Cmdr Hadfield’s cell phone bill – check your facts. Not everything you read on the internet is true, kids.

I bring guitars into space, not cell phones.

Our morning alarm is set to radio. My wife likes this one particular station that goes on with a bunch of senseless banter and plays the occasional song. I think she likes it because the content is so horrible that it forces her to get out of bed. Unfortunately, it is one of the more popular stations in our region, so its reach is quite broad. They have this one bit where they share 3 elements of what the station staff consider to be current events. They are mostly acts of yet more senseless chatter. The story seems to have been picked up elsewhere in a few limited spots around the world to date.

This morning, they had a story about how Cmdr Chris Hadfield had accidentally brought up his cell phone to the International Space Station. In the process of zooming over our heads for the past 5 months, he would have accumulated a $1,37 million bill. The anchors went on at length about how this is a sign that cell phone companies are out of control and out of their minds for their payment plans. While I agree that cell companies in North America do everything they can to suck every penny out of our pockets, this is a significant case of: “um, no.”

Let’s review the situation:

1. It costs between $5,000 and $50,000 to lift a kilo into space. Assuming that Hadfield had brought up the cell phone, say an iPhone 5 (he can afford it, he’s a fancy astronaut, after all) and a charger, that would be 150-200 grams of gear. That’s somewhere around $1,000 to $10,000 to bring that up as payload. Pretty costly mistake for a veteran space farer.

2. Cell batteries don’t last 5 months in sleep mode without charging. That means that our confused astronaut would have been re-charging the cell phone during the 5 month stint. It would have given him a chance to figure out that he hadn’t activated airplane mode, no?

3. Range: In ideal conditions with a straight line of sight, a cell phone can reach about 45 miles assuming you are using CDMA (this varies in case to case, and there are plenty of factors at play, but it’s a good figure to work with.) The cell tower antennae are configured in such a way as to optimize horizontal transmission, not vertical ones. Therefore, you get much less range straight up. The ISS orbits between 205 and 240 miles up. Additionally, our erstwhile planetary orbiter was residing in a metal tube designed to partially shield him from cosmic radiation. This would normally reduce the transmission range of any system without an antenna sticking out of said tube to 0. A co-worker of mine actually tried to get a cell phone signal in a plane once to check how high the towers do reach. There was nothing until we were between 8,000 and 10,000 feet up. Any way you cut it, there is not enough range for a cell phone to reach a cell tower. Therefore, the towers have no idea that it is zipping at high speed above them to connect and impose roaming charges.

4. A quick search on the internet shows some possible sources for the story:

Starting to make more sense.

Starting to make more sense.

Hmmm…if the people bringing us the news had checked the entry below the one they possibly used, they would have seen SPOOF. Or if they dug into the other articles at Beaverton, they would have seen that pretty much everything there is some kind of parody. I didn’t know of Beaverton until this morning, but it didn’t take long to figure out that this must me something like a Canadian version of the Onion.

What’s the moral here? Check your facts. Data is king. Many years ago, I attended a presentation by a high powered exec-type who indicated that in his experience, only about 50% of what is reported is accurate. And that relates to those stories that people are actually trying to get right. When you factor in the fact that a lot of people around the internet are making things up or tweaking things to garner attention among a sea of shouting voices, the percentage can drop dramatically. It is essential that we maintain our ability for critical thought, lest we be drawn into the limitless bounds of speculation, misdirection, and invention. One also has to wonder if the media gets this so utterly wrong, what else is being fed to us without proper fact-checking in the rush to generate listener/viewer attention?

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