UN Space Mission, Redefining ‘Healthy,’ and a Wayward Manatee

8:00 minutes

The United Nations will launch its first space mission in 2021. The international organization will carry payloads from countries that don’t have their own space programs. Maggie Koerth-Baker, a senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight.com, describes the details of the mission, along with other science news from the week.

Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

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

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll be talking about the cloud connected car, able to read road signs, or know in advance of the car ahead of you will be braking. What features would you like to see in your next car of the future? Give us a call. 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK, or tweet us @scifri.

But first, when you think of space exploration, you think NASA, the European Space Agency, China, Russia, India, SpaceX, just to name a few, but one organization you don’t usually think of is the United Nations. Well, that’s about to change. The UN intends to launch its first space mission in 2021. Why? Maggie Koerth-Baker is here to fill out that story and other selected short subjects in science. She’s senior science writer for fivethirtyeight.com and she joins us from the MPR studio. Welcome back.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Why is the UN trying to mount a space mission?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, so this is a robotic mission. There’s not going to be any people aboard, but it’s really meant to allow countries that can’t afford their own space program to do research in space. And this is a huge deal. You know, there are really big disparities in worldwide research resources. So you have people who– everything from access to space, which is a big deal, but down to just basic stuff, like access to reliable electricity. And this is an opportunity for these scientists to do research that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do and bring the benefits of that R&D back to their own countries.

IRA FLATOW: That means that the UN is paying for this.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, no, not exactly. The UN has gone into this partnership with Sierra Nevada, who is the company that makes this rocket ship called the Dream Chaser, which kind of looks like a scaled down version of the space shuttle. And they set up a system where all the different countries whose payloads are chosen are going to split the bill. Now, Sierra Nevada is going to give the poorer countries a price break, and the UN and Sierra Nevada are also looking for funders to help offset the costs further. So this would not be a free ride to space, but it would be a significantly cheaper ride to space.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of space, we all know that Elon Musk earlier, has announced this week about sending people to Mars. But this is not just a few folks. He wants to colonize the planet, right?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, yeah. This is actually the same conference where the UN announcement was made, at the International Astronautical Congress. And what Musk is proposing is sending colonists to Mars by 2024, which is a decade earlier than NASA projected that they’d be able to send anyone there. And it’s an interesting plan, because it relies on some really serious technological developments happening. There’s not a rocket currently in production that could even get humans to the moon, let alone Mars. So he’s wanting to not just send people there, but also be able to send rockets back, and that’s a whole other step up, even, in technology.

Elizabeth Lopatto at The Verge actually pointed out that the speech of Musk’s is, frankly, a sales pitch. He’s hoping to get these other people with deep pockets in to invest in his idea, because it’s going to be too expensive for SpaceX to just handle by itself.

IRA FLATOW: Because he said it’s going to take, what, 1,000 journeys back and forth to the planet?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, and with current technology, it would be something like $10 billion per person.

IRA FLATOW: $10 billion. But he said he could bring it down to half a billion, or are half a million or something like that, eventually.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, he thinks he can eventually get it down to $200,000 a person, but that involves some big technological leaps that are going to involve big money.

IRA FLATOW: I think it’s also telling, when somebody asked him if he would go, he said, no, I want to stay home with my family, because you have to be ready to die. The first people to go are going to die. Something like that.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. Well, the first people that going to go are probably going to just be stuck staying there for a while, because we don’t really have the technology yet to bring anyone back.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s move on to the next topic. As you know, I try to watch what I eat, but it seems like anything can have a healthy label on it. The FDA is trying to change that. There’s so many healthy labels on food. Is it real, are they really healthy products?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Right, yes. This is an interesting conundrum. So in 2015, KIND, which are the people that make those fruit and nut bars, got this official warning from the FDA for illegally using the word healthy on their packaging. And that’s because healthy has an official definition. It’s something that the government has officially defined, and that definition includes the quality of being low in fat, which a nut bar is not low in fat. But as Ian Kullgren from Politico points out, a tub of fat free pudding would pass this test. So you end up with this weird dichotomy where something that we might colloquially think of as more healthy can’t call itself healthy, while pudding can. So the FDA is now in the process of reassessing that definition, and they’re taking public comment and trying to figure out what healthy ought to be.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because the definition of healthy, certainly where food is concerned, changes so often.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Right, and it also changes based on what you’re wanting to do. I mean, is healthy about losing weight? Is healthy about processing? Does healthy have to be organic? There are not just scientific, but there are also ideological questions bound up in this, and that’s going to be something that’s going to be pretty hard to work out. It’s likely that whatever the definition is, it’s not going to make everybody happy.

IRA FLATOW: So they’re taking comments about what healthy should be, and then they will decide, somehow, what–


IRA FLATOW: –labels are. All right, let’s move to your final story, and it’s a cutie. It’s about a wayward manatee. What happened?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: A wayward pregnant manatee.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, well, even gets cuter.


MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: So you know, manatees are these giant, lumbering, adorable sea cows, primarily thought of as being Floridians, but one started being spotted off the coast of Cape Cod the summer, up in Massachusetts. And they recently caught her and found out that she’s pregnant, and they’re in the process of setting up a system to transport her back to Florida, because manatees cannot live in water that is cooler than 68 degrees for very long, and the water is starting to cool off significantly in Massachusetts. So they had to catch her and take her home.

I think this is really interesting because it’s part of a long tradition of animals– aquatic animals– ending up in places you don’t expect them. There have been California gray whales spotted off the coast of Israel, among other things, and Massachusetts often gets plenty of tropical sharks showing up. And all of this is sort of extreme examples of migration patterns that these animals already have. We often forget that manatees can travel as far north as the Carolinas on a pretty regular basis, and will go all around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

IRA FLATOW: Cape Cod’s a little further.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Cape Cod is a little further.

IRA FLATOW: And global warming would come to my mind as the reason for this.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: There is not– it’s not absolutely certain that that is part of it, right now, mainly just because this is kind of a one-off situation. It happened before in 2008, but there’s not evidence that a lot of manatees are moving northward, it’s more just that this one manatee managed to get further than anybody else did.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it got some ice cream.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: A manatee Christopher Columbus.

IRA FLATOW: Well, she got some ice cream while she was up there.


IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Maggie. Maggie Koerth-Baker is here with us. She’s senior writer for fivethirtyeight.com. Good to see you again. We’ll see you next time.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Nice to see you.

Copyright © 2016 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of ScienceFriday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producer

About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.