Keith Cowing is hunched over a computer in his home office typing away. NASA coffee mugs are neatly lined up on a bookshelf, there are a half-dozen darkened computer monitors on various tables, and a dorm room-worthy cutaway diagram of the Starship Enterprise (The Next Generation-era) takes up prime real-estate on his wall. Today, he’s suspicious. If he knows NASA like he thinks he does, these hackers are bluffing.
With his TV blasting CNN in the background (as it always is) Cowing googles around a bit before finding just what he’d expected. He calls up some NASA insiders to confirm that his findings are indeed true, then click. Cowing hits publish. In big blue letters, the latest headline reads:
“Did Someone Hack NASA’s Evil Drones? Answer: No.”
His coffee is cold. Inside his suburban Washington, D.C. home that also doubles as the headquarters for NASA Watch, a voracious space agency watchdog, he tweets out his headline and goes for a walk.
Cowing was the first to call AnonSec on its bluff, although NASA had already denied the hacks. Two days later in an email, he offers an update to Inverse: “And I also just shot another hole in that NASA drone hacker story.” A few hours later, in our phone interview, Cowing reiterated how he had just “kicked the knees out from under” the hackers: “I just embarrassed a few hackers. Sorry.”
Cowing, 60, long ago a NASA employee, brings an authority to his coverage that’s decidedly outsider in its approach: At the slightest whiff of bullshit, he’ll post about it. He’s a thorn in the side of not only NASA, but also any agency — like, for instance, the National Science Foundation, he sees as screwing up. It’s great.
He’s even taken Beyoncé to task, asking her to apologize for including an audio sample from the seconds before the Challenger exploded in her song “XO.”
“This choice of historic and solemn audio is inappropriate in the extreme. The choice is little different than taking Walter Cronkite’s words to viewers announcing the death of President Kennedy or 911 calls from the World Trade Center attack and using them for shock value in a pop tune,” he said in 2013 about the sample.
As impolite as it may be, NASA Watch is a place frequented by space geeks, respected scientists, science journalists, and even NASA officials for authentic information, or some part of it. Its aggressive mission statement is right there at the top of every page, yelling at you a little, to pay attention:
“This is not a NASA Website. You might learn something. It’s YOUR space agency. Get involved. Take it back. Make it work — for YOU.”
The website isn’t pretty, and it’s not meant to be. “Its primary purpose is functionality,” Marc Boucher, co-founder of SpaceRef, tells Inverse. “The actual look and feel has been slightly modified over time, but it’s similar to Day 1.”
It looks pretty 1990s, which makes sense, because Cowing started NASA Watch 20 years ago this April.
Back then, he was obsessed with the emerging internet and pissed off at NASA. He coded the site by hand when HTML was something considered far more sophisticated than today, when it’s taught in elementary school. Cowing was revealing insider information about NASA live online before most people knew what online meant. What started as just a hobby has grown into a company that includes its, let’s say, more refined sister publication, Spaceref.com.
As far as NASA Watch’s profits go, Cowing and Boucher won’t say how much the company makes. “The company revenue is modest and, like others in the publishing world, has seen revenue affected by events such as the global financial crisis and changing revenue models,” Boucher writes in an email. “We’ve never charged a subscription fee for our online services and don’t plan to at this time. We are continuously looking for new revenue streams so that we can expand our covering and grow as a business.” In short, NASA Watch provides enough money to support the salaries of its two employees — Cowing and Boucher.
Despite the small staff, the website pushes out content daily, and a lot of it. While traffic isn’t astronomical — it averages about 120,000 visits a month, according to SimilarWeb — it has a small but influential audience of NASA employees, policy makers, and the requisite amount of fellow space geeks. Recent headlines include: “Never Ask NASA a Simple Question,” “Space Advocates Think a Movie Will Send Humans to Mars. If Only.,” and “Complaints about NASA Banning Someone’s First Name” which is “Jesus,” by the way.
Cowing is a lightning rod, says science writer and astrophysicist Ethan Siegel.
“I can’t speak for everyone in the community, but I follow NASA Watch on Twitter, although I’ve considered blocking him multiple times, and I know many who have both blocked him and have felt harassed (verbally, not sexually or physically) by him,” Siegel writes in an email. “But there is often useful information about timetables and schedules of NASA missions, and that is why I follow him.”
And when Cowing criticized the Johnson Space Center for organizing a team building exercise around shooting guns the day after the 2013 Navy Yard shooting in D.C., Rand Simberg, author of space blog Transterrestrial Musings, bit back, calling Cowing hoplophobic, or afraid of weapons, but a useful source of information. Simberg writes to Inverse in an email: “Keith provides a useful service in exposing a lot of NASA chicanery, but he can personally be very prickly.
“To be honest, and I’m not saying they don’t exist, [but] I don’t know anyone who loves him. Maybe his cats.”
These types of scuffles, to Cowing, are “junior high sort of stuff,” yet owns up to having his share of detractors. “I assume 50 percent or more don’t care for what I do … a lot of people who read my stuff would be terrified to be seen talking to me in public,” he tells me. “Everybody is critical of me, to be honest.”
For the most part, It’s not what Cowing says that bothers people; it’s how he says it. The polarization around his online persona is likely due to the website’s balance of solid watchdoggery and irreverent, sometimes abrasive commentary, that even for non-space nerds, is highly entertaining stuff.
Of course, more than just Cowing’s cats love him. And he appears to be far from the crusty cliche of a blogger: While dangling from a cliff with one hand, he met his wife while rock climbing at Great Falls, Virginia in 1992. Cowing spent a month living with astronaut Scott Parazynski at Everest Base Camp in 2009. “I had moon rocks in my pocket. Now they’re up on the International Space Station.”
“The weirdest thing I’ve ever done? Sitting at Everest Base Camp with a piece of Apollo 11 moon rocks in a little piece of plastic, holding them up to the sky and eclipsing the moon at 18,000 feet,” he says.
Cowing tells me he’s appeared on television more times than he can count, and he captured an avalanche at Everest with phone footage many others have used over the years.
“Once a day I get a sanity check,” Cowing says. “The people in the space agency at NASA are the smartest people on Earth. If they don’t think something is useful, they won’t take the time to read it.”
He adds, “I also try to be juvenile and entertaining as much as I can.”
Professionally, Cowing claims to be an astrobiologist on his website, cowing.com, but he’s transparent about his qualifications. He’s a general biologist with a master’s degree, who is totally psyched about space. He moved to D.C. in 1986 to work for a nonprofit group conducting peer reviews and advising NASA on what research to pursue.
NASA brought him on board in 1990 as a civil servant and involved him in the design of the experiment hardware for Space Station Freedom, which would later transition into part of the International Space Station. The events that transpired during this time would bring about the birth of NASA Watch. “The seeds of what I’m doing now were actually born at NASA,” Cowing says.
Cowing resigned from NASA in 1994 and went back to nonprofits for a couple years. On April 1, 1996, he launched NASA Watch and never looked back.
“I left NASA the day the internet started to become something that people started to think of,” Cowing says. He bought books such as The Whole Internet and What Is the Internet? Cowing, like others early to the game, totally obsessed over the worldwide web.
In 1996, Cowing moved into his two-bedroom condo just outside of D.C. He made the front bedroom his office and connected his Macintosh Classic II to an Integrated Service Digital Network (ISDN) phone line. He put the server in his bedroom and claims it was so loud that he could hear when people visited the site in the middle of the night. As people logged on, “the Earth’s rotation would wake me up. It was my moment of planetary zen,” Cowing says.
High-speed ISDN lines enabled the dot-com era, revolutionized the internet and jumpstarted Cowing’s path to becoming the Drudge Report for space.
Meanwhile, over at NASA, Cowing still had friends who were members of the NASA’s STS-69, or Dog Crew II. According to Cowing, they fed him a information about NASA — innocent dog jokes at first. He put up an unauthorized website about the shuttle mission, and NASA’s radar zeroed in on Cowing. Before long, his NASA acquaintances would pass along more troubling information: rumors of mass layoffs. Cowing, still sour about the state of NASA since his resignation in 1994, was ready to write about it.
From 1992 to 2001, Daniel Goldin was Administrator of NASA. During Goldin’s tenure, he cut NASA’s civil service workforce by a third, the headquarters civil service workforce by more than half, and flensed $40 billion from budgets. Goldin decreased human spaceflight funding by 10 percent and increased funding for science and aerospace technology.
According to NASA, the National Journal noted that some thought of Goldin as “a brilliant visionary who brought NASA back from the brink of a black hole,” but Cowing would disagree. He was not happy with Goldin’s “faster, better, cheaper” approach and aggressive reform policies. “If you try to make everything faster, better, cheaper, it will break. That’s what was happening,” Cowing says, and the record points to why. Mishaps between 1991 and 1995 included the Prospector rocket, which carried science experiments and veered off course, and the Titan IV rocket, believed to be carrying a military spy satellite, which exploded after liftoff. Mistakes have always been a part of space flight; but looking solely at missions involving Mars, failures dominated from 1988 to 2001.
A child of the Apollo era, Cowing had seen Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969, and when the promise of reaching Mars in 1981 fell through, he became more critical. Even with today’s accelerated Mission to Mars, Cowing is disappointed with the setbacks: “This really blows. I’m going to be 80 years old when we land on Mars. I could have been in my 20s.”
Perhaps the cuts in human space travel were the tipping point for Cowing, or maybe it was the rumors of the layoffs (although NASA says the budget cuts didn’t result in layoffs) that would soon occupy his inbox. A few months after working on the STS-69 Dog Crew II site, Cowing says that three sources tipped him off about a corporate memo stating something along the lines of “there’s a value to fear as a tool in corporate downsizing.” (This claim was never verified.)
Cowing started reporting on NASA’s layoffs, and published his work on a website he called NASARIFWatch.com, “RIF” being short for government lingo, “reduction-in-force.” Cowing spent three hours a day working on the site. Eventually the layoffs stopped, but Cowing soldiered ahead. “I’d become addicted to pontificating about things at NASA,” he says. He took the word RIF out of the website and NASAWatch.com became a full-time job.
Within a year of NASARIF, Cowing met his business partner, Marc Boucher at the first convention of the Mars Society, an advocacy group whose slogan is “The time has come to go to Mars.” Boucher is the sensible Canadian yin to Cowing’s bellicose American yang. If anything could hold them together across international borders for the next two decades, it would be their shared obsession with humans on Mars, and the internet.
The interconnectivity that the web provided blew Boucher’s mind. “I just got hooked on it,” he says.
When the two forces combined, they added a less-opinionated news website, SpaceRef.com, to their portfolio. Boucher, the SpaceRef CEO, handles business and SpaceRef, and Cowing continues to ruffle feathers, eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week, on NASA Watch.
In the early days of NASA Watch, Cowing took advantage of the fact that no one else was really reporting online. His edge was that he could update information live, when print publications couldn’t. NASA didn’t even have a website back then, and to share documents, he would take photos, scan them, and upload the documents onto his page. NASA Watch had no income and no editor. At first, NASA didn’t take him seriously. “One day there will be 10 websites like mine,” he remembers telling them.
At some point, he got recognition as a journalist: “If I’m not the first, I was one of the very first online internet journalist to get media accreditation from a federal agency,” he says.
But why not?
Because Cowing was loud and adamant — and he didn’t want to just talk smack about NASA. “I would much rather report on a probe that worked than one that blew up,” he says. But, at the time, he believed that NASA was broken and thought shining light on their wrongdoings and critiquing policy would fix it. “Twenty years later, it hasn’t changed that much,” he says. He calls his tactics “tough love,” and thinks that if he pointed out only the bad, his credibility would suffer.
Today, Cowing takes pride in working with other journalists to get to the bottom of what’s going on at NASA. He joins forces at press conferences and aggregates stories from other news agencies on his website. He puts just enough information to entice his audience to visit these other stories, but not before adding “a few snarky comments” to lure them into reading his own.
“A third of my life I’ve been this online cyber-pest. After a while you sort of shake your head and say, ‘Isn’t there something else to be doing?’”
NASA Watch will turn 20 on April 1. “It should move out of the house and get a job,” he says.
Cowing wakes up every morning around 8 and dresses suitably for his daily walks. He makes coffee and goes to work for a couple hours before breaking for lunch and walks, an act of intentional disconnection. He brings his iPhone for music, he says, and on rare occasions, he’ll give out his number to double task interviews.
Cowing’s back at work until dinner, listening in on news conferences online, typing up commentary, tweeting like a madman. After dinner he’s back at it until 10 p.m.: “There is still news being made in Asia, and some people in Europe are just waking up.” Occasionally, he’ll appear on TV or radio (He was on NPR’s Morning Edition on February 4, discussing the Orion spacecraft.)
Cowing has worked from home like this every day since the beginning of NASA Watch, and he has no immediate plans of stopping. “I got told today that some NASA folks are very happy that I was able to do research on this supposed hack of NASA drones, and I was able to reveal that it didn’t happen.”
When the site no longer serves a purpose, he’ll send it out to get a job. But for now, there are plenty of wrongs to call out, plenty of contrary opinions to interject, and as long as someone’s reading his work, Cowing will keep on nagging.
“After 20 years, I’m still somewhat uncertain why I continue to do this, other than to say ‘It’s what I do,’” he says. “I wish I could be a little more profound.”
In the meantime, Cowing, webmaster of NASA Watch, king of space snark, dreams of going to Mars.
“I’d get a rocket in a heartbeat,” he says. But it’s unclear whether he ever will: “I will have to check with my wife.”
Photos via Keith Cowing, Dylan Love