“Politics Has Nothing To Do With Space Exploration” – Debate (Wear Safety Goggles)

Space + Politics = Can of worms
Space + Politics = Can of worms

Today has been a strange day. Last night was much like any other. I wrote a fairly innocuous article for the Universe Today, about a contractor who allegedly ripped off NASA with faulty goods. I went to bed.

But then I woke up this morning to find a proverbial can of worms ripped open all over my little online world.

When I wrote the NASA article, I was keen to point out the legal proceedings were far from over and I wanted to get as many of the facts into the text as possible. It turns out the 60 year-old contractor could be going to jail for 15 years and face $500,000 in fines, so this is no laughing matter.

However, I flexed my blogging rights and added a little levity to the proceedings with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour. The humour wasn’t directed at the chap going through the legal system in Houston, it was an article opener I thought would be a fun read… I was wrong.

So here is the opening paragraph. As innocent as it might seem from first glance, it would appear I managed to ignite a frenzy of anger from my otherwise calm space enthusiast readers:

It would appear that even NASA suffers from common infliction of shoddy contractors. Have you ever hired a plumber to find the leaking got worse? Have you hired a landscaping company who accidentally ripped up your prize hydrangeas? Have you purchased a ‘passive flight releasable attachment mechanism interface plate’ only to find it had been damaged just before you attached it to your spaceship? Well, you’ve probably hired a dodgy plumber (possibly called Joe) or an unreliable gardener at some point, but these contractor problems pale into insignificance when compared with the life-or-death products sub-contractors produce for the US space agency.”
– By me, “Man Facing 15 Year Jail Term for Ripping Off NASA, Endangering Shuttle Crew

Did you see it? Were there three words in the paragraph that made you feel outraged? If you did, then you were in good company, you should have joined the party earlier!

It turns out that a few people disliked me bringing up a certain plumber called “Joe”.

Here’s a selection of responses I received (plus my thoughts):

I thought that I was reading science. Why is Joe considered to be a dodgy plumber? What evidence do you have? NONE!” (OK, my fault, I didn’t know I was writing about science.)

That is why I voted against Obama – because I am a capitalist not a socialist.” (This argument gets funnier and more stupid every time I read it.)

Do not speak rudely against Joe, a man with a serious question who got persecuted by the press and the democrats. He does not deserve your ridicule. He did or said nothing to deserve your rude comment in this article.” (Rude? Besides, didn’t the Republican ticket use Joe as ammunition against Obama first? I think they mighta.)

Funny Ian’s comment wasn’t, just ignorant. Ian, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” (Ignorant? I appear to be in great company.)

as soon as I read the Joe the plummer “joke” I quit reading and will avoid reading anything by Ian O’Neill from now on. I want to learn new space stuff, not read more left wing smear campaigning.” (What did I smear?)

Right on target, people. Ian, you should be ashamed of yourself. But if I know my left-wingers, he won’t be.” (I must be a “left-winger” then…)

Have you ever written something to be read in public without checking for mistakes? Idiot.” (My favourite so far.)

Own up to your mistake and stick to the science. I look forward to more good science reporting from you – devoid of politics, of course.” (Now we’re getting somewhere.)

If you want political jokes, take it somewhere else. Keep universetoday.com above the politics.” (Boom! There it is: politics.)

I hope thats good enough for you because I’m droping universe today as of now. That was your goal right? Tip- I’d worry less about politics and more about business.” (There’s that “politics thing” again…)

And so it continued. Actually, these were the “nice” comments I received, there were also a few ogreish outbreaks that had to be deleted.

So what did I do so wrong? Firstly, the overwhelming reaction was from individuals peeved that Barack Obama had become president, and there are a few who are very keen to point out that I am a “left-winger”. So I have to assume the majority are angry Republicans wanting to vent. Fair enough, I regard it as part of the blogging service I provide if people want to get down and nasty in the comment boxes under my articles. Yes, there were a few personal attacks on me, but I got over it with a quick flick of my scroll button.

I suppose I should have realised that by bringing up Joe as a half-hearted attempt at a joke might have pissed some people off. But at the time I was more concerned about getting the article online.

I decided to post a response on UT, just to make my position clear and that I was standing by my words, and by the looks of things I lost one reader to my outrageous reporting skills. That particular reader actually provided me with a bit of humour as he slammed his laptop shut (I hope he feels a bit better now). Having said that, I also gathered quite a few comments of support, generally saying “what the hell are they going on about” (probably some more of us pesky “left-wingers”).

So what did I learn today?

1) Politics is a touchy subject.
2) Some people think politics and space are somehow independent.
3) People can be rude.
4) People can get really angry.
5) I’m a “left-winger”.
6) I’m an “idiot”.
7) Joe is innocent.
8) “Bob the Builder” inspired Obama’s “Yes we can!” slogan.

All-in-all an interesting experience I’d say. But the one problem that keeps on cropping up, whenever I write a political article, is the apparent disassociation some people seem to have with politics and space exploration.

I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m British and perhaps I have a different perspective, but space and politics are totally dependent on one another. It has been this way since the dawn of the Space Age.

Why did we go to the Moon? It wasn’t just because it was there. Why is NASA currently stimulating the private sector? It might have something to do with the chilled relations between the US and Russia. Why is the president of France urging the European Space Agency to become a politically-driven entity? Could it be because space exploration is dominated by policy written up in the White House, Number 10, the Kremlin and Brussels?

Admittedly, all this craziness stems from an off-the-cuff remark about a dodgy plumber. I’m actually happy I said it now (although this morning I wasn’t so sure), it made me realise more work needs to be done on understanding how space exploration is possible (regardless of whether you are “left” or “right”). It’s not all about images of extrasolar planets, future plans to colonize Mars or the next high-tech GPS satellite system; everything rests in the laps of non-specialists who write the cheques to the world’s space agencies. It’s up to us to know the issues and understand the system.

Simply getting a daily space news fix, then shouting at the author because he says something that goes against your political sensibilities, seems pretty lame in my books.

(I love space blogging.)

8 thoughts on ““Politics Has Nothing To Do With Space Exploration” – Debate (Wear Safety Goggles)”

  1. Being British in the US, in particular in LA, you simply have to be prepared for culture shocks and conflicts. Irony and sarcasms are generally not well understood and definitely not appreciated over the pond on the west extreme of the continent. That is my experience based on extensive exchange of cultural information. 🙂 I underline generally, because there are exceptions of course.

    Space is nothing but politics. Like you point out, it all started as politics and it still is. Also (as Sarah Palin would have said :-)) it is a military activity. In the US it is integrated as part of NASA whereas in Europe we pretend ESA is a civil organization. (As you can tell I say it isn’t…)GPS for instance is a military project and the scientists and the rest of the civil society only get a reduced product to play with.

    The science and spatial eye candy are just fringe benefits. I’m not complaining either way. 🙂

  2. I’m an old lady who’d book-marked your website.

    This will be my last stop-over.

    I’m afraid you’ve misinterpreted the angry responses about ‘Joe the Plumber’ as sore-loser ire or rabid partisanship.

    Consequently I’ve lost faith in your ability to see and report clearly.

    If you listened to Joe the plumber’s remarks to candidate Obama – you heard a reasonable man ask a a reasonable question.

    If you heard otherwise – your bias tainted your perception.

    Your defensive reaction is further evidence that your judgment is wobbly. How could you expect conservative readers to chuckle along with a lame attempt at humor that skewered an American that expressed concerns shared by many?

    Sorry, but this is goodbye.

  3. Hi Cathy,

    I’m sorry you think that way. It will be a shame to lose you.

    Actually my point above is about space exploration being a political endeavour. This is not “wobbly” judgement. Which point did I not report clearly? I’d be happy to clarify any of the points above. Also, even if I was politically motivated (which I’m not, but it looks like a lot of people have already assigned me to the “left” side), I am allowed to be biased – that is the point of blogging.

    I have no problem with Joe personally, I am reacting to the media frenzy surrounding the generic “dodgy plumber” remarks. It’s a joke that was blown out of proportion, but in-turn exposed a huge discrepancy in people’s thinking.

    The rest can be read above.

    Well, if you really don’t want any more Astroengine goodness, I can’t stop you. So good luck out there.

    Best wishes,


  4. I honestly didn’t see anything wrong with your introductory paragraph when I first read it. Nothing appeared to be amiss.

    Now that it’s been pointed out, I can kind of (just barely) see how people could conceivably be offended. But the responses, like never ever reading anything by you again, are extreme. I think those people are more biased than anything else, because you wrote something with which they didn’t agree (Oh no!) and reacted in the extreme.

    Anyway, I love reading your blog! You definitely haven’t lost a reader here.

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