Impact or Bomb? Science in the Age of Hype

Which of these two words – bomb or impact – would you put in the following blank?

On October 9, 2009 NASA’s LCROSS mission to the Moon did something expected to be dramatic. It split the LCROSS spacecraft into two pieces. One piece, bringing up the rear, would take video and monitor a second piece that went ahead. Both pieces were intended to ______ a specific crater on the Moon’s surface.

NASA, which is the reference for the scientific objectives of the mission, consistently used the word impact. The media often chose other words: “…slammed a bus-size projectile into the Moon.” (New York Times), “NASA is gearing up to crash two probes into the Moon.” (space.com). In fact, more often than not the media used bomb: “NASA’s mission to bomb the Moon” (Scientific American), “Inside NASA’s Plan to Bomb the Moon…” (Popular Mechanics).

If the media were paying attention to technical reality…bombs contain explosives. The LCROSS capsule contained no explosives. It was intended to raise Moon dust by the force of its impact, as do thousands of meteors that hit the Moon every year. Oh, and bombs are dropped or planted. LCROSS was launched; it was a science oriented spacecraft, not a bomb.

Is this nit picking? Mmmm…bomb is a stronger word than impact. It conjures violent images, mostly associated with war, or these days, terrorism. The difference between the two words is called hype. In this case while bomb is not an accurate word, it gets more attention. The cumulative effect of using words like bomb instead of impact, adds up. People become accustomed to science couched in dramatic language. In fact, if the reporting of science doesn’t use hype, it becomes seen as less interesting or not even worthwhile.

Is this happening? What do you think?

There is, in fact, a web site dontbombthemoon.com that screams (in all caps) “We feel that bombing the Moon could bring us consequences that are both psychic and physical. Disruption of cycles?” Another similar site says, “Could NASA be waging war on alien races?” Talk-show-radio had callers who complained, “…why are we always bombing places?”

NASA and some of the media went out of their way to promote the event, as if it were going to be some intense visual fireworks – you know, like blowing something up. (Hey, if you bomb something, isn’t it supposed to blow up?) Kids were called out of bed at 5AM, news cameras rolled, even President Obama praised the event. However, in your actual event, nothing but the NASA equipment impacting the Moon saw anything. Apparently what was recorded was a smash hit for science, but something of a dud for PR. In other words the build-up amounted to _______.

This was unfortunate but consistent with the dramatization of everything in this Age of Hype.

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