Today, NASA Watch, the website that unabashedly critiques the U.S. space agency, turns 20 years old, and its founder Keith Cowing says they’ll keep making “fun of NASA given an opportunity to do so.” The site is respected (and resented, as Cowing will be the first to admit he is a thorn in many people’s sides) by space fanatics, scientists, journalists, and NASA officials.
The site boldly states along the heading of each page that “This is not a NASA Website. YOUR space agency. Get involved. Take it back. Make it work — for YOU.” Cowing, based in Washington, D.C., continues to stand by this motto, hoping that the information and opinions on the site gives deeper context and holds those in power accountable. When Inverse caught up with Cowing, he reasoned that if he didn’t come up with NASA Watch, someone else would have.
“You know how they say that nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe if I did shut [the site] off, a new NASA Watch 2.0 would suddenly pop up somewhere,” Cowing told Inverse. “It could be an interesting experiment if I could do an alternate universe.”
A lot has changed since Cowing founded NASA Watch in 1996. Its first iteration was actually called NASA RIF Watch, “RIF” standing for “Reduction in Force,” or as Cowing explains, “is the government’s way of saying we’re going to fire you.” He had just left NASA after helping design the experiment hardware for the Space Station Freedom — a piece that would eventually become part of the International Space Station — when he got word that NASA was going to have a huge layoff.
“I just thought that was stupid and uncalled for,” he says, so he created the site as a one-time project to shed light on the issue.
However, Cowing didn’t realize how much people needed the site, fans saying they couldn’t live without it. NASA RIF Watch was shortened to NASA Watch, with Cowing later expanding out to a second less-opinionated news site SpaceRef.com, which he built with his business partner Marc Boucher. Cowing’s NASA blogging business became “like an in-law that moves in and won’t leave.”
Cowing’s day-to-day schedule working NASA Watch has changed significantly over the 20 years. When he first started, he’d just sit alone in front of his Macintosh Classic II in the bedroom of his condo outside of D.C. and type out HTML. Now, he works, on average, some 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Whenever he live tweets about something NASA is doing, like the NASA advisory council teleconference, he gets hordes of text messages, emails, and phone calls.
NASA Watch has accumulated more than 365,000 followers over all its social media accounts, and even Space.com has tried to buy the site off of Cowing. Still, Cowing says he’s “just some guy in his basement who’s doing the internet.”
While the website’s throwback layout looks like it’s been frozen since its inception in 1996, Cowing changes the way they deliver information to readers every 15 months. Cowing, who recently turned 60, has been playing around with Snapchat lately, believing that it may be a good tool to reach an audience that doesn’t read NASA Watch. But other than finding new modes to communicate his analysis of NASA’s latest plans to send humans back into space or build space habitats, Cowing doesn’t expect NASA Watch will be getting any dramatic changes.
“As far as the future, it won’t be fancy or flashy,” Cowing says. “I think it’ll just be useful.”