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NSRC 2023

President George W. Bush
By the time President Bush announced the new exploration initiative at NASA Headquarters, the trillion-dollar price tag was already being widely publicized. (credit: White House)

Whispers in the echo chamber

<< page 1: the birth of a number

The echo chamber

The January 8 Recer article in the Associated Press proved to have a major impact on later press reporting. Recer’s story was widely distributed, appearing in dozens of newspapers across the country, such as the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. Over the next several weeks, numerous articles by other reporters quoted the $1 trillion figure, usually for a human mission to Mars. Some of them attributed the number to the Associated Press and some did not, but nearly all had clearly gotten the number from Recer’s article. Many of them stated that a single Mars expedition alone would cost $1 trillion, whereas others later stated that this was the overall cost estimate for the entire space exploration plan.

But something else often happened. One of the problems that alert reporters should have noticed with Recer’s original article was that he never named his source, so there was no way for other reporters to call that source and confirm the information themselves. This did not prove much of an impediment for reporters or editors, however. Because the $1 trillion cost estimate was repeated so often, even if they were uncomfortable taking the number from Recer’s piece, reporters could often quote somebody who had merely repeated the number they had read in the newspaper, therefore avoiding the problem of determining its validity. Furthermore, in at least one case it appears that sloppy editing allowed someone to invent a source for the number.

On January 9 another article by Associated Press writer Scott Lindlaw included the exact same paragraph as in the Recer article, although the rest of Lindlaw’s article was completely different. Lindlaw’s article appeared in many places, such as the website of the liberal British newspaper The Guardian. One unusual aspect of the Lindlaw article was that in addition to the paragraph that was borrowed from the earlier story by Recer, Lindlaw also mentioned “When the first President Bush proposed such a project, the estimated price tag was $400 billion to $500 billion.” Although this was accurate, it omitted the important caveat that the “project” was also only one approach to achieving the president’s goals. It also omitted the fact that there had been other, much lower cost estimates.

Lindlaw’s article also stated that former astronaut and senator John Glenn had commented on completing the International Space Station and setting exploration timetables. Glenn was never quoted directly in the article and Lindlaw did not quote Glenn concerning the cost of the exploration plan. The reference to Glenn occurred nine paragraphs after the mention of a $1 trillion cost estimate and two paragraphs after the reference to the $400-$500 billion estimate for the 1989 plan.

The association between John Glenn and the trillion-dollar figure also became part of the mythos.

By January 15, a short Associated Press article without a byline appeared on numerous websites. It stated “The first American to orbit the globe, retired Senator John Glenn, said it could cost $1 trillion.” There was only one problem with this statement—Glenn apparently never said it. The AP article appears to have been a heavily condensed version of the Scott Lindlaw article of January 9 that never attributed the cost estimate to Glenn. In the course of editing it, someone claimed that Glenn had said something he had never said.

This new AP article was extremely short and appears to have been used primarily by radio and television stations rather than the print media. It is common for radio and television stations to repeat stories that they first see in newspapers or on the news wires, usually condensed to only a few sentences. This new, shorter AP story appeared on the websites of WJAC TV in central Pennsylvania, and WCAX TV in Burlington, Vermont. On January 15 the local Washington DC Fox News affiliate, WTTG, ran a story about the Bush proposal. News anchor Allison Seymour introduced the story by saying that the Bush plan “could cost trillions.” Not “a trillion,” but “trillions.” The broadcast news story, however, did not include the word “trillion.”

The association between John Glenn and the trillion-dollar figure also became part of the mythos. The Interfaith Alliance, a religious lobbying group, issued “an open letter to President George W. Bush” on January 15. Alliance president Reverend Dr. C. Welton Gaddy and the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, Reverend Dr. Robert W. Edgar, wrote: “Former Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit our planet, and others familiar with space science estimate that it will cost in excess of $1 trillion to implement your space plan.” Presumably the people “familiar with space science” were the Associated Press reporters who had gotten the numbers wrong in the first place.

Recer’s $1 trillion cost estimate was often included in other articles. On January 9 the Seattle Times printed an article by Gwyneth K. Shaw and Michael Cabbage that repeated the number. The end of the article included a note: “Information on mission costs was provided by The Associated Press.” The next day the Times ran another article, this one based upon news service reports, that also repeated the $1 trillion figure. The same day the San Francisco Chronicle printed an article by science writer Carl T. Hall that mentioned the $1 trillion figure. The figure was also mentioned in the Hartford Courant, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Baltimore Sun. It also was repeated by foreign newspapers: by two different science reporters in the British newspaper The Telegraph, as well as the Jerusalem Post and the Glasgow Herald. An article appearing in the British newspaper The Guardian included the subheading “How George Bush could have used the money spent on the mission to Mars,” as if the $1 trillion had been spent in the preceding week.

Over the weekend the $1 trillion estimate took on more apparent legitimacy. On Sunday, January 11, “CNN Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer” had on several guests, including U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Democratic presidential candidate Senator Joseph Lieberman. Blitzer asked Evans about the cost figure. “Some estimating already this could cost a trillion dollars over 20 years,” Blitzer said, according to a CNN transcript of the program. Evans, who had no role in the space policy, did not deny the $1 trillion figure, but stated that “this program will be within a responsible fiscal budget.”

A few minutes later Blitzer asked the same question of Senator Lieberman, but did not repeat the trillion dollar figure in his question. In his reply Lieberman declared his support for the space program. “But if you asked me whether the best use of $1 trillion of American taxpayer money in the coming years is to land a mission on Mars or the Moon, I’d say no,” Lieberman added. “We need it right here on Earth to give health care that’s affordable to everybody, to improve our education system, and do better on veteran’s benefits and homeland security.”

Commerce Secretary Don Evans, who had no role in the space policy, did not deny the $1 trillion figure, but stated that “this program will be within a responsible fiscal budget.”

On January 14 the Denver Post printed an article on the new plan that stated that congressman Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, suspected the cost of the new plan would be “more along the lines of $1 trillion over 30 years.” There is no indication how Udall arrived at this figure, but he undoubtedly also got it from the AP story.

An article in the Sacramento Bee on January 14 quoted Tom Schatz, head of Citizens Against Government Waste. Schatz, according to the Bee, stated that “Cost estimates for the new program range from $550 billion to $1 trillion.” When contacted about this statement, CAGW’s media manager, Mark Carpenter, stated that Schatz’s statement was based upon several media sources, including an Associated Press article.

Flawed math repeated

In addition to reporters and editors and television commentators and even politicians repeating the inaccurate number from the Associated Press article, some critics chose to invent their own numbers. Surprisingly, they often used the same flawed math as Recer did, bringing to mind the old joke that those who fail to learn from history are probably failing algebra as well.

On January 15, for instance, Arizona Daily Star reporter Thomas Stauffer quoted a University of Arizona professor emeritus of planetary sciences “who was involved in several pre-Apollo NASA missions.” The professor, Robert G. Strom, said “The price of doing those things now is probably close to a trillion dollars when this is all over.”

When contacted via e-mail and asked about the origin of his trillion dollar estimate, Strom said that he had told the reporter that the cost would actually be between $500 billion and a trillion, but that the reporter chose the latter number. Strom also cited the 1989 cost estimate, which he remembered was around $520 billion, and adjusted for inflation at an annual rate of 3% to reach a cost of around $725 billion today.

On January 9, a liberal lobbying group, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, also took a position on the issue. Its executive director, Robert Greenstein, posted a statement about the Bush space plan on the CBPP’s website. Before the Bush plan was unveiled, Greenstein was quoted by several news sources stating that the cost of the Bush space plan would be $500 billion to $1 trillion. On January 12 he was quoted by Susan Jones of the Cybercast News Service. On January 14, he was quoted by Randall Mikkelsen in a Reuters wire article.

When contacted about the source of this estimate, CBPP Communications Director Henry Griggs admitted that the CBPP had not done any formal estimates of the cost using accepted accounting procedures for aerospace projects. Griggs stated that Greenstein got his figures from a $500 billion quote for the original Space Exploration Initiative plan in 1989, and an article by Gregg Easterbrook in The Atlantic Monthly. “It was a combination of Bush 1 and Gregg Easterbrook,” Griggs said.

An extensive search of Easterbrook’s articles in The Atlantic failed to turn up any that provided cost estimates for a Moon/Mars exploration plan. It seems more likely that Greenstein actually got his estimate from a post Easterbrook made to his Internet “weblog” on January 12 and that his memory is confused about which Easterbrook article he was referencing.

In effect, Easterbrook counted the Moon base twice without realizing it. But even when accounting for this mistake, it is difficult to understand how $600 billion plus $200 billion equals $1 trillion. Few reputable economists regularly round off by $200 billion increments.

Greenstein took the oft-misquoted $500 billion figure for the 1989 Space Exploration Initiative and “adjusted for inflation,” according to Griggs. But the cost inflator for 1989 is 1.6, meaning that a dollar in 1989 is worth $1.60 today. Using this inflation adjustment, the $500 billion figure would be $800 billion, not $1 trillion. “We never claimed to be experts on this,” Griggs stated in a phone interview when asked why their inflation adjustment was so inaccurate. Griggs also noted that Bush had not mentioned the space plan in his State of the Union Address a few days later, implying that the president had been scared away by all the criticism over the inflated cost of the plan.

Also on January 12, New Republic Editor Gregg Easterbrook reported on his website “Easterblogg” that the cost was likely to be $1 trillion. “Blogs” are relatively recent developments and do not meet even basic standards of journalism. Nevertheless, journalists often turn to them for information. Some journalists consider Easterbrook to be an expert on space policy, although many space experts have frequently found problems with Easterbrook’s commentaries on this subject.

Easterbrook makes no secret of his anti-spaceflight opinions and is often critical of NASA’s cost estimates. Easterbrook explained how he reached the $1 trillion figure on his own. Although he is critical of NASA cost estimates, he started with the 1989 estimate of $400 billion for the Space Exploration Initiative. However, Easterbrook erroneously assumed that this $400 billion was for a Mars mission alone, not for both the Moon and Mars missions. He then adjusted it for inflation, making it $600 billion. “Add in a Moon base and the price zooms toward $1 trillion!” he exclaimed. But only five paragraphs earlier Easterbrook had stated that a Moon base would cost $200 billion, which he determined by taking what he claimed to be the cost of the International Space Station—$100 billion—and doubling it to $200 billion. By explaining his math, Easterbrook also explained his mistakes. In effect, he counted the Moon base twice without realizing it. But even when accounting for this mistake, it is difficult to understand how $600 billion plus $200 billion equals $1 trillion. Few reputable economists regularly round off by $200 billion increments.

Easterbrook revised his argument slightly for the February 2 issue of The New Republic, but still repeated the faulty math of counting the lunar base cost twice in his calculations. Unlike many of the other articles, Easterbrook at least made it easy to debunk his mathematics. In addition to his explicit mistakes, he also demonstrated a bias that was probably at work for many other writers—the tendency to assume that any number they were given was low and therefore inflate it even further, often rounding up to the next significant figure. They often distrusted the validity of the numbers, but never chose to actually examine the numbers, instead choosing the simpler route of adding zeroes to them.

page 3: the new space vision >>