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Covering rocket blastoffs with an iPhone

Kenneth Chang, INYT, Nov 26 2017, 22:39 IST

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Kenneth Chang, who covers space for The New York Times, discussed the tech he's using.

What has stood out about how tech in the space race has changed in recent years?

The fundamentals of rocket science have not changed in the last 50 years. We don't have "Star Trek" transporter beams. We don't have antigravity. We don't have electromagnetic rail guns. We don't have space elevators. To escape the planet, it's still the explosive churning of fuel and oxygen, igniting the mixture and blowing the exhaust out of the engine nozzle.

Tech moguls like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are now involved in the space industry. Do you give the edge to Bezos or Musk and why?

The innovation in the space business has occurred in the business side. Take Musk's SpaceX. His company's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule offer, more or less, the same capabilities as the decades-old Russian Soyuz. What Musk did was figure out how to build and launch the rockets at a lower cost. I like to joke that SpaceX is the Southwest Airlines of the rocket industry.

In the last couple of years, SpaceX has also accomplished something new and different: landing the booster stage of a Falcon 9, refurbishing it and launching it again. That has the potential for huge cost savings if rockets are not being thrown away after one flight.

Bezos' rocket company, Blue Origin, has a similar approach toward reusable rockets. Blue Origin has not yet finished its New Glenn rocket, which will take payloads to orbit, but it has been testing and launching a smaller vehicle, known as New Shepard, that will take space tourists on a short up-and-down ride to the edge of space.

Do you have a favourite space app or a piece of technology for covering space?

I don't use any space-specific apps. But the interconnectedness of everything today is awesome.

Early one morning a few years ago, I interviewed astronauts on the International Space Station while sitting at my kitchen counter. Just oldfangled technology: a landline telephone. But it's something that I wouldn't have imagined possible 20 years ago. It's easier than ever to connect Point A to Point B even when Point B is 250 miles up, speeding at 17,000 mph.

Rocket launches are routinely webstreamed now. And I can watch a launch on my phone while going to pick up my family at the airport, as I did this month when the latest cargo rocket, an Orbital ATK Antares rocket, headed to the space station. SpaceX has gotten really good at showing video from its rockets, even the boosters descending back to Earth.

That all makes it easier to cover space without going anywhere. The downside is not being at launches. Space shuttle launches were Earth-rattling.

Back on Earth, how do you keep on top of the space industry? Are there publications or websites that you routinely turn to?

Jeff Foust at SpaceNews somehow manages to do four things simultaneously (tweet, respond to tweets, file his story, ask questions). When Elon Musk did a Reddit AMA ("Ask Me Anything"), instead of wading through the AMA, I took a glance at Jeff's Twitter feed to see if there were any big revelations. There weren't.

Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society presents wonderfully insightful dives into the latest data from NASA's planetary probes. Eric Berger, a former Houston Chronicle space reporter, has been freed from the chains of shrinking newspapers and is now at the Ars Technica website. He has his ear to the ground for D.C. whisperings of space policy, and he has great yarns, too. Among the many other reporters worth mentioning: William Harwood, Robert Pearlman, Miriam Kramer, Loren Grush, Lee Billings, Nadia Drake and Marcia Smith.

Two similar-sounding websites - spaceflightnow.com and nasaspaceflight.com - are ones I turn to often.

Outside work, what tech product are you currently obsessed with using in your daily life and why?

I guess I'm not obsessed with the iPhone X. I just returned it, even though I had gotten up at 2:45 a.m. to order it at the moment it went on sale and then received it a week later on the first day it was available.

Gorgeous phone. Gorgeous screen. Great camera. FaceID works really well (except when I was lying in bed). I found the new gestures easy to learn. It worked great. But with a case, it was wider than I liked. I decided I preferred the smaller iPhone SE. It wasn't worth $1,000 for something I merely liked quite a bit.

Once upon a time, I used a microrecorder for capturing interviews and lectures. Then I used an iPod with a microphone attachment. Now it's all on my phone.

What could be better about your iPhone?

Maybe Apple will cram the guts of the X into the body of the SE with an all-screen front. Here's hoping.

However, the quick pace of change in tech makes it hard to maintain a functional work flow. It's the curse of app rot. I've cycled through several voice memo apps. The one that Apple provides works fine, except it's inconvenient to get the recordings off the phone.

I found a different app that worked well; then it didn't work as well. I found another app I really liked. Then it started losing entire interviews, and that was unacceptable. I am currently using Just Press Record, which works across the Mac, iPhone and Apple Watch and stores the recordings in iCloud, so it's easy to get at them wherever I am. I'm hoping the developer won't lose interest in it anytime soon.

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