to handle. Louis Friedman has admitted to me that he had conversations with some high JPL officials about my Planetary Report column during the same period of time that JPL officials were pressuring my superiors at Southwest Research Institute to "shut down" my column. The Planetary Society, which had an independent spirit during Carl Sagan's presidency, has increasingly become a NASA- and JPL- cheerleading society during the last few years. A Pasadena-oriented parochialism now pervades the organization's headquarters on Catalina Avenue in Pasadena.

So I was not surprised when Friedman's threatened censorship of my article became a reality. The Nov./Dec. issue, and later ones, appeared with Friedman's expanded, sycophantic, NASA-boosting essays filling up the space left-over by my excised column. "Faster, Better, Cheaper is Still the Way" was the subtitle of a typical Friedman essay. Friedman has claimed that the Society's leadership wanted to "expand" the diversity of views expressed in The Planetary Report, but -- so far -- his actions have been to muzzle the mainstream-but-independent perspectives of their long-time columnist and substitute his own party-line views. When Chris Chyba, chair of the Society's "Editorial Advisory Board" attempted to intervene, Friedman demoted the Board, renaming it the "Science Advisory Board" and told Chyba that the Editors at the Catalina Avenue offices wanted no outside "editorial advice."

Following my Sagan Medallist talk, a junior staff-member of the Planetary Society apparently communicated to Friedman from Italy that I had, in my talk, "trashed" the Society. The text reveals that I did not, and that I actually defended the Society when a Society member in the audience questioned the Society's actions. Despite representations of others in the audience that I had not "trashed" the Society, the insular group in Pasadena continued to cite the young woman's slanderous misrepresentation of my words in Padua as justification for suspending my column.

Several months later, on February 14th, Friedman finally viewed a videotape of my Sagan Address and admitted (to me and to several colleagues who attended his viewing of it) that I had not actually trashed the Society, after all, and that the Society could live with my words. However, trying to demonstrate that he was not autocratically dictating editorial policy of the Planetary Report, Friedman abruptly, and apparently for the first time in months, deferred to (or pretended to defer to) the judgement of his editorial department. In particular, he deferred to the judgement of the very same junior Editorial Assistant who had misled him about my Sagan talk, and it was she (not the Editor, not the Associate Editor, nor Friedman himself) who wrote to me on March 9th that "I'm (sic) reluctant to agree" to a compromise that had been arranged with Friedman the previous week to continue my column for the foreseeable future.

Following this final insult -- after years of my voluntary, unpaid service as a columnist, proposal reviewer, and advisor to the Society -- I resigned as a member of the Planetary Society on March 10th. I suggest others consider their own association with this organization, which is so concerned about limiting criticism of NASA's failed policies.

Meanwhile, of course, there have been more tragedies in NASA's troubled deep space program. Following failures of Mars Climate Orbiter and Deep Space 1, Mars Polar Lander and two Deep Space 2's were lost on the surface of Mars. In an era when the WIRE mission failed catastrophically after launch a year ago, and HESSI was shaken to bits at JPL earlier this month, there is a basis for deep concern. Recently, we have heard from two expert commissions that were convened to study the Mars Program: the Young report on the Mars Program and the Casani report on the failures of MPL and DS2's. Both provide strong indictment of NASA Administrator Dan Goldin's Faster/Better/Cheaper program: the reports are replete with examples of how spacecraft teams were placed on impossibly hurried schedules with grossly inadequate resources to meet Dan Goldin's demands. Yet, curiously, the reports explicitly defend the words "Faster/Better/Cheaper," as if they were somehow disconnected from the reality of what has happened in recent years. Apparently NASA is still engaged in spin-control and will try to develop a more reliable approach to planetary exploration under the rubric of the failed F/B/C banner.

So, in spite of the flood of media and Congressional disapproval of F/B/C, we may expect Louis Friedman's Pasadena group to continue putting forward the best face possible after these tragic failures, reiterating that "Faster, Better, Cheaper is Still the Way." And while JPL has recently failed in its exploration of the Red Planet, they have finally succeeded in "shutting down" my column. It is sad in a democracy when a federal agency can issue a press release terming veteran space reporter Jim Oberg a "wacko" for his words in a UPI story about MPL's failure and when JPL, an arm of Caltech (a university recently called America's top university), can effectively suppress independent commentary about vital issues of space policy.

-- Clark R. Chapman, 30 March 2000

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