By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor
In July 2011, I was standing in the sticky Florida heat—a frizzy-haired pinprick within the galaxy of reporters who had coalesced at Kennedy Space Center to document the final flight of a space shuttle. I’ve visited a lot of NASA centers in my career (I owe a huge debt to my Aunt Julia, who sheltered and fed me during trips to Johnson Space Center outside Houston). But I’ll always have a special place in my heart for KSC, and the moment when I felt the rumble deep in my chest as Atlantis roared off the launch pad and disappeared into the overcast sky.
Since the U.S. first sent a human into orbit in 1962, we’ve been doing it from this coastal region of Florida, which offers a number of logistical advantages, including proximity to the ocean (so rocket debris can fall into the sea) and to the Equator (which makes launches more efficient). This rich legacy of spaceflight means the region has become a paradise for astronomy fans; the 72-mile stretch of land around KSC, known as the Space Coast, is home to many space-themed bars and restaurants, spaceflight museums, and cosmically named viewing areas where people can marvel at the regular parade of rocket launches.
While gathering in person during a pandemic may not be the best idea, people around the world will have eyes on Florida this week as something remarkable happens: For the first time, a spacecraft designed and built by a private company, using a rocket that can return part of itself to Earth, will attempt to once more loft humans into orbit from U.S. soil.
The two astronauts who will be on board this historic flight are NASA veterans—one, Doug Hurley, even served as the pilot on the shuttle Atlantis for its final flight. But as our Nadia Drake reports, the SpaceX Demo-2 mission is a unique assignment, since it marks only the fifth time in U.S. history that astronauts will ride to orbit on a brand-new type of spacecraft. “I happen to have been one of the four astronauts that landed here [at Kennedy Space Center] almost nine years ago … to close out the space shuttle program,” said Hurley during a press conference with his Demo-2 colleague, Robert Behnken. “It's incredibly humbling to be here to start out the next launch from the United States.” (Pictured above, Behnken and Hurley in pre-launch tests).
Once in orbit, astronauts frequently look back at Earth and gaze at their favorite landscapes. I can only imagine that, like me, these spacefaring wanderers carry especially fond memories of their time on the Space Coast wherever they go.
Do you get this daily? If not, sign up here or forward to a friend.
Your Instagram photo of the day
Otherworldly: “It feels like you are exploring a cave on another planet.” That’s photographer Robbie Shone talking about the Chandelier Ballroom in Lechuguilla in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The chamber in New Mexico, with its 20-foot glittering gypsum formations hanging from the ceiling, is as iconic and well known to cave explorers around the world as Royal Albert Hall is to musicians, composers, and artists. Says Shone: “There is nowhere else in the world quite like it!”
Related: Epic flood sends cavers scrambling for their lives
Are you one of our 137 million Instagram followers? (If not, follow us now.)
Today in a minute
Unpleasant surprises: As the world is pummeled by COVID-19, the disease is causing weird symptoms. Among them: Inflamed brains, toe rashes, and strokes. “They have been seen in viral medicine even before the advent of COVID-19, and, to some degree, they are to be expected,” Nat Geo’s Amy McKeever writes in her roundup of the symptoms. Continued distancing, hand-washing, and mask-wearing are vital to keeping the disease causing these symptoms at bay, says Michael Agus, chief of medical critical care at Boston Children’s Hospital. “That’s going to be the answer,” Agus says.
Why we need to know the true death toll: These numbers allow scientists and government officials to track the pandemic’s severity and precisely allocate preventive measures, including tests and physical distancing mandates. “This information is going to drive a lot of important political decisions to be made,” Yale epidemiologist Daniel Weinberger says. Even as the U.S. hovers near 100,000 dead, researchers say there has been a severe undercount, and it could take two years to get a more accurate figure, Carrie Arnold reports for Nat Geo.
Pollution rises: As economic activity resumes in China, the amount of the air pollutant nitrogen dioxide is rising to traditional levels above that nation for this time of year, NASA’s Earth Observatory reports. Will there be a record of the time when pollution declined because of the pandemic? Scientific American reports that future researchers may be able to see changes in pollution levels from the shutdown in tree rings and ice cores.
The hardest part: The effort of tracing a deadly virus hasn’t changed much since Victorian days. “Our best shot at tracking the path of a contagion such as the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is still the same labor-intensive process,” Nat Geo’s Craig Welch reports. Contact tracing involves interviewing and figuring out who a person with COVID-19 may have infected—such as 140 clients and co-workers at a single Missouri hair-cutter. And then figuring out who those people infected, or working backward to find the source of contamination. Despite having more cases than any other nation, the U.S. is only just getting started, and health officials suggest the nation needs 180,000 people on the case.
From Rosie to Roomba: Yes, The Jetsons inspired iRobot’s invention that has made housekeeping easier, we discover in our latest Sci Fri to Sci video segment. The company’s co-founder acknowledged being fascinated with the cartoon’s Rosie the Robot while growing up. Siri and Alexa, too, have arisen from the same long-imagined dream of a robot butler.
This week in the night sky
Destination Moon: On Friday, the moon reaches its first quarter phase, allowing you to see the distinctly dark gray regions that are called maria, or seas. These are smooth plains of solidified lava formed when giant asteroids struck the moon billions of years ago. Can you spot the Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 touched down? Use binoculars and telescopes to sweep down the shadow line that divides the light and dark portions of the lunar disk. It’s along this line where the sun shines low on the rugged lunar terrain. Sweep down to the more southern part of the moon and take a peek at two giant craters lying side-by-side, just southwest of the Sea of Tranquility. The larger one, 93 miles wide, is Hipparchus, while the other is 81-mile-wide Albategnius. — Andrew Fazekas
The big takeaway
Changing minds: Can satire help correct misguided beliefs about science? Yes, say researchers, citing the works of late-night TV hosts and comedians. How? Consider how Samantha Bee once exposed the shoddy claims of people against vaccines, concluding: “Who are you going to believe? Leading authorities on medical science, or 800 memes on your cousin’s Facebook page?” Researchers say the humorous satirical approach of Bee, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, and Stephen Colbert often are more effective with audience than a straitlaced approach. And for science news, the late-night hosts often can reach a broader audience than, um, us, write Paul R. Brewer and Jessica McKnight for Nat Geo.
Subscriber exclusive: Joking to understand climate change, gene editing, and vaccines
In a few words
Did a friend forward this newsletter?
On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.
The flood: Sherpas call it a chhu-gyumha, a catastrophic flood. That’s what happens when glaciers melt on the top of the world, creating new lakes, and then the lakes burst their banks. That kind of flood is one effect of a warming Earth on the Himalayas, as Freddie Wilkinson explores for National Geographic. More glacial floods will occur in the decades to come. One study last year concluded that, depending on the rate of global warming, one-third to two-thirds of the region’s approximately 56,000 glaciers will disappear by the end of the century. (Above, a team of scientists takes a core sample from the bed of Nepal’s Taboche Lake. The sediment layers contain clues about when and how the lake was formed and allow researchers to study changes in seasonal conditions over time.)
Subscriber exclusive: What happens when the roof of the world melts?