Jeffrey Kluger received the Perlman Award at the Joint Assembly Honors Ceremony, which was held on 25 May 2005, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Kluger was honored for his Time magazine article “The Secrets of the Rings.”
It was my pleasure to nominate Jeffrey Kluger for AGU’s David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism, for his Time magazine article “The Secrets of the Rings.” Jeffrey has been a senior writer for Time since 1997, and of the 21 cover stories and hundreds of other articles he’s written in that time, perhaps none have been richer in science, news, and drama than those that have covered NASA’s exploration of the solar system. His cover story on the Mars Pathfinder landing, his exclusive on a near-fatal Mir collision, his deadline coverage of the tragic loss of the Columbia shuttle, were all examples of breaking news made wonderfully readable. It was his coverage of the long-awaited arrival of the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn, however, that perhaps best captured both the hard science and potential lyricism of space travel. For readers accustomed to thinking of Saturn as an undifferentiated ball of gas and its rings as simple bands of spinning rubble, the story captured what a fanciful place the Saturnian system truly is and what a lode of scientific knowledge it offers. In an era in which NASA is too often seen as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, Jeffrey reminded Time readers of the extraordinary things the agency has accomplished over the decades, and what marvelous journeys still lie ahead of it. For doing that on deadline, under pressure, and in the pages of Time magazine, we happily submit his name for the David Perlman Award.
—NADINE FERBER, Time Magazine, N.Y.
It’s sometimes easy to take the idea of an interplanetary spacecraft for granted. NASA’s been throwing unmanned ships at the moons and planets for more than two generations, after all, and as a species, we’ve grown accustomed to ranging through the solar system, at least by technological proxy. It’s harder to be so blithe, however, when you’ve actually seen the ship while it’s still on Earth.
I had the opportunity to glimpse the Cassini probe in its clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory less than a year before it embarked for Saturn. Like all such ships, it was being ministered to by men and women in protective robes, booties, and hair covers, giving the place less the look of a hangar than of an operating room. The mass of material that made up the ship was decidedly earthly stuff-plastics and metals and silicon that could as easily be used in a PC or a microwave oven. But this decidedly major appliance was off on a decidedly different mission. The distance that it was destined to cover-some 800 million miles from Pasadena to the Saturnian system-already made it seem almost mystically otherworldly, even though it was still an object entirely of this world.
That Cassini indeed traveled that distance, that it arrived at Saturn in perfect condition, and that it is still in just the early stages of its years-long mission, make the chance to have seen it before it left seem that much more remarkable. As with all science journalism, however, the remarkable and the terrestrial sometimes must do battle, and Time magazine’s coverage of the Cassini triumph was no exception.
The spacecraft arrived at Saturn at a time of ferment on Earth, or at least on the small, American portion of the Earth. In the same week Cassini went into orbit, the U.S. presidential campaign was truly beginning to churn, stirred in part by the release of the movie Fahrenheit 9/11. Time had gained access to filmmaker Michael Moore, and I spent a fair amount of time fretting about whether the planet or the director would be on the cover of that week’s issue. I found the temptation to make easy jokes about which of the two great gaseous bodies was more newsworthy almost irresistible. (I felt an equal urge in the summer of 1996 when the Mars rock and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp both seemed like cover candidates, a contest, I liked to say, that turned on the neck-and-neck question of charisma.)
Ultimately, I think, Time made the right choice in both cases. The scientific stories may have been epochal ones and the political stories merely quadrennial ones, but the fact was, it was the politics that was driving the national conversation. Time’s domestic readers thus got Moore and Kemp on the covers and Mars and Saturn as inside stories, while the European readers got it the other way.
Over the long arc of time, however, well after the ephemera of politics fade from memory, I think it’s those small and startling steps humanity takes in the slow progress of science that truly linger. The AGU award is an honor that, I think, acknowledges that fact, recognizing far less what one writer has to say about the exploration of space than about that exploration itself.
—JEFFREY KLUGER, Time Magazine, N.Y.