Record Number Of People In Space At The Same Time

11:34 minutes

the international space station orbiting earth
The International Space Station. Credit: NASA

A new record in space has been broken, and it doesn’t have to do with the size of a black hole or the number of stars in a galaxy. There are currently 17 people in space, more than there have been at any one time. With the rise of privatization and China’s own space station, what does the current number of people in space tell us about the state of space science and exploration?

Plus, State Farm, the largest insurer in California, will no longer issue new new home, business, and casualty insurance policies in the state, largely due to their catastrophic losses from the effects of climate change, including wildfires and flooding from recent rainfall. Construction costs are also rising, and challenges in the reinsurance market also contributed to this decision, according to the insurer. What does the future of insurance look like in a world more directly affected by climate change?

Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox, talks this week in science news with Ira, along with stories about a new tool that will help scientists provide earlier warnings about hurricane intensity, stalls in a global plastic use treaty, and why flies are both underappreciated and at risk.

Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: A record was broken in space this week. And no, it didn’t have to do with the size of a black hole or the number of stars in the galaxy. No– there are currently 17 people in space, more than there have been at any one time.

Here to tell us more about that and other science news of the week is Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, based in Washington, D.C. Welcome back to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: OK, Umair, let’s talk about the 17 people. Who are they?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, it’s a crew of three Chinese astronauts that are heading to the Chinese Space Station, called Tiangong. And with their launch this week now, as you noted, there are 17 people in orbit across various nationalities. There are six Chinese citizens, five Americans, three Russians, two Saudis, and one Emirati astronaut.

IRA FLATOW: And why is this such a big deal?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, it shows that there’s multiple different approaches to space that are being implemented right now. First, we have this collaborative approach that we’re seeing with the International Space Station, where you have multiple countries. And then you have China’s approach, where they’re going alone to their own Space Station. And this week in their crew, this was actually their first civilian astronaut that they launched into space. Prior to this, they’ve been mainly sending members of their military. So it shows that they’re also actually investing more in the science aspect of this.

And recently, with satellites, we’re seeing a lot more interest paid attention to the commercialization of space as well.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s stick with space for a moment, or at least the upper atmosphere, because NASA held its first public meeting this week about unidentified aerial phenomenon, something we used to call UFOs. What’s the big takeaway from this?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. First of all, it’s just interesting that NASA is taking this seriously and also that they’re doing so so very publicly. For a long time, UFOs and UAPs were the realm of cranks. And they’re saying that, no, there’s actually something that we can discuss here. We want to actually have a scientific approach to this.

And one of the things that they discussed in their public meeting is they want to try to destigmatize this so people can talk about this without being thought of as somebody who’s kooky, but also to be able to scrutinize this using all of NASA’s tools and try to figure out whether there’s an innocent explanation or if there is something deeper and bigger that we don’t understand is going on.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. They always try to come up with an explanation. But there are always a tiny number of things that we see that we can’t explain, right?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. They have a database of reported sightings of mysterious objects. And they say that roughly 2% to 5% are only truly unexplainable. That doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily aliens or something paranormal. It’s just that maybe we don’t fully understand them.

But what we’ve seen in recent years, particularly since last year, is that we have started to re-scrutinize parts of our atmosphere that we weren’t looking at closely before. So that’s part of why we’re seeing a lot more sightings of some strange objects. You may recall that balloon from China that was over the US last year.


UMAIR IRFAN: So now, suddenly, everybody’s looking, and we’re seeing a lot more stuff that we didn’t know was there. But now we have to start attaching explanations to those as well.

IRA FLATOW: So are they going to then make a special effort to look for more of these unidentified things?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, the big thing is they want to come up with an approach more than a solution. They want to come up with a scientific framework for how we categorize them, what kinds of tools we use to analyze them. And then, from there, maybe we can come up with better explanations. But the first thing– the priority for this group– is to have a report to put together on just the way that we’re going to actually do this research from here on out.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s move from sky to fly. There’s a piece out in Vox this week about new research into flies– how they’re not only understudied, but also underappreciated. Tell us about that.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. My colleague Benji Jones suddenly got flies on his brain and wrote about how we actually don’t fully understand the critical role that flies play in our ecosystem.

This is actually a huge family of species all over the world– not just the house flies, but flies that do valuable things like pollinating crops, including chocolate. The vast majority of pollinators for chocolate are actually flies. But because they’re not as cute as bumblebees or as scary as mosquitoes, they’re actually very understudied. And so we may not even fully know the true number of flies that are out there and with the roles that they’re filling in our ecosystem.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. Because they’re so common, I would assume that scientists knew whole bunches of stuff about them.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. There’s this sort of security in obscurity thing– that because they’re so easy to take for granted, we try not to pay too close attention to them. But really, we’ve seen in recent years with the insect declines in nature that we may be losing a whole number of species before we even figure out what they do. And that could be dangerous and have bigger ecological impacts if we lose a critical pollinator or a fly that perhaps helps us decay a crop or some other kinds of waste in nature and breaks that cycle in nature.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We all see the common housefly, but how many other kinds of flies are there? Was that surprising to learn?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, we don’t even fully know.

IRA FLATOW: Is that right?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. Within one family, for instance, they may be upward of tens of thousands to millions of species that we don’t fully know about. And they come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them can look like bees. Some of them can look like ants. And some of them look like the common housefly. So we may not even know what we’re fully looking at when we see one.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to something that’s really interesting. And that is that State Farm, the largest insurance company in California, said it would stop issuing new home, business, and casualty insurance policies in the state because of their losses from climate change-related events. Tell us more about that. Because that’s really important, isn’t it?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. California is the largest real estate market in the country. It has some of the most valuable real estate in the country. And so it’s a juicy market for insurers. But the fact that the largest one is pulling out shows that their– they say that their business just doesn’t make sense here. And obviously, in California, we’ve seen a lot of disasters that have forced major insurance payouts, the big ones being wildfires. But this year, we also saw some pretty epic rainfall, leading to billions of in damages.

Now, State Farm didn’t specifically cite climate change. They cited mounting construction costs, the reinsurance market, and an increase in catastrophic losses. But all three of these reasons are linked to climate change. Part of the reason it’s more expensive to build is we’ve had supply chain disruptions. But also meeting new building codes that are resilient to disasters makes buildings more expensive. The increase in catastrophic losses, many of these events are worsened by climate change. And then reinsurance– reinsurance is basically insurance for insurance companies. And this market has been reacting to these massive payouts after huge hurricanes and wildfires, and they’ve been raising their rates.

So now State Farm is paying higher for its own insurance. And now they’re saying that it’s harder to balance their books, looking ahead into the future, of what we might see with average temperatures rising.

IRA FLATOW: And this is part of a trend that’s been happening for a while, right, even in other states?

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. State Farm isn’t the first company to pull out of California. And other insurers have also dropped policyholders in California. But we’ve also seen this happening in Florida, in Louisiana. A number of insurers are simply just saying, we can’t afford to keep people on our books with all the risks that are rising, and it’s going to cost us more than we make. And that’s really going to affect our business model. And in practical terms, it’s going to affect whether or not people can rebuild in the wake of a disaster. And so this is going to be a huge social and policy problem as well.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on. There’s a global treaty on plastics use, conducted by the UN, that is facing some negotiation challenges. Can you tell me what this treaty was aiming to do and what the roadblocks have been?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. So the goal of this plastics treaty is to deal with plastic pollution. This is one of the biggest environmental problems we’re facing right now. There’s so much plastic that’s leaking into our oceans right now that, if current trends continue, we’ll have more plastic in the ocean than fish by mass. That plastic then makes it into our food and then it makes it into our bodies and has untold health effects.

So obviously, this is a high priority. It’s just that countries can’t quite agree on exactly how to go about dealing with this. There’s basically two main camps. One group wants better recycling and managing the waste. And the other group wants to reduce plastics production in the very first place.

And these groups are at odds because it’s mainly fossil fuels, which is where we get most of our plastics from. And so the same countries that produce oil are also really invested in plastics. And other countries are trying to push back on them. And that’s why they’re at an impasse this week.

IRA FLATOW: So there’s an argument then. Not all the countries– there are countries at the UN that might veto this idea?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, exactly. So some of the big oil producers and plastic producers, they want to have some veto power over some of the things that are being proposed here. Because they want to make sure that they can stay in business. On the one hand, they’re also saying that they’re concerned about climate change and the world moving away from fossil fuels. And so their idea is that maybe they can shift their business model towards producing more plastics. And now they’re getting squeezed on this front as well.

But of course, the bigger problem is what’s happening to the environment. And the other countries who want to limit plastic production in the first place say that this is not really a fair way to go about things. And now, countries are trying to just hash this out.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. OK, let’s close out with the hurricane season. The hurricane season kicked off this week. And meteorologists have a new tool in their arsenal to help predict their intensity. I thought we were pretty good at predicting hurricanes.

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, we are good at predicting hurricanes in some respects. Over the past 20 years or so, we’ve developed a longer lead time for projecting where hurricanes are going to go. Previously, you would only get a good forecast about 24 hours in advance. Now, we can get those kinds of forecasts 72 hours in advance. And that buys a lot of valuable time for getting people out of harm’s way and triggering evacuations.

But scientists have struggled to anticipate intensity, particularly this phenomenon called rapid intensification. That’s where storms pick up roughly 35 miles per hour of wind speed or more in less than 24 hours. And that means that the strength of the hurricane picks up a lot and does a lot more damage very quickly. And that can surprise us. We saw that happened last year with Hurricane Ian. That ended up being one of the deadlier hurricanes we’ve seen in recent memory because we didn’t see it picking up that much steam that quickly.

But this year, scientists at NOAA say they have a new tool that they’re going to deploy to try to figure out whether they can see these rapid intensification events coming, and then also issue warnings and get people out of the way sooner.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because I remember seeing these things– these hurricanes, they blow up in the Gulf of Mexico. You have 90-degree water there. And suddenly, bam!

UMAIR IRFAN: Exactly. Hurricanes are powered by hot water. And sometimes, if the hurricane moves towards a particularly hot patch of water, there’s a lot more energy for it to absorb and build up and then dissipate through wind. And it’s hard to anticipate that. But with this tool, with these models and these forecasts, scientists hope that they can actually see this coming.

IRA FLATOW: Do we know when we’ll get that first new kind of tool prediction coming up?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, they’re aiming to deploy it this summer. So hopefully, maybe with the first tropical storms building up, they’ll have a better sign of what’s coming.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Umair, we always hear about El Nino, whether it’s here or not, having an effect on hurricanes. What’s up for this year?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, this year, NOAA is predicting what they consider a pretty average hurricane season. Obviously, the water is going to be warmer. But El Nino tends to have a disruptive effect on hurricanes. It tends to rip them apart before they form. And so with those two countervailing effects happening this year, they think that we’re going to roughly see an average number of hurricanes in the Atlantic.

IRA FLATOW: All right, Umair, always great to have you. Always good stuff you bring us.

UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

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