A New Astronaut Class Begins The Journey To The Stars

7:07 minutes

NASA’s 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class. The 12 candidates are Zena Cardman, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Jasmin Moghbeli, U.S. Navy Lt. Jonny Kim, U.S. Army Maj. Francisco “Frank” Rubio, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Dominick, Warren “Woody” Hoburg, Robb Kulin, U.S. Navy Lt. Kayla Barron, Bob Hines, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Raja Chari, Loral O’Hara and Jessica Watkins. Credits: NASA/Robert Markowitz

It’s been a busy few weeks where news is concerned. Maybe you’ve been looking forward to summer vacation and a chance to get away from it all. Well, this week NASA announced its new class of astronauts: a dozen individuals who will be in training for eventual spaceflight and a chance to really get away from it all. The 12 were chosen from a pool of more than 18,000 applicants. Sophie Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science, jois Ira to talk about who they are and what’s in store for the class. She’ll also share some other stories from the week in science, including a study investigating how different types of bread affect aspects of health; research into canines’ sense of equity; and work looking at the health effects of sleeping in on the weekend.

[How astronaut Leland Melvin went from the NFL to the International Space Station]

Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Well, summertime is just around the corner, maybe time to get away. And I mean, really get away. This week, NASA announced this new class of astronauts, who will be training for eventual spaceflight, and a chance to really get away from it all. Joining me now to talk about their selections and other short subjects in science is Sophie Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science. Welcome back.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: First, congratulations to your team, Popular Sci, for winners of this year’s Sci-Fi Trivia contest.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: We were very excited to win.

IRA FLATOW: It was a lot of fun, wasn’t it?


IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s talk about these lucky dozen people who were chosen.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right, so NASA announced their new class. And they had a record number of applicants. Out of more than 18,000 applicants, only 12 are new astronauts. That means they had a 0.05% chance of making it.

And their list of accomplishments is really staggering. So the new class includes five women and seven men. And some of them are decorated members of the military. Others have been doing research. Some are doctors. Some have a combination of all three. It’s just– if you ever start feeling pretty good about what you’ve done with your life, just don’t read what these astronauts have been up to. Because you’ll just feel bad.

IRA FLATOW: Oh yeah, they all have the right stuff. So what happens next? What kind of training do they go through? How many years?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They’re going to go through a couple of years of training. They get to go into the pool, where they get to practice being weightless. They get to train in flying different types of spacecraft. They get to practice learning about the systems that they would be using on the International Space Station. And I mean, it’s possible that the people who are in this class could, if NASA meets its highest goals, they could be going to Mars, even, if that’s in the books coming up.

IRA FLATOW: Mars, yeah.


IRA FLATOW: I think people would sign up for that.


IRA FLATOW: Because they had a record number of applications, didn’t they?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, they had 18,000 applicants. Before this, the greatest number of applicants they had was 8,000. So they just smashed that record.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. All right, let’s move on to another story. There’s a study out this week about bread.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: Not money, but the kind you eat, bread.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah. Yeah, the delicious kind. I mean, because we’re used to thinking about white bread is unhealthy, and wheat bread is healthy. So researchers fed a group– it was a small group, just a starter study, really– of 20 people. They fed them either whole wheat sourdough bread or white bread for a period of weeks. And then they let their bodies recover, and reversed it, so they could see how the same people responded to the diet.

And then they looked at how their blood sugar spiked in response. And they found that even though you might expect that your blood sugar would spike more in response to white bread, that was only true for about half the participants. Some of the participants actually had a higher blood sugar spike in response to the wheat bread, which is a kind of counter-intuitive result.

IRA FLATOW: But we don’t know anything about how it affects your microbiome.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, they think that the microbiome might be causing that difference, that some people might have stomach microbes that respond better to white bread, and others that respond better to wheat bread.

IRA FLATOW: This is a very small study, though, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. this was about 20 people.

IRA FLATOW: Over two weeks.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, over two weeks on one bread, and then two weeks on another bread. So I think it’s an intriguing result, but it’s one that I’d hope that we’d see a follow up study with a larger group of participants.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because usually, there are thousands of people on six months to a year or more.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right, in comparison, this is tiny. But I think that something that’s– and another thing to bear in mind is not only is it tiny, but they were looking at one aspect of health, at how your blood sugar response to bread. But in the larger picture, wheat bread isn’t just how it affects your blood sugar, it’s that it has more fiber, and it has more vitamins. And don’t go out and buy up all the Wonder Bread, and just say you’re on a diet. Not yet.

IRA FLATOW: I’m still sticking with the whole grains. Now, you have a story about equality between dogs and wolves. They have this thing about equality?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Dogs and wolves care about fairness. So this is actually a really cool study from a wolf center in Vienna. They had both dogs and wolves. You’d put two of the animals together, they’d be partners. And they were trained to push a button and get a treat in response.

So the options for treats were they’d get no treat and the partner got a treat, or they would get one quality treat, and the partner would get a nicer treat. So maybe the subject dog gets kibble, but its partner gets meat. And in response, they stopped playing the game. They were like–

IRA FLATOW: The dogs did.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: The dogs stopped playing. And they said you know what? If I’m not getting the same as my partner, we’re not going to participate. And actually, the same thing happened with wolves, which is really interesting. Because this means dogs didn’t get their sense of fairness from us. They could have inherited it from their wolf ancestors. But it’s not that we trained them to care about what’s fair and what’s not.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I remember a story a few years ago about chimpanzees. It was sort of the same thing.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Caring about–

IRA FLATOW: Do you remember that?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: –fair treatment? No.

IRA FLATOW: No, well, they had some chimps, and they gave one chimp a little bit of something, and the other one they gave it a beautiful grape. Maybe it was a cucumber versus a grape. And the chimp started saying, hey, I’m not doing anything until I get that grape, you know?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. Yeah, this is definitely the same idea, that you treat us fairly, or we’re not going to play ball.

IRA FLATOW: That’s right. Well, at least it’s consistency. And there’s something that could affect our weekend plans, sleep. [INAUDIBLE] talking about sleep.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. We love talking about like, I’m going to catch up on sleep this weekend. I’m going to sleep in. A recent study actually looked at that, and said, well, for every extra hour you sleep in on the weekend, it increases your odds of heart disease by about 11%. And the problem with this result is that that’s a correlation.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean that sleeping in is causing the heart disease. It could be that if you’re the kind of person who is staying up really late on a weekend, maybe you’re drinking, or smoking, or having a bunch of junk food, then you’re also probably going to have health problems as a result of that. And you’re also probably going to be the kind of person who sleeps in later the next day.

IRA FLATOW: Was this another one of these large studies, or a tiny little study?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This was a large study. And I think that one of the things it does show is something that we’ve already known, that when you sleep in on the weekends, you mess up your circadian rhythms. So if you get up at the same time every day, week in and week– sorry, during weekdays and on weekends, then your body clock will get you ready to wake up around that same time. Whereas if you break the pattern by sleeping in on weekends and getting up early on weekdays, then when Monday rolls around, you’re going to be really tired, because your body’s not ready to wake you up.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, they say keep your pattern during the weekend also–


IRA FLATOW: –the same time.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, that’s the goal. That’s the best way for you to make sure you get a good night’s sleep.

IRA FLATOW: Sure, that’s what everybody does.



IRA FLATOW: All right, Sophie. Thanks for taking time to be with us today. Sophie Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science.

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