Podcasts are all the rage. In 2006, just 11 percent of Americans aged 12 or older said they had ever listened to a podcast, but that number grew to 36 percent as of last year, according to data from Edison Research. This increase has been fueled in part by the rise of brilliant investigative podcasts, such as Serial or In the Dark, as well as podcasts from mainstream media like The Daily at The New York Times.
At Ars, we love podcasts (we even have one; it’s a podcast on TV). And as the format has become more popular, more people have been inspired to start shows, leading to a lot of specialization even in my area of interest—space. I’ve listened to many podcasts related to astronomy and spaceflight over the last decade, and today I’m sharing some of my favorites to help others with similar interests. Please note, this is far, far from a comprehensive list. There are many other excellent ones, I am sure; the following shows are simply ones that I regularly listen to and enjoy.
Of all the podcasts on this list, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk Radio is probably the one most readers are familiar with (it ranks 44th on the chart of top iTunes podcasts). The show is an amalgamation of interviews and discussions with celebrity guests (i.e. Bill Nye) about science, as well as shows in which deGrasse Tyson—who styles himself “your personal astrophysicist”—answers astronomy questions on the fly from listeners. DeGrasse Tyson is an extremely gifted scientific communicator, and as he often pairs himself with a comic, the show often contains some great humor as well. If there’s a downside, it’s that our personal astrophysicist is a little too in love with his own brilliance, and if you’re listening with kids you have to watch for occasional digressions into sex or off-color humor.
Produced by two British space enthusiasts, Matthew Russell and Jamie Franklin, the basic format has the two hosts riffing on the week in space news. They describe their show as putting the “ace” into space, and this gives you a good idea of the pair’s sense of humor, which is often quite on the mark. The show also features guest interviews, both from experts in the field as well as some people from out of left field, including a recent two-part series in which they invited a Moon hoaxer to present his evidence that NASA faked the Moon landings. The resulting shows were interesting in that they laid bare the absolute utter lack of evidence for this, even from an “expert” in the field. This show is good fun.
If Star Talk Radio is all about bringing on celebrity scientists to talk about popular science, Spacepod is much more geared toward those more purely interested in science. Hosted by California Institute of Technology asteroid scientist Carrie Nugent, the podcast’s format is straightforward—Nugent introduces her guest astronomer, they share a drink of some kind of often off-the-wall beverage, and then they spend the next half hour or so discussing the guest’s research. For example, you might spend 30 minutes learning all about Cepheid Variable stars, and why they’re important to astronomers. This podcast is highly recommended for those who are interested in astronomy and the front lines of modern research.
Of all my interests in space, one of the greatest lies in space policy—the politics underlying what rockets and spacecraft are getting built, and how NASA and the private sector plans to use them. It’s a messy, complicated, but endlessly fascinating topic. It’s also one that Anthony Colangelo’s Main Engine Cut Off podcast handles deftly. Anthony’s show is a mix of monologues from the host, occasional interviews, and news assessments. He focuses a lot on space hardware and the politics behind spaceflight, and I often pick up ideas or insight that I hadn’t considered before. I also like the fact that Colangelo is realistic about spaceflight, and he views hype from both the government and industry with due skepticism. (Disclaimer: I’ve appeared on this podcast once).
This is a specialized podcast, as you might imagine, that focuses on the exploration of Mars—both by robots and eventually humans. Hosted by Jake Robins, a Mars enthusiast, the show commonly features interviews with scientists who are studying various aspects of Mars, from missions already on the red planet (such as the Curiosity rover) to the kinds of habitats humans might live in there (ice house, anyone?) While I personally am skeptical that humans will visit Mars any time soon, I wholeheartedly support the kinds of thoughtful discussions about how we might get there, what we might do there, and the psychology of living on another world.
The Space Show has been around so long—it began in 2001—that is predates the advent of “podcasting” by several years. Originally a radio show that was also streamed over the Internet, Dr. David Livingston has now produced more than 2,900 episodes, featuring a number of high profile guests including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Freeman Dyson, Pete Worden, STS-135 astronaut Sandy Magnus, and many more. These are long shows, often running two hours, allowing for an in-depth discussion of the issues and taking questions from guests listening in real time. (Disclaimer: I’ve appeared on this show twice).