A Week Of Milestones For Spaceflight

11:37 minutes

A rocket launches into the sky from a launch base in Florida.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft aboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on June 5, 2024. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

This has been a week of milestones for human spaceflight. After years of delays, Boeing’s Starliner capsule, carrying astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, successfully launched Wednesday on the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. On Thursday, it docked with the International Space Station.

Also on Thursday, SpaceX’s Starship rocket made its first successful launch and reentry after three previous attempts (the massive rocket burned up in the atmosphere on the last launch). And on a more sobering note, NASA announced that its famous 34-year-old Hubble Space Telescope is experiencing issues with its gyroscopes and is opting to only use one for the time being. The agency says Hubble can still do science, but less efficiently than it once could.

Maggie Koerth, science writer and editorial lead for Carbon Plan, joins Ira to discuss those and other top stories in science this week, including why the viral Joro spider you may have seen online does not pose a threat to humans, how a virus that’s spreading due to deforestation in South America could overwhelm local healthcare, and why the FDA voted against the medical use of MDMA.

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Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: It was a big week of milestones for spaceflight. We saw successful notable launches from both Boeing and SpaceX within a day of each other. So what does this all say about this current moment and about the future of space travel? Here to tell us about those launches and other science news from this week is Maggie Koerth, science writer and editorial lead for CarbonPlan. Maggie, always good to have you.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Thank you so much. Always good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s start with this Boeing Starliner launch, because after years of delay, the crewed launch to the International Space Station finally happened but not without a little drama, right?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Right. That’s really been the theme of space news this week, is a little positive and also things are kind of janky at the same time. So this was a flight that was originally supposed to happen back in 2017. And the two astronauts are now safely on board the ISS, despite some technical troubles, which included helium leaking from the system that helps pressurize the capsule’s thrusters. As of Thursday, CNN was reporting that most of the leaks had been patched up and none of this posed any safety problems for the crew.

IRA FLATOW: That’s good to hear. And I know SpaceX, as I say, their Starship, they had a launch also. But that was pretty significant, too, right?

MAGGIE KOERTH: It was. So SpaceX had its own win this week. It ran a successful launch and return of Starship, the world’s most powerful rocket, for the very first time. Three earlier test launches had ended in destruction as Starship lost control or broke apart. This time, though, SpaceX was able to launch it, separate the ship from the reusable rocket booster, and land both of them safely, albeit with some re-entry damage to the ship.

IRA FLATOW: Sticking with space, let’s move let’s move to the sun a bit. We’ve got some hot sun news, starting with this amazing video that NASA captured of a failed solar flare. It was like, whoop, never mind. Tell us about that.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. Oh my gosh, it was just very cool. You got this giant, massive solar flare erupting from the sun, only to watch most of that material get sucked right back into the sun’s gravity. And this is happening in the context of a really interesting time period that we are in because right now, the sun is at a peak of activity in its 11-year cycle. And that peak is turning out to be way more active than anyone had predicted it would be. So this is why you got that massive Aurora light show back in May, which I got to go see, and it was incredibly cool.

IRA FLATOW: Lucky you.

MAGGIE KOERTH: I know. I’m very pleased with myself. But these auroras are caused by these bursts of charged particles. They get ejected from the sun. They travel through space. They crash into our atmosphere. And they emit these colored lights with every collision. So the storm of particles that struck the Earth in May was the biggest since 2003. And researchers told Science News that more storms like this could happen through the end of the year and maybe even into the early months of 2025.


MAGGIE KOERTH: And this solar ejection was kind of part of that ongoing activity. But it also kind of demonstrates how hard it is to predict which of these solar ejections are going to turn into intense auras until they’re already speeding towards Earth.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to some early human news this week, starting with a discovery of how the woolly rhinoceros went extinct 10,000 years ago. Now, there’s something to talk about.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. So this is a beast that could grow to more than 6 and 1/2 feet tall. It had a 3 foot long horn, but they went extinct after the last Ice Age. And many scientists had believed that those rhinos were a victim of climate change. But it turns out there’s reason to think their demise was more complicated than that. Researchers from Australia’s University of Adelaide ran a computer model with both climate and likely points of human-rhino contact kind of added in. And over the course of tens of thousands of iterations, they found one that matched what we know from archeological and DNA evidence and basically came to the conclusion that the rhinos’ demise was the result of both climate change and human hunters.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, hunting. Who would have thunk that? Obviously, they did.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, well, and it’s also something that has come up. We know that humans had a lot of responsibility for the demise of the megafauna.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of the same thing, an ancient human body called Otzi the Iceman has been studied for a while, and scientists have gotten some new insight on that. Tell us about that.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, so Otzi is Earth’s favorite frozen mummy. And back in 2012, scientists had analyzed the iceman’s genome. But there were these oddities in it that didn’t make a lot of sense with what we know about things like various population movements from other data. So now, it turns out that original study had been contaminated with modern DNA. And they’ve done a new analysis that removes that.

And it’s found some really interesting details about Otzi. One of them is male pattern baldness. But also, it turns out Otzi was not a white guy. The skin on that mummy is dark. But scientists had always chalked that up to the effects of being frozen in ice for more than 5,000 years. This genetic evidence, however, says he was just always brown. And that makes sense with other recent research that suggests the genes for pale skin tones did not become prevalent in Europe until somewhere between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago.

IRA FLATOW: Boy, that is very interesting. Speaking of interesting, there was an interesting story this week about a town in California that decided not to move ahead with a controversial geoengineering plan. Tell us about that.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, so back in March, researchers from the University of Washington began testing this device that was meant to spray liquefied salt in a fine cloud of particles off the deck of a retired aircraft carrier. The researchers hoped to find out whether spraying this salt solution into the clouds has the potential to make clouds brighter, reflecting sunlight away from the surface of the Earth and counteracting climate change with cooling. It was basically meant to see whether the sprayer would still work, regardless of the weather. But the city of Alameda halted that experiment really quickly, and officials voted this week to not allow the experiment to continue at all.

IRA FLATOW: So the city of Alameda didn’t want to have anything to do with that?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, yeah. There were several reports, including one produced by the city itself, that found the experiment was not dangerous. But the city’s decision wasn’t really about that single experiment. It’s part of this ongoing debate about geoengineering research, whether it should happen at all, what the risks are, what role the public should play in deciding when and how it happens. And if you read quotes from the city officials, the decision to stop the experiment really kind of just sounds like a choice of noping out of those complexities.

IRA FLATOW: And some people had issues with how the scientists communicated this, right?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. Yeah. There’s definitely an element about the science communication here as well. The scientists didn’t need permits to do this experiment, so they had not been in contact with the city. But the officials then felt like that was a big lack of transparency, and it contributed to their decision. The mayor told Politico that she actually only learned about the experiment from reading about it in The New York Times.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s not how you want to learn about something in your own town.

MAGGIE KOERTH: It was probably kind of startling.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s go down to South America because there’s an unforeseen health consequence of deforestation. Is that right?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, oropouche virus. It’s a tropical disease spread by these tiny insects called biting midges. It’s usually a fairly mild thing. You get a headache, body pain, nausea. But it can produce some serious side effects, like brain inflammation too. Usually, though, nobody gets it outside the Amazon Basin. But this year, that has changed, and there are cases turning up as far away as Cuba.

And scientists are really chalking this up to a combination of factors, including warming climate that’s expanding the midges’ range, increased human travel in and out of the Amazon Basin, and deforestation that’s pushing the virus’s host animals into cities and towns. It’s no surprise, really, that the spread of this virus has been on the rise for about a decade. But scientists are really raising the alarm now because of the way that spread creates these new opportunities for mutation. And the potential of overwhelming local health care systems?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, another consequence of deforestation that no one thought about in advance. Let’s move back to the US for a moment. The FDA this week voted against the medicinal use of MDMA. Tell us about that.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, this FDA advisory panel, they voted overwhelmingly to not recommend the approval of MDMA as a therapeutic drug, particularly for issues like PTSD. The drug, which is also known as ecstasy, was the backbone of this big recent push to test psychedelics as treatments for mental health disorders. But the panel found that the data submitted to it was weak and didn’t demonstrate efficacy or safety.

There’s a lot of pressure on the FDA right now to approve MDMA for therapeutic use, and that’s coming from the public. It’s coming from some scientists. But there’s really been some issues in this research. There was sexual misconduct by a therapist involved in one of the studies. There were allegations that participants in one of the phase III trials were being pressured not to report negative outcomes. And the participants could also pretty easily guess whether or not they’d been given the actual drug or the placebo. And that’s something that the panel was also concerned could color the results that they and their therapists reported.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Yeah. Finally, we have to clear up this story that’s been making the rounds this week in my social media feeds about this very colorful, but kind of scary-looking invasive spider, called the Joro spider. It’s not as harmful as it looks, right?

MAGGIE KOERTH: It is a 3-inch long venomous spider. But experts who have definitely not been paid off by big venomous spiders say there’s nothing we need to worry about.

IRA FLATOW: Well, the real threat lies where? It’s an invasive species, right, that could harm–


IRA FLATOW: –other stuff but not us.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Exactly. This is not a personal risk.


MAGGIE KOERTH: They are freaked out by us. Their venom can’t really hurt humans. At most, you’re talking about a slight itch. But existentially, Joro spiders do give us plenty to worry about. They’re one of these invasive species. And they’re a highly noticeable one that is drawing attention to the damage these can do to ecosystems, from crops and trees to native animals.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Maggie, we’re always happy when you invade our ear space, so thank you for taking time to be with us today.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Maggie Koerth, science writer and editorial lead for CarbonPlan.

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