The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Launch magazine
Launch magazine is in danger of becoming the latest space publication to fail.

Launch abort

One of my weaknesses is that I buy too many magazines, which then have a tendency to pile up unread. In fact, I go through a sort of withdrawal syndrome if I don’t drop into a bookstore to peruse their newsstand at least once a week. A couple of months ago I noticed that Launch magazine was missing from my local Barnes and Noble, which has a very impressive magazine rack. Considering that Launch was always reliably there before, and the much less American and more obscure Spaceflight was still showing up, this was an early warning sign.

Recently, Launch’s publishers posted the following online:

But now we are caught up in an extremely difficult economy, not only for the nation at large, but very specifically in the publishing industry. These are truly tough times. To that extent, we regret that we have no choice but to place LAUNCH on a hiatus of at least two months. We would like to stress that we are not closing the magazine. We have invested too much, and we still believe the nation needs a magazine like LAUNCH. We also are very mindful that many of you have supported us from the very beginning and that you care about it as much as we do. We are very thankful for all that you have done for us…

We are aware there have been major distribution problems with the December issue of LAUNCH (our last issue until we come out of this hiatus) and we are working to resolve that now. We will be back in touch very soon.

Thank you,

Mark Mayfield and Deborah Martin
Owners of LAUNCH Magazine

Alas, I saw this one coming. Launch is (was?) a nicely-produced, slick magazine whose overall layout and photo and print quality was too good to survive. Space magazines are rare for a reason: there are not a lot of people interested in buying them. So a new one aiming for a broader audience than traditional space enthusiasts (i.e. National Space Society members) naturally faces a difficult challenge. A new magazine with expensive production values is at an even greater disadvantage. Like restaurants, there is a high failure rate for new magazines: something like three fourths of them fail within the first two years. Add to that an economy that has been spiraling down for the past two years. Launch’s problems are no surprise.

Yes, we can blame the economy. We can also blame publishing costs. Technology has changed a lot in two decades, including printing technology, making it possible for anybody with a few hundred dollars worth of equipment and software to produce a color printed newsletter. But glossy paper costs money. Color pages costs money. And distribution costs money. So does paying ink-stained wretches to produce copy, photographers to snap pictures, and editors to put everything together and fix the grammar.

Space magazines are rare for a reason: there are not a lot of people interested in buying them.

There may have been another problem facing Launch: its target audience. Launch was aiming at three groups: space enthusiasts, amateur rocket enthusiasts, and “future space tourists.” The problem is that two of these groups are already covered by other space magazines. Space enthusiasts have a number of outlets, including the NSS’s Ad Astra, the expensive trade publications Aviation Week and Space Technology and Space News, and several foreign magazines, most notably Spaceflight (although the best publication remains Russia’s Novosti Kosmonavtiki). Amateur rocket enthusiasts have Sport Rocketry and Extreme Rocketry magazines.

That left the “future space tourists.” Now the NewSpace community has convinced itself, based upon a couple of data points, a few anecdotes, and a great deal of faith, that this is a potentially huge population, although not until the suborbital rockets start flying will we know just how huge it will be. But it’s safe to say that while there may be many future space tourists, the number who are interested now in becoming future space tourists is influenced by what is actually happening now—and the simple fact is that while the enthusiastic boosters of NewSpace have been jumping up and down like caffeinated toddlers for a decade now, nobody is currently earning their astronaut certificate by buying a ticket on a tourist flight. Back when Launch was, well, preparing for launch, the publishers probably hoped that by 2008 they would be able to put the faces of famous flown space tourists—like John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie—on their cover. But as the day for the debut of paying tourists kept slipping, Launch was in the position of publishing articles about what might happen. Someday. Hopefully soon. Maybe.

There is already evidence that tying a magazine to a launch schedule is risky. During the 1980s and into the 1990s there were several publications, not always concurrent, that used to focus upon space shuttle launches. Their primary market was tourists who traveled to Cape Canaveral to see a launch. The magazines, which were essentially based upon the mission press kits, served as souvenir books and were sold at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center and even at small stores in Titusville and Cocoa Beach. However, the shuttle flight rate dropped dramatically during the 1990s and, while it was possible to keep such a publication afloat if there were six or seven launches a year, it was much more difficult to do it if there were only four flights a year—they produced one for Columbia and then had nothing else to sell for over two years. And along came the Internet that made it much easier to get information on the flights. The launch magazines vanished.

Yes, the Internet. Any space publication trying to gain the interest of “future space tourists” has to face the fact that the net is already clogged with NewSpace websites. There’s no shortage of bloggers covering this subject, representing a broad spectrum of opinion ranging from blue to violet (NewSpace good/NASA bad). But whereas diversity is rare in the NewSpace blogosphere (try to find a critical analysis of SpaceX’s business strategy, I dare you), all of these free websites meant that Launch had to find something truly unique to distinguish itself that people would pay for. But space is already a niche market, NewSpace even more of a niche market, and there’s only so far that you can cram yourself into a crevice before your circulation is restricted.

There wasn’t really anything distinctive about Launch’s NewSpace coverage. Its publishing schedule meant that any new information on space tourism was months old by the time it appeared in the magazine, and there’s nothing that Launch could offer that was truly exclusive in this area. They did publish a great cover story in early 2008 about the new Saturn V exhibit in Huntsville. However, that’s not a NewSpace story and could have easily appeared in half a dozen other magazines. In addition, some of their editorial choices seemed rather odd. Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham had a regular column that he once devoted to a diatribe against global warming theories. Cunningham is not a climate scientist, the last time I checked, and anybody interested in climate change skepticism can listen to Rush Limbaugh and doesn’t need an astronaut.

A hard-nosed general news editor—Peter Parker or Clark Kent’s bosses, for instance—would probably snort at all of this pontificating. The answer doesn’t require 1,000 words; it can be fit into a headline. What’s happening is the same thing plaguing magazines in general. Newsweek and Time are suffering the same fate. Blame it on the net. Blame it on the fact that amateurs may not be great writers, but at least they’re free. And blame it on the fact that our brains are being rewired to absorb the printed word in small doses, 24 hours a day. (Two thirds of the people reading this article quit after the first paragraph.)

Blame it on the net. Blame it on the fact that amateurs may not be great writers, but at least they’re free. And blame it on the fact that our brains are being rewired to absorb the printed word in small doses, 24 hours a day.

My hope is that Launch is able to come back, but the hiatus of “at least two months” is not inspiring. A lot of space magazines have folded in the past couple of decades. A quick glance at my bookshelves reveals a bunch of them. There was Space, and Interavia Space Markets. There was Space World. There was also Launchspace, and Final Frontier, and Satellite Technology and Space Digest. There were numerous other expensive, small circulation space publications like Space Business News, Military Space, and others whose names I forget (Space Commerce?) that have long since vanished and probably do not even exist in libraries anymore (if you have a collection that you’d like to donate, my suggestion would be to try the NASA History Office). It would be a shame if Launch suffered the same fate as so many rockets, blowing up soon after leaving the pad.