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After a decade, NASA’s big rocket fails its first real test

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STENNIS SPACE CENTER, Miss.—For a few moments, it seemed like the Space Launch System saga might have a happy ending. Beneath brilliant blue skies late on Saturday afternoon, NASA’s huge rocket roared to life for the very first time. As its four engines lit, and thrummed, thunder rumbled across these Mississippi lowlands. A giant, beautiful plume of white exhaust billowed away from the test stand.

It was all pretty damn glorious until it stopped suddenly.

About 50 seconds into what was supposed to be an 8-minute test firing, the flight control center called out, “We did get an MCF on Engine 4.” This means there was a “major component failure” with the fourth engine on the vehicle. After a total of about 67 seconds, the hot fire test ended.

During a post-flight news conference, held outside near the test stand, officials offered few details about what had gone wrong. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “It’s not everything we hoped it would be.”

He and NASA’s program manager for the SLS rocket, John Honeycutt, sought to put a positive spin on the day. They explained that this is why spaceflight hardware is tested. They expressed confidence that this was still the rocket that would launch the Orion spacecraft around the Moon.

And yet it is difficult to say what happened Saturday is anything but a bitter disappointment. This rocket core stage was moved to Stennis from its factory in nearby Louisiana more than one calendar year ago, with months of preparations for this critical test firing.

Honeycutt said before the test, and then again afterward, that NASA had been hoping to get 250 seconds worth of data, if not fire the rocket for the entire duration of its nominal ascent to space. Instead it got a quarter of that.

So what happened?

Perhaps most intriguing, Honeycutt said the engine problem cropped up about 60 seconds into the test, at one of its most dynamic moments. This was when the engines were throttling down from 109 percent of nominal thrust to 95 percent, Honeycutt said. And it is also when they began to gimbal, or move their axis of thrust.

At approximately 60 seconds, engineers noted a “flash” in the area of a thermal protection blanket around Engine 4, Honeycutt said. The engine section is one of the most complex parts of the core stage, and each of the four main engines has thermal protection to limit heating from the other engines.

Now, engineers from NASA, Boeing and the engine manufacturer, Aerojet Rocketdyne, will study data from the test and determine what exactly went wrong. It is not clear how long this will take, or what problems will need to be fixed.

A drone image of NASA’s hot fire test on Saturday.

If there is a serious problem with Engine 4, it could be swapped out. NASA has spare RS-25 engines at Stennis, including backups that are tested and ready, Honeycutt said. Such an engine swap could occur on the test stand itself, over the course of a week or 10 days.

A key question is whether another hot fire test will be required. Bridenstine, whose tenure as NASA Administrator will end next Wednesday, said it was too early to determine what will happen. He expressed hope that some straightforward problem might be found. Even, so, it seems unlikely NASA has enough data from this test to avoid conducting another hot fire test, which would likely require weeks to months of setup time.

All of this casts very serious doubt on NASA’s plans to launch its Artemis I mission—an uncrewed precursor mission to sending humans to the Moon—before the end of this year. Already, the program was on a tight deadline, needing to ship the core stage from Stennis Space Center to Kennedy Space Center in Florida in February to retain any possibility of launching in 2021.

That now seems all but impossible.

What the future holds

The future of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is not clear. The incoming Biden administration has not released any detailed plans for the space agency. The big rocket’s support has always come from Congress, however, and not the White House. Congress created the booster a decade ago when the Obama Administration wanted to rely more on private companies to provide launch vehicles.

The original deal was cut between two senators, Bill Nelson of Florida and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, but they are both now out of office. In recent years, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby—who chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee—has emerged as the rocket’s most potent backer. This is not a surprise given that the rocket is designed and managed at Marshall Space Flight Center in northern Alabama.

However, with Democrats taking a narrow majority in the Senate, Shelby has lost his chair in the upcoming session of Congress. Although he will retain considerable say, he will no longer be able to effectively dictate NASA’s budget.

The SLS has also enjoyed ample support from the Alabama delegation in the House, but they too have recently lost some of their clout. Perhaps the most outspoken House backer of the rocket was Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks. But he has gained a measure of infamy for speaking at the pro-Trump rally on January 6, helping to incite rioters to march on the U.S. Capitol. As Brooks spread misinformation about the election, he said, “Today is the day Americans start taking down names and kicking ass.” Of Alabama’s seven U.S. representatives, six are Republicans. All of them, including Brooks, voted to overturn the election results after the Capitol insurrection.

Given these recent events, it seemed likely that the SLS program had a future if it began to execute, and delivering on milestones such as Saturday’s test. The weakening political clout of the Alabama delegation may mean that the program has less of a firewall in Congress should it continue to face delays and cost overruns.

Heritage hardware

Congress created the SLS rocket in its 2010 Authorization Act, declaring it to be a “follow-on launch vehicle to the space shuttle.” The law said NASA must extend or modify existing contracts to build the rocket, and ensure the “retention” of critical skills. The legislative intent was clear: keep the shuttle workforce employed.

This led to a design that used modified solid rocket boosters, like those that gave the space shuttle a kick off the launch pad. The SLS rocket would also use the space shuttle main engines, although controversially the expendable rocket would fly the reusable engines just a single time. Eventually, each of the main shuttle contractors got a piece of the SLS rocket.

At the time, proponents of this design argued that relying on space shuttle hardware would keep costs and technical issues to a minimum.

This seemed to make some sense. After all, these engines had flown for three decades. The solid rocket boosters had flown for just as long. This was proven technology. The hardest work would be designing and building large liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel tanks in the rocket’s core stage. However, liquid hydrogen was hardly a novel fuel to work with. NASA had decades of experience building the shuttle’s large external fuel tank, and U.S. rocket scientists starting with Robert Goddard had been studying the use of liquid hydrogen since before the dawn of the space age.

It has since all gone sideways. By the time Saturday’s test took place, NASA had spent about $17.5 billion developing the rocket, and many billions more on ground systems to launch it. The original launch date was 2016, and now the rocket will likely not fly before 2022. And although much of the hardware has a long heritage, NASA and its contractors have still struggled to integrate it.

Last year, when NASA’s inspector general studied why it had taken so long to develop the SLS rocket, he found that the core stage, booster, and RS-25 engine programs had all experienced technical challenges and performance issues that led to delays and cost overruns.

“We and other oversight entities have consistently identified contractor performance as a primary cause for the SLS Program’s increased costs and schedule delays, and quality control issues continue to plague Boeing as it pushes to complete the rocket’s core stage,” Paul Martin wrote. “Both NASA and contractor officials explained that nearly 50 years have passed since development of the last major space flight program—the Space Shuttle—and the learning curve for new development has been steep as many experienced engineers have retired or moved to other industries.”

So what had been viewed as a strength of the program, using heritage hardware, instead become a liability. Saturday was only the first real hardware test for the rocket. It cannot afford too many more liabilities like those on display.

Listing image by Trevor Mahlmann for Ars

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H.G. Wells’ “World Brain” is now here—what have we learned since?

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Between November 1936 and November 1937, H.G. Wells gave a series of lectures in Great Britain, France, and the US about the world’s impending problems and how to solve them. The lectures were first published under the title “World Brain” in 1938, and they’re sweeping in scope. Wells argued for rearranging both education and the distribution of knowledge and thought we should probably get rid of nationalism while we’re at it. 

MIT Press has just issued a compendium of these lectures, along with related material Wells presented as magazine articles and radio addresses. The collection also includes a foreword by the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling and an introduction by Joseph Reagle, an associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern who writes and teaches about popular culture, digital communication, and online communities

Unequal information

Humanity had all of the information necessary to live together in peace and harmony, Wells told his audiences; the trouble was that this information existed in a disorganized, dispersed state, and most people didn’t have access to it. They certainly didn’t have access to the most up-to-date information, and with the rapid pace of technological advancement in the early twentieth century—leading to cars, planes, and especially radio—information needed updating constantly. 

If only everyone had the same education, the same knowledge, the same understanding of what was important, his thinking went—if only everyone knew the truth—it was inevitable that we’d form a productive, peaceful, global society. Conversely, without his educational reforms, Wells felt there was no way we’d transcend the mess of grubby, meaningless insularities that is our civilization.

Wells was promoting a Permanent World Encyclopedia to collate, standardize, assess, and continually revise the bulk of human knowledge. He wanted knowledge and its dissemination to be centralized—“a World Brain which will replace our multitude of unco-ordinated ganglia… a memory and a perception of current reality for the entire human race.” 

He also wanted to improve education in order to attain “a reconditioned and more powerful public opinion.” He was highly dissatisfied with the university system as it was and wanted to revamp the whole outdated thing. He used the same analogy in each of the lectures, saying, “In transport, we have progressed from coaches and horses by way of trains to electric traction, motor-cars, and aeroplanes. In mental organization, we have simply multiplied our coaches and horses and livery stables.” The world was not the same place it used to be, and he was concerned that those in charge were acting like it was, and to disastrous effect—especially those who negotiated the Treaty of Versaille, ending World War I but leading the world to a very precarious place in 1938. 

We don’t need more of the same type of education if it kept producing the same thinking, he insisted; we need something completely different.

A new education

Wells had jettisoned all of his tribal affiliations long ago and thought that humanity would get along much better if everyone else did the same. His curriculum for the future, unlike the curriculum of his past, didn’t waste time teaching “the peculiar unpleasantness of King James or King John” or “the relative historical insignificance of the events recorded in Kings and Chronicles.” Instead, people would learn “true stories of the past and of other lands” so that everyone would have a sense of the different ways humans can and have lived. 

Patriotism threatens to destroy civilization, he said; kids should be learning what archeologists and anthropologists are deducing every day about the earliest cultures rather than their own particular nationalistic versions of history. As people age and grow, they can specialize, always learning about the latest developments in every field from the constantly updated World Encyclopedia.  

Wells had cool ideas, and he sure could write. “As mankind is, so it will remain, until it pulls its mind together,” he laments. (Although his ability to turn a phrase could occasionally fail; he also wrote, “I imagine this period between 1919 and 1929 will be called the Fatuous Twenties.” Oops.)

It’s all too easy to harp on the subjective nature and paternalism of this plan, coming as it does from a British man speaking from the seat of an Empire. He’s claiming that his curriculum encompasses All the News That’s Fit to Print, and he doesn’t seem to recognize that it’s All the News that he thinks is Fit to Print, or even that those two mottoes aren’t synonymous. 

Why does he get to decide what’s important for everyone the world over to learn? And why does he assume that given the same education, everyone would think the way he does? As forward-thinking as he was, Wells was still a product of his time. (Which might be reason to cut him some slack.)

Wells vs. Orwell

The notion that granting everyone access to the same teachings could save society was not idle speculation on Wells’ part. He was 70 at this point and had become rich, famous, and influential by introducing people to radical new ideas through his writing. He was so influential that, during World War I, the British government appointed him “Director of Enemy Propaganda Against Germany.” So he was well aware of the power of words—particularly his words—to change minds and change lives. (Even though the incontrovertible proof of that power provided by Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of his War of the Worlds was still a year in the future).

If a top-down global education system and curriculum sounds a touch Orwellian to you, it sounded that way to George Orwell as well. In 1941, he published “Wells, Hitler, and the World State,” in which he argued that Germany hewed much closer to a well-run society in which everyone thinks similarly and along scientific lines than England ever has. But it was run by a “criminal lunatic,” so that didn’t work out quite as Wells thought it would. Orwell also noted that patriotism, which Wells thought of as civilization-destroying, was the primary force inducing Russians and Britons to fight against Hitler. Thirty-eight-year-old Orwell saw, in a way that 75-year-old Wells couldn’t, that technology and information would hardly lead directly to world peace and harmony.  

Between the two World Wars, Wells looked at the world around him, and it was clear to him that the biggest problem was that people didn’t have access to the newest knowledge. He thought that a Permanent World Encyclopedia couldn’t help but lead to world peace. What Wells promoted actually sounds a lot like Wikipedia. But when we finally had the ability to make his dream into reality, we made the whole rest of the Internet alongside it, which grants everyone access to at least as many lies as it does truth. 

A mere three years after he proposed the encyclopedia, Orwell looked at the world around him and concluded that it couldn’t help but lead to authoritarian regimes, which were by nature barbaric. Eighty-four years later, we walk around with a Permanent World Encyclopedia in our pockets, but it has neither brought humanity together in harmony nor created some groupthink dystopia à la Camazotz. It has done a little of both. Instant access to the sum of human knowledge has allowed far-flung, like-minded people to find each other and coalesce into supportive communities. But it has also enabled people to retreat deeper into their own ideological silos.

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Evolutionary chaos as butterflies, wasps, and viruses have a three-way war

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We’re currently watching—often in horror—what happens as a virus and its hosts engage in an evolutionary arms race. Measures to limit infectivity and enhance immunity are selecting for viral strains that spread more readily and avoid at least some of the immune response. All of that is easily explained through evolutionary theory and has been modeled mathematically.

But not all evolutionary interactions are so neat and binary. Thursday’s edition of Science included a description of a three-way fight between butterflies, the wasps that parasitize them, and the viruses that can infect both species. To call the interactions that have ensued “complicated” is a significant understatement.

Meet the combatants

One of the groups involved is the Lepidoptera, the butterflies and moths. They are seemingly the victims in this story because, like any other species, they can be infected by viruses. Many of these viral infections can be fatal, although some kill the animal quickly, and others take their time. Since they often strike during the larval/caterpillar stages, the viruses need other hosts to transfer the viruses to other victims.

Some of the species that perform this transport service are parasitic wasps, which have their own designs on the butterflies. The wasps lay eggs on caterpillars, and the larvae that emerge simply start eating the caterpillar while it’s still alive.

This situation sets up some complicated competitions. For example, some viruses may depend on the wasp to spread to new hosts but, once there, start competing with the wasps for the cells of the hapless caterpillar. The caterpillars are not entirely defenseless, though, and some are able to mount an immune response to the virus. Some strains also appear to be able to resist the invasion by wasp larvae. However, viruses often encode proteins that tamp down on the immune response to their benefit, which would also benefit their competition for cells.

Battlefield DNA

The recently published work started with the observation that a wasp species could parasitize a specific Lepidopteran, but that action was blocked if the caterpillars were also infected by a particular virus. This virus gets into the caterpillars when they eat leaves it’s on, so it doesn’t rely on wasps for transmission. Blocking wasp activity doesn’t cost the virus anything and saves more of the victim for itself.

However, the virus did kill the hosts and was not able to block every parasitic wasp.

The researchers found that the susceptible wasp larvae were actually killed. Or rather, something from the caterpillar induced the cells of the wasp larvae to commit an orderly form of suicide, called apoptosis. In any case, the research team was able to show that the killing was done by a factor that was dissolved in the internal fluids of the caterpillar.

That factor was eventually found to be a protein that was termed “parasitoid killing factor,” or PKF. The researchers obtained some of the protein’s amino acid sequence, which allowed them to identify the gene that encoded it in the virus’s genome.

A scan of viral genomes found that several that infect butterflies carry similar genes, with a few viruses carrying more than one gene. But PKF genes weren’t limited to viruses. Instead, a lot of Lepidopteran species also carried them, with some species carrying multiple versions. The features of these genes suggested that they had been picked up from the viruses through an accidental transfer of the DNA. (It’s also possible that some viruses picked the genes back up from their hosts.)

A multi-way competition

Unsurprisingly, tests found that the targeted wasps had a complicated spectrum of responses. For some PKF/wasp species combinations, the larvae died. In others, development slowed or stopped. In still other combinations, the PKF did not affect larval survival.

In at least one case, a wasp carried a virus that doesn’t infect caterpillars by eating—instead, it seems to rely on the wasp to transfer it. Of course, the wasp is immune to its PKF. But that PKF does interfere with the development of wasp species that might compete for caterpillars. At the same time, the virus competes for the caterpillar with the wasp that carries it. And related Lepidopteran species undoubtedly carry PKFs that keep the wasp from successfully parasitizing them.

None of this is static. While the researchers describe a complicated picture at a point in time, the changes in host range, transfer of genes, and diversification of the PKF gene family will all continue in the future. If someone checks in on things in a half-million years, the situation may be even more complex than it is now.

Science, 2021. DOI: 10.1126/science.abb6396  (About DOIs).

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This 900-person delta cluster in Mass. has CDC freaked out—74% are vaccinated

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Enlarge / Foot traffic along Commercial Street in Provincetown, Mass., on July 20, 2021. Provincetown officials have issued a new mask-wearing advisory for indoors, regardless of vaccination status, on the latest data showing that Provincetown COVID cases are increasing.

An analysis of a COVID-19 cluster of around 900 people in Massachusetts—74 percent of whom are vaccinated—is among the alarming data that spurred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reverse course on masks this week.

According to an internal CDC document first obtained by The Washington Post, data on the Provincetown, Massachusetts, cluster showed that vaccinated people carried surprisingly high levels of the delta coronavirus in their noses and throats. More importantly, vaccinated people were found to be spreading the dangerous virus variant to other vaccinated people. Nationwide, the CDC estimated that there are 35,000 symptomatic breakthrough infections per week among 162 million fully vaccinated Americans.

The CDC document overall highlights that delta is extremely contagious—much more so than previous versions of the virus, as well as the common cold or even the seasonal flu. Delta is more in line with the contagiousness of chickenpox, the CDC document said.

US officials should acknowledge that with delta dominating the country, “the war has changed,” the document read. Officials who spoke with the Post say that the analyses and the urgency the document contains are what prompted the CDC to reverse its masking guidance earlier this week. The CDC now recommends indoor masking, regardless of vaccination status, in schools, in areas with “high” or substantial” COVID-19 transmission, or when there’s contact with vulnerable people, such as unvaccinated children or immunocompromised people.

But the document shared with the Post two days after the CDC mask update goes further, saying, “Given higher transmissibility and current vaccine coverage, universal masking is essential to reduce transmission of the delta variant.”

The document also focused on the needle that the CDC must now thread with its unpopular health messaging—emphasizing the critical need for everyone to be vaccinated, while also acknowledging the perhaps not-so-rare risk of breakthrough infections and the need to keep up mitigation efforts even after vaccination. Despite the concerning data on delta, vaccines have still proven to be highly effective against severe disease, hospitalization, and death. They remain the most powerful tool to end the health crisis and reclaim some version of normality. But there are clearly caveats, and the CDC has yet to publicly release the data it has to back up its new alarm over delta.

In May, CDC officials abruptly told people that once they were fully vaccinated, they could rip off their masks in most settings, even in crowded, indoor ones. The rhetoric around the change highlighted the effectiveness of vaccines and suggested the guidance was crafted as an incentive for vaccination—dangling freedom from masks as a reward for getting your shots. Many health experts were critical of the abruptness of the move and the fact that it wasn’t carried out in stages or phases, linked to transmission levels or vaccination rates, for instance. Some also noted that, without clear metrics for issuing and retracting health measures, it would be difficult to go back on masking if a game changer—such as delta—arose.

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