There are a lot of fascinating beats in journalism. Crime reporters go places most of us never would, looking to find the scoop on a heinous crime. Political reporters will spend thousands of hours following politicians’ every move on campaign trails. Environmental reporters will sift through hundreds of research studies to help us understand the science behind the world we inhabit.
Then there’s Brendan Byrne, the space reporter. Much of his beat includes conversations with scientists, engineers, and astronauts. He can tell you about every type of rocket that launches out of Kennedy Space Center.
Brendan is also the creator of the WMFE podcast Art We There Yet, a space podcast that has grown rapidly on iTunes. We spoke recently for The Reporter’s Studio about how he fell in love with all things outer space and if he would go to Mars if he had the chance.
TRS – When did you start reporting on NASA and the space industry?
Brendan Byrne – The space shuttle program ended in 2011. We really didn’t talk about space for a very long time. And in 2014, there was a special even that happened, and I covered it. That was around the same time Space X was getting big here in central Florida. And soon, other private space companies came in.
TRS – What’s happening with NASA right now since the space shuttle missions ended, and so much of what we keep hearing is about billionaires and their rockets?
Brendan Byrne – So NASA still has the International Space Station. We’ve got this international collaboration where humans have been in orbit for the past 22 years. Every six months these private companies are launching crews of NASA astronauts up to the space station. We’re seeing them go up there and then return back to Earth every six months. And that’s just the government agencies. We’ve also seen some private citizens go up. Over the summer of last year, we saw the inspiration for a mission for private citizens. It’s lead to many more human beings leave this Earth than we’ve ever seen before in the past ten years, all because of these commercial space companies.
What’s this latest story that there’s going to be an unmanned mission to the moon, but they’re sending in Alexa?
Brendan Byrne – Yeah. So Alexa is going to the Moon. But, the whole point of going to the Moon is knowing that there will be people coming right afterward. This Alexa mission is going on the next NASA mission to the Moon, Artemus One. That’s launching in the next few months here and will be an uncrewed mission. It’s going to go around the Moon and then come back. And then the next mission after that one or two people will be in the capsule, and they’ll go around the Moon and come back. Eventually, they’ll stop at a space station around the Moon, and then they’ll go down to the Moon’s surface, plant their flag, and do all the things. But to answer your question. In Artemis One, they’ve put Alexa inside the capsule. And they want to see if astronauts are flying in this capsule, if they can talk to this computer, and how will that help them stay connected back here on Earth? And how will that help them feel more connected to Earth when they’re 250,000 miles away? So it’s fascinating to see Alexa and all this stuff heading to the Moon.
TRS – I want to pull a practical joke and ask Alexa to order a pizza and see if the pizza guy goes, I’m sorry, where’s your address?
Brendan Byrne – It’s a locally distributed Alexa. So you can’t say like, hey, Alexa, send me whatever. But you can say, hey, Alexa, turn on the capsule lights, and the lights will turn on. Or you can say, hey, Alexa, how long until we have to do this burn to get us into orbit? And she’ll say, oh, it’ll be 204 seconds. So they’ve definitely catered it towards this particular mission. You can’t order a pizza on the Moon just yet, Luis.
TRS – Not yet. I know. It’s interesting when you think about it, and you can appreciate this, too; where did we see this before? Oh, yeah. There was a movie where guys were talking to a computer. Hal, do this for me. Hal, do that for me.
Brendan Byrne – I talk to the folks that have programmed this particular Alexa. And I said, have you all seen that movie? Their response? We promise you. They said, Alexa will not be able to open the pod bay doors. So at least they’re thinking about that.
TRS – You have a space podcast called Are We There Yet? The Space Exploration Podcast. When you pitched that, I mean, it seems like such a no-brainer. Was it a hard sell?
Brendan Byrne – I pitched that podcast six years ago, and it was correct when we talked about how there weren’t many space missions happening here. And I had pitched a lot of space stories to my news editor at the time, and she said we don’t have any room in the newscast for these. Why don’t you start your own podcast about all these space stories? And that’s how it started. And. I’m glad she said that.
TRS – In a short period, you have had a lot of success with it. Let’s use the metaphor like a rocket – like a rocket that thing took off, and it’s been doing really well. Congratulations. What have you learned from the audiences about the thirst for this kind of storytelling?
Brendan Byrne – I’ve learned that everybody is excited about this. This is something that I thought was just something that I was interested in. My news director was like, well, nobody’s really interested in this stuff. So I just go and pitch a podcast. And if there are people who will listen to your podcast, they’ll listen to your podcast. We launched the podcast and it was in Apple’s top ten the first week we sent it out there. I think everybody is super connected to what’s happening in space. Because we’re all really interested in our place in this world. We’re interested in where we are, where we’re going, and where we’ve been. And I think all of those questions can be answered through space exploration. And especially in Florida, there is so much happening in our own backyards. Why wouldn’t you be excited about what’s happening in your own backyard? Floridians just have it in our DNA that we are explorers, especially space explorers. The old folks like you and me are products of the space shuttle generation, and we watched those growing up. I’m sitting here in my home office in Orlando, looking out of my window. My window faces east. I can sit here and watch rockets launch when I’m reporting on other things. And that is not different for a lot of people here. Many of us have these eastward windows so we can see what’s happening in our own backyard and see these things launch. It’s so cool. We’re so lucky.
When did you fall in love with the idea of space?
Brendan Byrne – Yeah, it started early for me. In fifth grade, my class won a field trip to a space camp. But I didn’t want to go. My dad wanted to go, and he needed to get his kid to go. So we went and that was 1997. And it was awesome. It was such a great trip. And I learned so much about space because of that. I learned so much about my dad’s passion for it. The following year he died. And so I always kept that with me that he took me to space camp, and that was what he wanted me to do. I didn’t have a chance to talk to him more about that. And we watched Space Shuttle Discovery launch together. And that was a moment that I’ll always keep with me. That’s always been something that was very close. So, in middle school, I decided I was going to be an astronaut. That was, until I got to algebra and realized that wasn’t going to happen. So I ended up taking another path. Eventually, as an adult, I was able to find a way to write about this stuff and talk about it again. And I think the most extraordinary thing that ever happened was the last space shuttle or, the last human mission that launched which was a SpaceX crew Dragon mission. It was on the anniversary of my father’s death. I think he was looking down on me that day. I’m covering this and watching this mission happen in real-time and he was the one that planted that seed. I always think about what would he think about what’s happening right now? I think that he would be completely blown away by the fact that not only are there are rocket launches happening pretty much every week here, but that humans are leaving this planet every six months, which was something that he wanted to make sure that I saw when he took me up to the Kennedy Space Center. I think he’d be entirely impressed by what’s happening. I always think about every story I write and think about what my dad would say. I hope he’s proud of the stories I’m telling.