SpaceX And A Dummy ‘Crew’ Visit The International Space Station

7:23 minutes

a rocket taking off in the dead of night
Falcon Heavy and Dragon. Credit: flickr/SpaceX.

Private spaceflight company SpaceX has successfully sent the first commercial capsule designed for human passengers to the International Space Station. The Crew Dragon capsule arrived Sunday, uncrewed except for a dummy ‘astronaut’ equipped with sensors to gauge how a human might fare in future flights. After five days docked at the ISS, the capsule landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean Friday morning.

Amy Nordrum, News Editor of IEEE Spectrum, explains this milestone in private spaceflight, plus the debate over delisting endangered grey wolves, the changing habits of hackers, and other short subjects in science in this week’s News Roundup.

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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine is here to answer your questions about NASA and the future of American spaceflight. Do you have a topic? You have something you want to talk about? You make the call. But only if you make the call. Our number, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK, or you can tweet at @SciFri. 

But first, in other space news, commercial spaceflight is having a good week this week after private company SpaceX automatically docked its crew Dragon capsule with the International Space Station. And this morning, it splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean. Here to tell us more about the story, plus other short subjects in science, is Amy Nordrum, news editor for the IEEE Spectrum. Always good to see you, Amy. 

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: So let’s talk about this story. This sounds like an exciting week for SpaceX. 

AMY NORDRUM: It was. This was actually a very fun story to follow. NASA is eager to come up with a new US-made vessel to transport astronauts and even potentially space tourists to and from the space station. The space shuttle program ended in 2011. Since then, we’ve been relying on Russian-built capsules and rockets to transport people to and from. So NASA’s awarded almost $7 billion to both SpaceX and Boeing to develop their own racket rockets and crew capsules to transport to and from. And this was one of the first tests of the system that went all the way to the space station, successfully docked, and then returned. 

This is just the first step. Boeing will be testing its own capsule, which it calls Starliner, no later than April, NASA says. And then they’ll continue on with actual crude tests, where they will have astronauts in these vessels and these capsules rocketing up to the space station and then returning home. And those are also expected to take place for both companies this year. 

IRA FLATOW: How did they know that this capsule was safe for human beings? 

AMY NORDRUM: Well, that’s what they’re testing in this particular demonstration. So they had an astronaut dummy named Ripley strap in– 

IRA FLATOW: Oh, nice! 

AMY NORDRUM: –to this scene that one astronaut or space tourist could soon occupy. There are four seats in the SpaceX capsule, and Ripley was in one of them. This dummy is equipped with all kinds of different sensors. They didn’t get specific on what the sensors are, but you’d imagine they’d be wanting to measure things like forced acceleration as the dummy goes up and returns back home. And we’ll hear what they conclude from that, but that was their way of seeing what an astronaut themselves or a space tourist themselves will experience in this capsule if it actually does make it into commercial use. 

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. The capsule docked automatically. Maybe it’s a preview of the Tesla full self-driving mode in the capsule. 

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, in a different format for a different vehicle. Yeah, it had another fun passenger. It actually had a plush earth toy that SpaceX staff put into the capsule before it went. And it’s been floating around, bopping around the space station. The astronauts have been taking photos with this toy called Earth. So it had a couple of few fun passengers on board. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. Let’s move on to another story. It sounds like we don’t have to worry about being hacked in quite the same way that we used to. 

AMY NORDRUM: Yes. I think this might be good news. I’m not sure. But IBM has put out a new report talking about security trends and basically what kinds of hacks they’re seeing more and less of. This is looking at trends from 2008. And you may have heard of this type of hack called ransomware, where a hacker takes over a system, shuts it down, prohibits access to the files, and then charges a ransom to the user to return it and restore the system. This has been used as a technique in the past. But IBM’s report says that is kind of going by the wayside. Hackers are finding it’s really not worth the trouble. It’s not that great of an attack, perhaps. 

And they’re moving on to something called cryptojacking. So this is actually when a hacker surreptitiously starts using your computing power on your machines or your company’s machines to mine cryptocurrencies in the background. So they’re not stealing anything. They’re not limiting access to your files. They’re just using your computing power without your consent to create a cryptocurrency. 

IRA FLATOW: So you have no idea– 

AMY NORDRUM: Windfall. 

IRA FLATOW: Maybe it’s the fan on your laptop starts going a little faster. 

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. That’s about the only way you’d know, if it starts to slow down. But it’s funny, because ransomware was very obvious, in your face. Your whole system turns black, and you get a message that you need to wire this ransom. But this is the exact opposite. It’s very– I don’t want to say innocuous, but it’s very subtle. 

IRA FLATOW: And I guess if you had to choose between the two, cryptojacking– 

AMY NORDRUM: I would choose cryptojacking, yeah, if I had to choose one or the other. I mean, ideally, neither, but it is less disruptive. And for the hackers, it’s harder to trace back. 

IRA FLATOW: But we don’t get any of the cryptocurrency that they’re mining. 

AMY NORDRUM: Unfortunately, no. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s work on that. All right. Let’s look at some bad news, maybe, for endangered gray wolves. Tell us about that. 

AMY NORDRUM: Yes. The Secretary of the Interior this week on Wednesday said that the Interior Department would be proposing to de-list gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act. So this would remove protection for these wolves that it has had because it’s on this list protected by the act. 

And the story is a little bit more complicated. So this de-listing effort would apply to one population of gray wolves, known as the Great Lakes population. So those are the wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Wolves in part of the country known as the northern Rockies have already been de-listed, and states there have their own different kinds of protections and ways of allowing hunting and trapping of wolves. But this de-listing would actually apply to all wolves and make it so that they’re all de-listed across the United States. 

Environmentalists are saying it’s not quite time yet. Wolf populations have recovered from their historic low of about 1,000 wolves in the lower United States, but they’re not fully yet restored to their historic range, which covered large swaths of the US. And so some are saying that we need more time, and these wolves should still have the protections under the Endangered Species Act. 

IRA FLATOW: Finally, some drama in the world of research publishing, something we don’t really talk much about. A company called Elsevier most people know that, and the UC, University of California. Some drama going on there. 

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. Yeah, just about a week ago, the University of California said that it would no longer be paying Elsevier the fees it has traditionally paid them to access a large number of academic journals. Elsevier is a very large publisher. It has about 2,500 titles. And University of California said that this was because Elsevier could not agree could not provide open access by a default setting to all of the research published by University of California scientists, which is obviously a publicly funded institution that’s using a lot of taxpayer money for research and through grants. And so the University of California will no longer be paying Elsevier for access to its journals. 

IRA FLATOW: Why do they need journals now? You have public– PLOS and all those public– publishers. Why do you need to pay Elsevier for your Lancet or something like that? 

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, I think that was their argument. And we’ll see. They said they’re still open for negotiation with Elsevier. But at this moment, they’re not going to be paying them the– I think it was $11 million per year for access to Elsevier journals. It’s a big statement in terms of open access. 

IRA FLATOW: Others could follow. Thank you, Amy. 

AMY NORDRUM: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum, news editor for the IEEE Spectrum.

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