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William Gerstenmaier joins SpaceX, and that’s a really big deal

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Enlarge / William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, speaks in 2013.

SpaceX has confirmed that NASA’s former chief of human spaceflight, William Gerstenmaier, has joined the company as a consultant as it prepares to launch astronauts for the first time.

This is a consequential hire for SpaceX—it is difficult to overstate the influence Gerstenmaier has over human spaceflight both in the United States and abroad. He led NASA’s space shuttle, International Space Station, commercial crew, and exploration programs for more than a decade.

He immediately brings credibility to the company’s safety culture. Former Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale, who now chairs the human spaceflight committee of NASA’s Advisory Council, told Ars last summer, “Bill was recognized by everybody as being technically well-grounded and very astute. He was known to listen carefully and to make his judgments based on good technical reasons.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine demoted Gerstenmaier in July 2019 because he felt the space agency’s exploration programs were not moving forward fast enough. Sources reported at the time that this decision shook some of the agency’s partners, who were comfortable with the long-time leader of NASA’s human spaceflight program. Some called the engineer in tears after hearing the news.

For example, less than an hour after CNBC first reported Gerstenmaier’s hiring, the head of Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, tweeted his congratulations: “I wish my friend success in his new job!”

In his new position, Gerstenmaier is reporting to Hans Koenigsmann, the vice president of mission assurance at SpaceX. Although the role is officially a consultancy, it is expected to become a full-time position. SpaceX is poised to launch the first crewed mission of its Dragon spacecraft by June of this year. Gerstenmaier will play a key role in ensuring the safety of those missions and helping SpaceX secure certification for the Crew Dragon vehicle.

The hiring could have longer-term implications as well. Few people in the global aerospace community have as much gravitas as Gerstenmaier or as much understanding of how to build coalitions to explore space. As SpaceX seeks partners—including NASA—to work with it on developing Starship to take humans to the Moon and Mars, Gerstenmaier is well-positioned to offer advice, stitch together mission plans, and open key doors.

Gerstenmaier and SpaceX have a complicated relationship, but he has supported Elon Musk at key moments during the company’s development. In December 2008, Gerstenmaier saved a cash-strapped SpaceX with a Commercial Resupply Service contract for operational cargo missions to the International Space Station.

Gerstenmaier’s decision to maintain two competitors as part of the commercial crew program in 2014 (SpaceX and Boeing) was also essential, although it was not a company-saving move. Boeing was lobbying hard for all of the funds and very nearly got them. Gerstenmaier was the deciding official who kept two providers in the competition. It has proven to be a smart decision, as SpaceX is poised to beat Boeing into space by months, if not years, at 50 percent less cost.

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As Florida punishes schools, study finds masks cut school COVID outbreaks 3.5X

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Enlarge / A second-grade teacher talks to her class during the first day of school at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, CA on Wednesday, August 11, 2021.

Schools with universal masking were 3.5 times less likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak and saw rates of child COVID-19 cases 50 percent lower in their counties compared with schools without mask requirements. That’s according to two new studies published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new data lands as masks continue to be a political and social flash point in the US. And children—many of whom are still ineligible for vaccination—have headed back into classrooms.

In one of the newly published studies, health researchers in Arizona looked at schools with and without mask policies in Maricopa and Pima Counties. Together, the counties account for more than 75 percent of the state’s population. The researchers identified 210 schools that had universal masking requirements from the start of their school years. They compared those to 480 schools that had no mask requirements throughout the study period, which ran from July 15 to August 30.

The researchers tallied 129 school-associated COVID-19 outbreaks in all of those schools during the study period. About 87.5 percent of the outbreaks were in schools without mask requirements. The researchers then ran an analysis, adjusting for school sizes, COVID-19 case rates in each school’s zip code, socioeconomics measures, and other factors. The researchers found that the odds of a school-associated COVID-19 outbreak were 3.5 times higher in the schools without mask requirements compared to those with universal masking.

In a separate study, CDC researchers tried to assess if schools’ mask policies have broader impacts for their communities—and they do. The researchers looked at county-level data on the rates of pediatric COVID-19 cases in 520 counties around the US. They compared rates of child COVID-19 cases in the week before and week after schools started their terms.

Though all counties generally saw increases in pediatric COVID-19 cases after schools started up, the counties with universally masked schools saw smaller bumps. For counties with school mask requirements, the average increase in case rates after schools started was 16.32 cases per 100,000 children per day. Counties without school mask requirements saw an average rate increase about twice as high—34.85 cases per 100,000 children per day.

Mask safety

The US continues to see a patchwork of mask use and other protective measures in schools as the 2021-2022 school year gets underway. Many schools in many states do not have universal masking requirements even though the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend universal masking in schools. In some states state leaders have prohibited schools from issuing mask requirements—and even penalized them for requiring masks.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is among the leaders who have banned mask mandates in schools. And, although the ban is being challenged in court, DeSantis is withholding money from school boards that have issued mask mandates anyway.

On Thursday, the US Department of Education announced that it had granted the school board of Florida’s Alachua County $147,719. The money is intended to “restore funding withheld by state leaders—such as salaries for school board members or superintendents who have had their pay cut—when a school district implemented strategies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.”

In a statement, Alachua County Public School Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon: “I’m very grateful to [US Secretary of Education Miguel] Cardona, President Biden and the federal government for the funding. But I’m even more grateful for their continued support and encouragement of our efforts to protect students and staff and to keep our schools open for in-person learning.”

Alachua is the first county in the nation to receive such funding, provided through the new Project to Support America’s Families and Educators (Project SAFE) grant program.

In a separate statement, education secretary Cardona said: “We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them. We stand with the dedicated educators in Alachua and across the country doing the right thing to protect their school communities.”

Public health experts say that masks are a critical tool to help protect children, teachers, and staff from the spread of the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Masks are intended to be one key layer of a multi-layered approach that also includes vaccination for those eligible, physical distancing when possible, improved ventilation, testing, quarantining, improved hygiene, and disinfection and cleaning.

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NASA seeks a new ride for astronauts to the Artemis launch pad

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Enlarge / NASA first began using the 1983-model Airstream for space shuttle missions in 1984.

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NASA has asked industry for ideas to develop an “Artemis Crew Transportation Vehicle” that will take its astronauts from suit-up facilities to the launch pad on launch day.

The space agency, of course, has not launched its own astronauts on a NASA-built vehicle since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. From 1984 through the end of the shuttle era, the agency used a modified Airstream motor home, known as the “Astrovan,” to ferry crews to the launch pad. This iconic vehicle had a shiny, silvery exterior but a fairly spartan interior. “The current vehicle’s appeal is rooted in its tradition rather than its décor,” the agency acknowledged in 2011.

Now, NASA is gearing up for a new era of deep space exploration, and it plans to launch four astronauts at a time inside the Orion spacecraft, on top of a Space Launch System rocket. The first human flights on these vehicles could occur in late 2023 or early 2024, NASA administrator Bill Nelson recently said.

While it has taken literally decades and tens of billions of dollars to develop the spacecraft and rocket, NASA is hoping its launch pad ride can be furnished a little more quickly. In its solicitation, released Friday, NASA says its “Artemis CTV” should be delivered no later than June 2023.

NASA is considering three different options for the new vehicle. A provider can custom-build a vehicle, modify a commercially available vehicle, or repair and refurbish the venerable Astrovan.

As part of its solicitation, NASA has a lengthy list of requirements for its Artemis transport vehicle. Among them:

  • It must be a zero-emission vehicle, such as battery-electric, plug-in hybrid electric, or fuel cell electric
  • It must have a carrying capacity of eight passengers, including four fully suited astronauts
  • It must have extensive capacity for equipment, including large bags for helmets, ice-based cooling units, and more
  • Have sufficiently wide doors of 24 to 36 inches for ingress and egress by suited astronauts

According to Ars automotive editor Jonathan Gitlin, it is unlikely that any existing zero-emissions vehicle meets these requirements, even with modifications. Ford’s forthcoming electric Transit Van may come close, Gitlin added.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, Chris Ferguson, and Sandy Magnus inside the Astrovan in 2011.
Enlarge / NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, Chris Ferguson, and Sandy Magnus inside the Astrovan in 2011.

NASA

The best option, in fact, may be renovating the old Airstream. This is because the vehicle will not be called upon for particularly long journeys—it’s only a few kilometers to and from the launch pad—and this demand would be well within the capabilities of a couple Tesla drive units and a slab of batteries.

With the Artemis program, NASA is going back to the Moon like it did in the 1960s. It’s using a capsule design, not dissimilar to Apollo, and a large rocket with space shuttle main engines designed in the 1970s. So, why shouldn’t astronaut transport be retro, too?

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CDC director overrules experts, allows Pfizer boosters for health workers

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Enlarge / CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate committee hearing in July 2021.

Just past midnight last night, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overruled a committee of independent advisers, allowing for use of a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine booster dose in people with increased risk of occupational and institutional exposure to the pandemic coronavirus. That includes health care workers, front-line workers, teachers, day care providers, grocery store workers, and people who work or live in prisons and homeless shelters, among others.

Hours earlier, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) concluded a two-day meeting on booster recommendations—and voted 9-6 against recommending boosters for this group.

“As CDC Director, it is my job to recognize where our actions can have the greatest impact,” Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. “At CDC, we are tasked with analyzing complex, often imperfect data to make concrete recommendations that optimize health. In a pandemic, even with uncertainty, we must take actions that we anticipate will do the greatest good.”

She further noted that the inclusion of people at high risk of COVID-19 from occupational and institutional exposure “aligns with the FDA’s booster authorization.” The Food and Drug Administration last Wednesday issued an amended Emergency Use Authorization for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which allowed booster doses for people 65 and older as well as people ages 18 to 64 who are at high risk of COVID-19 either from underlying medical conditions or occupational and institutional exposures.

Though the CDC’s advisory committee was torn over endorsing that use, they ultimately decided that the need was not there—vaccine effectiveness against severe disease and hospitalization remains very strong in those under age 65. And recommending boosters for anyone with a conceivable occupational or institutional risk could create a booster free-for-all.

By taking the unusual move to overrule the ACIP’s decisions, Walensky puts the booster efforts more in line with the Biden administration’s preliminary plans to offer booster doses to all vaccinated adults, starting this week.

Still, the current recommendations only apply to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and those who received that vaccine for their two-dose “primary series.” Those who initially received two doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine or one shot of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine are advised to wait for further booster data and recommendations.

For now, here are the CDC’s official recommendations of who should get a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine booster—to be given at least six months after the primary Pfizer/BioNTech series. (Emphasis added by CDC).

  • people 65 years and older and residents in long-term care settings should receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series,
  • people ages 50–64 years with underlying medical conditions should receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series,
  • people ages 18–49 years with underlying medical conditions may receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series, based on their individual benefits and risks, and
  • people ages 18-64 years who are at increased risk for COVID-19 exposure and transmission because of occupational or institutional setting may receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series, based on their individual benefits and risks.
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