Space Tourists, Asteroids, And Anti-Satellite Tests, Oh My!

24:22 minutes

colorful cluster of stars and twinkling lights with purples, oranges, whites all swirling together
Hubble image of a “superbubble.” Credit: NASA, ESA, V. Ksoll and D. Gouliermis (Universität Heidelberg), et al.; Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America)

Space has been a busy place this year. In February, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars and embarked on its mission to collect samples, alongside the first ever helicopter to fly on the Red Planet. July and September saw the launches of billionaires, space tourists, and civilian astronauts to various elevations above the Earth. Human beings are arriving to the International Space Station via Cape Canaveral for the first time since the discontinuation of the shuttle program in 2011. In November, NASA launched a mission to test our ability to deflect dangerous asteroids. And China, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia have all continued to make their way through the solar system as well. 

But what about the continued concerns astronomers have about the steep rise and future plans for fleets of private telecommunications satellites in low Earth orbit, like SpaceX’s StarLink? Will the increasing footprint of private industry in space exploration have potential drawbacks for science? And what about that Russian anti-satellite test, which disrupted operations at the International Space Station for several days after?

Ira and a trio of star space reporters—WFME’s Brendan Byrne, Axios’ Miriam Kramer, and The Verge’s Loren Grush—round up 2021’s out-of-this-world headlines.

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Segment Guests

Brendan Byrne

Brendan Byrne is a space reporter for WMFE and host of “Are We There Yet?” in Orlando, Florida.

Miriam Kramer

Miriam Kramer is a space reporter for Axios and host of “The Next Astronauts.” She’s based in Nashville, Tennessee.

Loren Grush

Loren Grush is a space reporter at Bloomberg News. She’s based in Austin, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: And now we turn to space because 2021 has been a happening year in space exploration, experimentation, and entertainment. NASA unveiled a new mission to Venus. We’ve got another rover, Perseverance, safely onto the surface of Mars. The US sent the aptly named DART spacecraft to smash into an asteroid while Russia smashed up a satellite, spewing debris into the path of the International Space Station. And is this finally the year we see the James Webb Space Telescope launched? Stay tuned.

And then there’s all the people riding, perhaps joyriding, into space– Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, William Shatner, Mercury 13 veteran Mary Wally Funk. How about the first ever team of civilian astronauts, which orbited the Earth for three days during SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission? Not to mention the United Arab Emirates joining the Mars party with its first mission to the red planet. Who would have thunk?

Phew. Let me catch my breath after all and introduce my star-studded cast of SpaceX journalists to talk through this year’s news beyond the stratosphere. Brendan Byrne, space reporter for WMFE in Orlando, Florida. Great to have you, Brendan.

BRENDAN BYRNE: Great to be here, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Miriam Kramer, space reporter for Axios. She’s based in Nashville. Hey there, Miriam.

MIRIAM KRAMER: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. And Loren Grush, space reporter for The Verge. She joins us from Austin. Welcome back, Lauren.

LOREN GRUSH: Thanks for having me, and happy friday.

IRA FLATOW: Happy Friday. Speaking of which, let me invite all of our listeners to vote for the biggest or most important space news this year or stuff that we missed. What do you think was big in the year for space news? Give us a call, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK, or you can tweet us @scifri.

Miriam, first thing, let’s talk about people in space on commercial spacecraft. And I just went through a list of the tests and launches we saw putting people with all experience levels high above the ozone. You made a whole podcast about one of those missions, the Inspiration4 mission, from SpaceX. What made this such a groundbreaking story in your mind?

MIRIAM KRAMER: Yeah, well, so, yeah, thank you, the plug– the second season of How It Happened–

IRA FLATOW: Go right ahead.

MIRIAM KRAMER: –on Axios is all about the Inspiration4 mission. And for me, I think the thing that really caught my eye with the mission was just sort of how different it felt than many of the other crewed launches that we’ve been seeing. So the ones that get the big headlines tend to be the big NASA launches, the cosmonauts going up on Soyuz, SpaceX flying astronauts to the Space Station, but, for this one, this was a group of relatively ordinary people that were sent up to space for three days and lived in a tiny tin can all together. They were complete strangers before the mission happened, and then they went through this incredibly quick astronaut training and managed to fly and do it safely. So it was I think one of those moments where you can look at what the future of space and space flight in particular might be.

IRA FLATOW: Loren, and, on top of what Miriam’s been saying, there was a big year for space tourism. In July, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, Virgin Galactic head Richard Branson, you had various celebrities all going into space or nearly to space.



LOREN GRUSH: Yes, you’ve actually touched on a big ongoing debate within the space community. But yes, I’d actually say this is the year that probably space tourism crossed into the public mainstream more so than ever. For me and my colleagues here on the channel right now, we’ve been covering Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic for years, and they’ve always been proclaiming that their first human space flights are just around the corner, just they’ll be later this year. They’ll be later this year. And then they keep getting pushed back and pushed back.

But then, finally, this year, we actually saw them send their founders into space, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, and, obviously, they got a lot of attention because they were billionaires themselves. And it ignited a lot of conversations about whether or not these trips are worth it, whether these billionaires should be doing this with their time. It was definitely a very volatile time, I would say, for the space industry but also a really big milestone and one that we’ve been waiting for a really long time.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios talking about space travel with your questions, our number 844-724-8255. Brendan, meanwhile on the space coast, you had launches of crewed spacecraft again for the first time since the discontinuation of the shuttle program in 2011. Why is this such a big deal?

BRENDAN BYRNE: Yeah, this was a welcome addition to the space coast. We missed seeing our humans leave the planet from our backyard here, and it’s real nice now. I hate to say it– use the word routine because spaceflight definitely is not routine, but let me say spaceflight is definitely consistent now from Florida. It seems like every six months we have humans coming back or leaving this planet, and this is super important. We’re back to flying astronauts again. It’s been almost a decade between the last space shuttle launch and SpaceX’s DM mission that sent Bob and Doug, and now we’re getting every six months, crews of four, heading up to the Space Station and another crew of four coming back down. Really great to see.

IRA FLATOW: And we also had our first splashdown, didn’t we, in a long time?

BRENDAN BYRNE: Yeah, that’s right. You’ll recall, Ira, that the space shuttle landed at the space shuttle landing facility sometimes here in Florida and sometimes elsewhere. But yeah, it splashed down off the coast of Florida, and then those astronauts come back. And sometimes they go to Kennedy Space Center. Often, they head out to back to Johnson Space Center. But yeah, the capsules splashdown off of Florida, which is really cool.

IRA FLATOW: Let me invite our callers, remind them that our phone number is 844-724-8255 if you’d like to join us and talk about what your favorite space moments are. 844-SCI-TALK. We’re talking about the year in review in space with our guests, who have a lot of space knowledge– Brendan Byrne from WMFE in Orlando, Miriam Kramer from Axios, and Loren Grush from The Verge. So we have to take a break. Stay with us. We’ll be right back with lots more space talk. Stay with us.

You’re listening to Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, and we’re rounding up 2021’s space headlines with some of this out-of-world space reporters that we have going with us. They’re really from out of this world.


WMFE Orlando’s Brendan Byrne, Miriam Kramer of Axios, and Loren Brush from The Verge, our number 844-724-8255. And, as always when we talk about space, there are so many people that want to get in on the conversation. And we love that. So let’s go to Germantown, Wisconsin with “Mel-ah-key.” Is that correct?

AUDIENCE: It’s Malachi.

IRA FLATOW: Malachi, go ahead.

AUDIENCE: So I was wondering, with all these anti-satellite missile tests, at what point do we have to start actually worrying about Kessler syndrome in space debris in general?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’ve seen the movie. [LAUGHS] Yeah, let’s talk about that. The Russians, they exploded one of their satellites, did they not?

LOREN GRUSH: Yes, it was the worst Monday morning for every space reporter here.


IRA FLATOW: Fill us in.

LOREN GRUSH: Yeah, I– so essentially, what they did was they conducted an anti-satellite test, or what is known as a ASAT test, and they sent a kinetic missile to destroy one of their own satellites in orbit. And these are pretty widely condemned by the space community because it did exactly what we knew it would do. It created thousands of pieces of debris in Earth orbit. And something to keep in mind, these pieces of debris aren’t just floating up there. They’re moving at many thousands of miles per hour, and they can’t be controlled, right? So if they were to run into an active satellite, that could potentially damage or destroy a functioning satellite in orbit.

And so what our caller brings up is the Kessler syndrome, which gets batted around a lot. It’s this idea that that’s going to eventually create this cascading effect of space debris that’s just going to make low-earth orbit unusable. I’m not sure I necessarily think that’s the future we’re headed toward, but I think we are working– we’re looking at a future where we’re not sure where everything is in space all the time. We have a lot of different opinions of where everything is, and the more we add to that environment, the more confusing that becomes and harder to understand if our spacecraft is safe or not. And I think that’s the bigger concern and the future that we’re headed toward.

IRA FLATOW: Brendan, does everybody do this? I remember years ago when the Chinese blew up one of their own satellites.

BRENDAN BYRNE: Yeah, this has been done before. The Chinese have done it. India has also done it. You probably know this, Ira, but it’s not really a good idea to blow things up in space– [LAUGHS]

IRA FLATOW: You think? You think?

BRENDAN BYRNE: –as Lauren outlined the reasons for it. I think one thing that was really interesting that came out of this ASAT test was that the US largely condemned this. Russia downplayed the issue. But at a recent National Space Council meeting, the Department of Defense basically came out and said, we have to put an end to this. And that was a kind of a novel thing for someone from the DOD to say because, usually, we want to reserve these kind of weapons for ourselves or these tests for ourselves. So the fact that the US is coming out there and saying, we need to put an end to this, shows the importance of it.

And we’ve seen other leaders come out. The head of the European Space Agency recently talked about how we really do need to start getting a handle on space traffic because it could very well be an issue for not just the astronauts on the ISS but, as Loren mentioned, all these space-based assets that we have out there. Our GPS systems, our communication systems, all of that stuff could possibly be threatened by any sort of debris and especially debris that’s caused intentionally.

IRA FLATOW: Miriam, before the break, we talked about the big leaps in human space travel this year, tourists, the civilian astronauts, Florida launches with some help from space. All of this seems to me to suggest private spaceflight has really come into its own this year. Is that going to benefit the scientific community that needs access to space?

MIRIAM KRAMER: Yeah, absolutely. I think that with more providers, more folks launching like SpaceX, like whoever it might be, will get the chance to have more scientific instruments flying. There’s even talk right now of a privately-sent mission to Venus that’s working with scientists to actually figure out exactly the questions they want to answer and then using sort of an off-the-shelf satellite to try to answer them by sending it to Venus. So it’s opening up this new possible regime of exploration, scientifically and human-wise as well. But I think that it can only mean good things in many ways for science to even get in on the action, too.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, the international base station is on its last legs, so to speak. It’s been up there for quite some time. It’s not going to last forever, and NASA’s been looking for private alternatives for future space stations, correct?

MIRIAM KRAMER: Yeah, absolutely. So most people think that the Space Station will have to end by 2030 at the latest, maybe a little bit earlier than that. But right now, NASA’s in the process of basically trying to figure out where their astronauts are going to go in low-earth orbit after and before, even, the Space Station ends, hopefully before. So they put out this call for private Space Station ideas, and they just recently awarded some multimillion dollar contracts to three different teams of private companies. So it should be really interesting to see what designs they come up with, who gets funding. It’s going to be a pretty volatile couple of years, I think.

IRA FLATOW: On the other hand, if we’re talking space, we’re over the radar, not flying under the radar. The Chinese are very active in building a new Space Station, aren’t they? Brendan?

BRENDAN BYRNE: Yeah, they are, and I don’t follow it too closely. They also don’t share too many details about that. But yeah, they’ve got a Space Station and have a crew on board, and, yeah, their civil space station is coming together. And it is interesting, and that’s also another driving force for some US politicians to say, hey, we need to make sure that we have something up there for, as Miriam mentioned, the end of life for the International Space Station, which will be this decade. So having those commercial platforms up there for us to do science but also signal to an adversarial country like China, hey, we still have a presence in space, is very important for the US.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Mark in Aurora, Illinois. Hi, Mark. Welcome to Science Friday.

MARK: Yes, I find it interesting that when William Shatner played Captain Kirk, he was often accused of being an over-the-top actor and, now that he’s got himself into space, he’s been criticized for being an over-the-top spender. And here’s another piece to that. I think that it’s interesting that, as Captain Kirk, he talked almost complacently about visiting various planets, almost as if it was like visiting the corner grocery store. But when he actually went out into space, he was almost at a loss for words, and he was on the edge of tears. Space was no longer something to be complacent about when he actually traveled into it.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let me get some comments because a lot of people had opinions about whether they liked William Shatner going into space or not, don’t they?

LOREN GRUSH: Yeah, I, for one, watched his commentary afterwards in real time, and I thought it was quite genuine. I will say, though, that I believe that William Shatner was a guest on that flight, so I don’t actually think he spent any money on his ticket. Blue Origin has been inviting celebrity guests onto their missions to get some hype around them, and they, unlike mere mortals like us, they don’t have to pay anything.



BRENDAN BYRNE: Although if they want to take a journalist, I’m sure one of us would be more than happy [? to go, right? ?]



IRA FLATOW: Oh, yeah. That’s an old story.

LOREN GRUSH: But don’t send me a bill because I can’t afford it.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Mars, a place a lot of people– because I called it a Mars party before, in my introduction, because there are a lot of folks from different countries on Mars. China sent their own mission to Mars this year. They have a Rover there. The United Arab Emirates has a Hope orbiter in Mars orbit. Wow, suddenly, people you didn’t think or countries you would not expect to actually find interest in Mars are all doing it. What do you think, Brendan?

BRENDAN BYRNE: I think it’s awesome. I really follow the Hope orbiter. It was the first interplanetary mission for a brand new Space Agency out of the UAE, and it sent back some really stunning images. If I recall correctly because what is time these days, I think it was the first one to get there and just sent back these incredible photos, and it’s really collecting some amazing science that they’re sharing with the science community. So the Hope orbiter is really cool.

And of course, there’s Perseverance. Who doesn’t love a NASA Rover on the surface of Mars? And the little helicopter that hitched a ride with, Ingenuity, I think all of us are rooting for that helicopter, that little stowaway. So Mars years are always so exciting in space, and it was exponentially exciting with three missions arriving this year.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of the space coast, let’s go to Jacksonville, Florida. [? Ha, ?] welcome to Science Friday.

AUDIENCE: Hi, thank you. I just wanted to give a shout out as we always try to remember those who have come before us, and commander David Scott, who was the commander for Apollo 15, what drove the Lunar Rover vehicle, discovered the genesis rock, and proved Galileo’s theorem that a falcon feather can fall at the same velocity as a metal hammer on the moon. And we had a 50th anniversary in San Diego at San Diego Air and Space Museum this summer, and I think lest we forget those who really sacrificed their lives– and he also placed the astronaut thing on the moon, remembering those who had perished in the space race.

But I think the 50th anniversary of Apollo 15, since he’s the only commander left on the Earth that walked on the moon– I think there are four other people who walked on the moon. But that’s something of for us to remember while the commercial space programs go around the Earth. The moon is very, very far away.

IRA FLATOW: Very well put. Thank you for that remembrance because, yes, we do stand on the shoulders of giants, and our panelists certainly are aware of the history of the space program, correct?

BRENDAN BYRNE: Yeah, oh, yeah.


BRENDAN BYRNE: I’ve had the chance to chat with David Scott, and he’s very happy to talk about that mission, even 50 years on. So yeah, the foundation–

IRA FLATOW: I just watched the video of that the other day when I was researching this, and it was an incredible demonstration of a hammer, this metal hammer and a feather being dropped to the moon surface at the same time. It’s like, pssh-ooh, mind blower, because you know it should happen. But you’re sitting here saying, I hope this happens. I hope this happens.

Let’s go back to the phones, and let’s see who we– oh, yeah, let’s talk about this, because this was a big topic earlier in the year. Sean, Cornwall, Connecticut, hi. Welcome to Science Friday. Sean, go ahead.


IRA FLATOW: Hi, there.

SEAN: Yeah, so, before I get into my topic, you guys had a really great conversation so far. I know mentioned the Russian anti-satellite test that happened. I don’t think anybody mentioned the Chinese hypersonic missile test, which allegedly went around the Earth’s orbit, and they weren’t too transparent about that. So that’s another thing that’s going on in low-earth orbit.

But my topic in particular was there were a lot of stories about UFOs this year, and it seems like the national consciousness on this issue has gone from something that would be considered to be tabloid fodder to something that’s, well, it’s already been admitted by the government to be something that is credible. It’s long been alleged that the US government and different corporations have a number of unacknowledged special access projects that deal with this issue from the mundane to the exotic, so I just was wondering what you guys’s opinion was on the UFO situation.

IRA FLATOW: OK, before we get into UFOs, a quick reminder, this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Who wants to tackle UFOs? Who wants to wade into that?


IRA FLATOW: That’s right.


They have changed the name of the UA– now, Miriam, tell us about that.


IRA FLATOW: What is a– Loren, what is a UAP?

LOREN GRUSH: You know what? I’ve actually been on book leave. I’ve forgotten. Somebody enlighten me. I forgot what the acronym means.

MIRIAM KRAMER: It’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon, I think.

LOREN GRUSH: Yes, exactly.

BRENDAN BYRNE: But is it aliens, Miriam? Is it aliens?


MIRIAM KRAMER: You know what, Brendan? My favorite line– it’s never aliens.



MIRIAM KRAMER: So I just want to say, I think the UFO discourse is really fascinating and so interesting, but I personally see it as more of a national security story and less of a space story, at least right now.

LOREN GRUSH: I see it as a transportation story. It’s an air traffic story, not a space story.

MIRIAM KRAMER: A traffic story.

LOREN GRUSH: And by insinuating that it’s a space story, we’re insinuating that it’s aliens, which, Miriam, is aliens?

MIRIAM KRAMER: It’s never aliens, Loren.


IRA FLATOW: We’ll take her off the– let’s take her off the hot seat, OK?


Let’s move onto a story that really has an international impact, and that is– speaking of impact, there was no pun intended– I’m talking about the DART mission to deflect, sort of push an asteroid away from a potentially dangerous orbit that launched just last month. How will it get to be– how long is it going to be out there? And what exactly is its mission? Who would like to tackle that one?

BRENDAN BYRNE: Well, Ira, I told you–

LOREN GRUSH: I can jump– oh.

BRENDAN BYRNE: Oh, go for it, Loren.

LOREN GRUSH: Go ahead, Brendan. [LAUGHS] No, it’s just– I love it because of its simplicity, right? Essentially, we are going to push or boop an asteroid off of its path just ever so slightly just to see if we can actually do it, and the idea is that we would use a similar scenario if we were to ever find an asteroid that could potentially be catastrophic heading towards Earth someday. And it’s a very simple task, but it really could have dramatic effects.

But the target that we’re doing with DART is one that poses absolutely no threat to Earth. It’s actually an asteroid moonlet that’s orbiting around another asteroid, and we’re going to ram into it with a spacecraft. One of my sources called it an “intentional smithereening event,” and I truly love that. And yeah, we’re just going to see how that affects that moonlet’s orbit. And then if that works, then, potentially, we could try it on a hazardous asteroid someday.

IRA FLATOW: Let me, before– I have about a minute left before– I don’t want to let the year go by without we talking about the James Webb Space Telescope that may be, may be finally going to launch. Is it going to get up there, Brendan? What do you think?

BRENDAN BYRNE: I sure hope so because I am sick and tired of being nervous about this mission. It needs to launch at this point, and I think my colleagues will agree. It’s so complex, and there are so many things that could go wrong. Everything needs to go right. So I’m happy that the teams are taking their time. But it looks like we’re moving towards that, and I cannot wait to see some of the first science that comes back from that just brilliant observatory.

IRA FLATOW: The launch date, do we have one or scheduled, sometime by Christmas time, maybe?

MIRIAM KRAMER: It should be the 22nd right now. I think that’s we’re at the moment, so, hopefully, hopefully before Christmas, for all of our sakes.

LOREN GRUSH: Hopefully.

IRA FLATOW: Presents for everybody.

BRENDAN BYRNE: Yes, please.

LOREN GRUSH: But knowing NASA, it’ll be a holiday launch.


IRA FLATOW: All right.

BRENDAN BYRNE: In the middle of the night.

IRA FLATOW: That’s about all the time we have. We have to put our own space party to bed here. Brendan Byrne, a space reporter for WMFE in Orlando, Miriam Kramer, space reporter for Axios in Nashville, Loren Grush, space reporter for The Verge in Austin. Thank you all, and happy holidays to all of you.

LOREN GRUSH: Happy holidays.

IRA FLATOW: In case you missed any part of the program, you’d like to hear it again, of course, you can subscribe to our podcast or ask your smart speaker to play Science Friday. And say hi to us on social media– Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Send us a voice memo on the SciFri VoxPop app. And of course, we also like to hear from you, SciFri@sciencefriday.com. Have a great weekend. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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