NASA’s Massive Rocket Finally Launches To The Moon
Early Wednesday morning the Artemis 1 mission launched, the first integrated flight test of NASA’s Space Launch System—a massive rocket that NASA hopes will enable an eventual lunar landing. The uncrewed launch was a long time coming. Elements of the program have been under development for over a decade. If all goes according to plan, a second Artemis flight—this time, with crew—will take place in 2024, with a crewed lunar landing in 2025.
Another component of the program, a tiny spacecraft called Capstone, entered into lunar orbit several days prior to Artemis. It will test a complicated orbit planned for a potential lunar space station called Gateway, which would serve as a way station for astronauts moving between Earth and the Moon.
Ira talks with Jim Free, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, and Brendan Byrne, space reporter for WMFE and host of the Are We There Yet podcast, about the test flight and what lies ahead for the Artemis program.
Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.
Brendan Byrne is a space reporter for WMFE and host of “Are We There Yet?” in Orlando, Florida.
Jim Free is the Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development at NASA.
IRA FLATOW: The planet just hit a big milestone this week, a world population of 8 billion people. 100 years ago, we weren’t even at two billion, and now we’ve quadrupled that. Here with the details and other science news of the week is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American based in New York. Sophie, so good to see you again.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You, too.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about this. How much of that population growth has happened in recent decades? I ask because I remember from my ecology 101 course that population does not go in a straight line.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. It hasn’t been a linear increase.
IRA FLATOW: Right.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Once it starts growing, it starts growing faster and faster, although it does look like the rate of growth is going to start slowing down now. So especially earlier in the 20th century, we had a lot of improvements in public health and in medicine, and so a lot of this increase in population is because people who would otherwise have died in childhood of diseases that were spread through unhygienic waste management practices or through childhood diseases that we now have vaccines for, they were surviving childhood. And so that was increasing the population. And at the same time, fertility rates weren’t necessarily dropping in proportion to that, so that’s why the population has just kept going up.
IRA FLATOW: How do they know it’s 8 billion? Do they count every single– they don’t count every single person, right?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That would take a really long time and a big effort. No, they’ve got models, and according to the latest most updated UN models, 8 billion was hit roughly Tuesday of this week.
IRA FLATOW: Roughly Tuesday.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Roughly Tuesday.
IRA FLATOW: Give or take a few hours.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, exactly.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about something serious COP27, the climate conference taking place in Egypt. As we talked about it last week, there hasn’t been much progress on the climate front, but there was some, right.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. There has been more movement to grant funds to more impoverished countries that already have some electricity but they’re using coal or other fossil fuels to fuel that electricity. And so the idea is this funding is going to them to help them transition to more green sources of energy, to renewable energy.
IRA FLATOW: Are these the poorest countries we’re talking about, or are they left in the dust again as they–
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: The poorest countries are, again, left in the dust, and this is a problem. So countries– there’s been funds for countries like Indonesia and India to help them transition from coal to greener sources of electricity, but countries like Somalia, which already many people who live in Somalia don’t even have access to electricity, they’re not producing these greenhouse gas emissions. And yet they’re suffering some of the worst effects of climate change with drought and lack of water, and they just don’t have the same funds available to them that these other countries do.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so if you’re a poor country and you aren’t moving towards renewables, no matter how small your carbon footprint is, you’re just sort of left out.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. There’s been some talk of maybe eventually getting funds to these countries, but for a lot of the people who are living there, that’s just– vague future promises aren’t enough. A lot of people have already been displaced and had to just leave because they can’t support themselves. They can’t live there.
IRA FLATOW: And climate change is making people move, too.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. Climate change is driving a lot of migration in a lot of countries where they’re suffering the worst effects of climate change, despite contributing the least to it.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, speaking of carbon footprint, let’s talk a bit about clean energy. There’s a plan in the works that is quite literally out of this world, and that’s putting solar panels in space. This is something– not a new idea, is it?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This idea– yeah, it dates back to the ’60s.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And the problem was in the ’60s the idea of putting a solar panel up in space was just not technologically feasible, but we’re starting to have the technology for it. And so this old idea is being revisited because, if you put a solar panel on the ground, it’s not going to have 24/7 access to the sun because it’s not daylight all the time. And then there’s clouds that come and cover it up, so it’s not as consistent. If you take that solar panel, put it on a satellite in orbit, you all of a sudden have more access to that solar energy, and you can actually use microwaves to beam the energy from space back down to Earth.
IRA FLATOW: Wouldn’t you have to be careful not to fly into that beam?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: [LAUGHS] Oh, yeah, there would be a lot of logistics to be worked out. That’s– so despite that, I think it sounds quite complicated, but there’s multiple different groups that are currently working to make this happen in the US, in the UK, in Europe, Japan, China. All of these places, there’s researchers working on pilot projects and estimates on how to make this type of thing happen on Earth but also possibly on the moon.
IRA FLATOW: What, you mean putting the panels on the moon or just when you’re on the moon you need your electricity.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: When you’re on the moon. So the Artemis program for NASA, they want to send humans back to the moon, and if they want to set up installations on the moon’s surface, where are those installations going to get power from? There’s some suggestion that they might be able to put a satellite in orbit around the moon and have that be gathering solar power for some of the installations on–
IRA FLATOW: And here on Earth– yeah, I’m sorry. Here on Earth, you could make power available to off-grid communities, too, right?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly. So if you’re not someplace where there’s an energy infrastructure connecting you to the grid, you could still get access to energy that’s beamed down from orbit.
IRA FLATOW: Well, as you say, we’ve been talking about this for decades.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right.
IRA FLATOW: Is there any movement on it to actually make it real? So
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: One initiative in the UK is saying that, in 2030, they’re hoping to launch a pilot, an orbiter that will be a proof of concept for what they hope would become a whole fleet of satellites gathering solar energy.
IRA FLATOW: 2030. Wow, I’ll have to wait for that. I hope it’s not one of these things that’s always 10 years away.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: [LAUGHS] That’s also a possibility.
IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s move on to something more down to Earth and happening right now. There’s news that mental health apps, mental health apps, are keeping your data– are not keeping your data as safe as you think. What’s going on there?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So news broke that an app that ran a crisis hotline was actually recording that, and then they claimed they were anonymized– this was a non for profit, but then they were passing off this data, which they claimed had been anonymized so people couldn’t be identified from it, but then they were sending it to– a for-profit branch of that was connected with them and using it to train AI models. So the idea wasn’t that they were necessarily going to be publishing this data, but they were using it.
IRA FLATOW: It’s valuable because they’re selling it, if you sell it.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly. Exactly. So the problem is it– there wasn’t necessarily an outside party checking on their work and being like, are you sure it says anonymous as you think it should be? And the other thing is just when people call a crisis hotline, they’re in crisis. Some people are at their lowest moment. They don’t necessarily want that information to be saved, let alone to be used and made money off of.
IRA FLATOW: So the goal here was, what, to train AI with the data that people have.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly. There’s been a lot of push for AIs that will identify emotions, that could maybe pinpoint when someone is in crisis or having a mental break, or AI that is just better at customer service, AI that can detect how the person on the other end of the line is feeling and to respond to calm them down if they get upset, for instance. So this is a field that a lot of companies are investing a lot of money in, and they need data to train all of their AI models.
IRA FLATOW: So where is the model currently falling short? Where are the regulations falling short, in what area?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So direct-to-consumer software like this isn’t necessarily covered by HIPAA, which is the act that prevents a doctor from talking about your personal medical information with your neighbor. So there’s not regulations in place, necessarily, but there has been and suggestions that maybe certain government regulators should be looking into this.
And then there’s also a push for the people who are developing this technology to have a step in your process where you consider, is it possible for the data that we’re using to be deanonymized, and how can we protect it? Or take another step and say, how is this model going to be used? Could it be– if it identifies that someone’s in crisis, could it be used to automatically trigger a wellness check? What is going to happen to people if your AI thinks that they’re in trouble? What are you going to be–
IRA FLATOW: Interesting.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: –doing with that information?
IRA FLATOW: Very interesting. Let’s talk about the holidays. They’re just around the corner, and if you’re like me, you’re thinking about food.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I am.
IRA FLATOW: Now, I know that there’s a new study that gives us a sneak peek into what the earliest cooking looked like. Tell us about that.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. For some early humans, it wasn’t turkey on the menu, but it was fish.
IRA FLATOW: Fish.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So there’s an archeological site that is looking at the remains of human– early human ancestors, possibly Homo erectus, from 780,000 years ago. And they found remains that suggest that– they found these teeth from a fish, and based on the fact that they found teeth but not bones, they think this fish has been cooked. Cooking makes bones softer, and so they’re more likely to break down and not remain in the archeological record. But teeth are a little sturdier, so they stay behind.
IRA FLATOW: So that they figured they were eating fish. Did they find old dishes piled up in the sink?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They did find stone tools, but those weren’t necessarily what was being used to cook the fish. Their evidence for this was the fish remains, and also they studied these leftover fish teeth. And based on crystals in the tooth enamel, they determined that these weren’t just eaten, and then the remains tossed in a fire to discard them. They think they were at a lower temperature, so high enough to cook them but not high enough to suggest they were just tossed in a fire.
IRA FLATOW: So they used tools, then, to cook them.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Probably. They could have been laid near the main source of heat to make it hot enough to cook and eat it.
IRA FLATOW: Just like we do on the campfire.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Our cuisine has come a very long way, and we started here with grilled fish, as you say. And now, tadum, drum roll, we have lab-grown meat. What’s new on that front? It’s moving forward, isn’t it?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. The FDA has approved lab-grown chicken for the first time, and so at first, this is going to be available at a restaurant in San Francisco, I believe. But eventually, they’re hoping that it’ll be available to a broader range of people.
IRA FLATOW: Is it a whole chicken? Does the chicken grow like different parts, or is it just the breast or the wing or something?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s just the specific meat, so yeah, this chicken starts as cells. And then the cells are in a bioreactor, and they’re fed a slurry that encourages them to multiply. And so they– you’re just going to get meat. You’re not going to get a drumstick, for instance.
IRA FLATOW: Do we know what it tastes like?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I would guess that it tastes like chicken.
IRA FLATOW: There you go.
We have chicken that tastes like chicken. And how far along are we? When can I order this in my restaurant? Is it out there yet?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I think the big obstacle here isn’t necessarily going to be availability but probably price. So for instance, in Singapore, you can already– if you want to go take a trip to Singapore, you can buy lab-grown chicken there already. The problem is it’s expensive, so it’s likely that some of the companies that are making lab-grown meat are going to start by mixing their high-tech meat with a plant-based meat substitute so that the price won’t be too out of range.
IRA FLATOW: Sophie, always great to have you, and you bring such great stories for us. Thank you for taking time to be with us today, and happy holidays to you.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Happy holidays. Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Sophie Bushwick is technology editor at Scientific American.