After 20 years of service, the Space Station flies into an uncertain future

The essentially complete International Space Station in 2010, as seen by space shuttle Atlantis.
Enlarge / The essentially complete International Space Station in 2010, as seen by space shuttle Atlantis.

NASA

The Cold War had been concluded for less than a decade when NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd and two Russian cosmonauts, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, crammed themselves into a Soyuz spacecraft and blasted into orbit on Halloween, 20 years ago.

Two days later their small spacecraft docked with the International Space Station, then a fraction of the size it is today. Their arrival would herald the beginning of what has since become 20 years of continuous habitation of the laboratory that NASA, leading an international partnership, would continue to build for another decade.

Born of a desire to smooth geopolitical tensions in the aftermath of the great conflict between the United States and Soviet Union, the space station partnership has more or less succeeded—the station has remained inhabited despite the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, and later, nearly a decade of no US space transportation. NASA, Roscosmos, and the European, Japanese, and Canadian partners have been able to rely on one another.

Not that it has been easy. Tensions have existed from those very first moments on the station. Shepherd, who would serve as the first ISS commander over his more experienced cosmonaut counterparts, wanted to nickname the station “Alpha.” He had support for this from Krikalev, but some Russian space officials believed their earlier, Mir space station, had earned that honor. The new station, they believed, ought to be named “Beta.” NASA, too, had not signed off on this designation.

Nevertheless, Shepherd pressed ahead. He liked that Alpha was the first letter of the Greek alphabet, neither American nor Russian. So on the crew’s first day aboard the station, during a space-to-ground call with NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, Shepherd said over the public loop, “The first expedition on the space station requests permission to take the radio call sign Alpha.”

Goldin was not expecting this, and he spoke away from the microphone for a few moments, conferring with others on the ground. Then he came back and said the name “Station Alpha” was authorized for the duration of Shepherd’s nearly four-month expedition.

This suited the crew, and Shepherd replied, “Out, from Space Station Alpha.” Since then, more than five dozen other crews have rotated onto the International Space Station, most recently Expedition 63, which launched in mid-October. Always, in the two decades since, there have been at least two humans on board.

Days before the most recent launch to the space station from Kazakhstan, the mission’s NASA crew member, Kate Rubins, addressed this anniversary in the crew’s final pre-flight news conference.

“I think the International Space Station is one of the most incredible engineering achievements in human history,” she said. “It is quite a marvel to see such a giant machine that was built entirely by humans and flown off the surface of Earth still persists in space 20 years later.”

The station is unique in that no one has

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Texas college student flies home from California to cast his ballot as voter turnout surges

When Texas Sen. John Cornyn saw the latest Texas early voting numbers on Monday, he asked his Twitter followers a simple question: “Who says voting in Texas is hard?”

Bradley Bain, a 23-year-old senior from Dallas at Pomona College in California, is one Texan taking exception because they’re finding it very difficult to vote.

“I’m literally spending >$400 to fly to Dallas and vote in person because you ‘accidentally’ flagged me as committing voter fraud in 2018, took me off the voter rolls, and made me ineligible to vote by mail in 2020,” Bain responded to the Republican in a tweet that has more than 176,000 likes as of Tuesday evening.

Bain hadn’t received a response for weeks after sending his absentee ballot application to the Dallas County Elections Department, so he booked a last-minute flight on Monday home to Dallas so he could vote in person.

“It’s been such a saga just to figure out how to vote,” said Bain, who cast his ballot Tuesday during early voting. “I wasn’t going to waste my opportunity to do so.”

Bain’s trip across half the country to cast his ballot captures the enthusiasm of Texas voters this election cycle — even in the midst of a pandemic.

As of Tuesday morning, more than 4.6 million Texans had cast their ballots after seven days of early voting.

In each of Texas’ 10 largest counties, that voter turnout was higher than at the same point in 2016.

Harris County, which had 566,741 votes after seven days four years ago, had more than 720,000 votes this year. Dallas County had 326,149 at this time four years ago. This election, it’s up to 392,774.

Tarrant, Collin and Denton counties — all battleground areas — also have higher turnout this year than at the same time in 2016.

Texans have until Oct. 30 to cast their ballots early after Gov. Greg Abbott extended the early voting period in response to COVID-19. But it is unclear whether that high turnout will keep up or die down as the end draws closer.

Thomas Gray, a political scientist at UT Dallas, cautioned against reading too much into the uptick in early voting. The pandemic, he said, had changed the dynamics of voting and some groups, like the Democratic Party, had placed an emphasis on encouraging voters to cast their ballots early to avoid possible exposure in long lines.

“As a result we’re seeing huge numbers across the country but also in Texas of early voting at levels that are higher than before,” Gray said. “The main question is how much of this is cannablized voting? People who are voting now but would have voted on Election Day. That’s why we’re so cautious of overinterpreting.”

Democrats have hung their hopes on new and younger voters, like Bain, flocking to the polls during a crucial presidential election.

Bain suspects he was blocked from voting by mail due to complications from having his name stripped from the Texas voter rolls during a

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Bird Flies 7,500 Miles, a New Record for Longest Nonstop Bird Migration | Smart News

Last month, scientists tracked a tireless bird’s nonstop migration from Alaska to New Zealand. That bird, a male bar-tailed godwit, set a new record for nonstop avian migration when it flew 7,500 miles over the Pacific Ocean without taking a single pitstop, reports Daniel Boffey for The Guardian.

Last year, researchers from the Global Flyway Network, a conservation group that tracks the migration of shorebirds, tracked the bird by outfitting it with a custom set of colorful bands around its legs. The bird—known as 4BBRW for the colors of the bands on its legs: two blue, one red, and one white—was also equipped with a tiny satellite tag that tracked its every move. The data revealed that the bird reached a max speed of 55 miles per hour and flew nonstop for 11 days, likely without sleeping, reports George Dvorsky for Gizmodo.

The previous record was set by a female bar-tailed godwit in 2007 who flew 7,250 miles during her migration, reports Chris Baynes for the Independent. Scientists say that for this year’s record-breaker, strong easterly winds likely lengthened his journey, helping him break the record.

Bar-tailed godwits spend their summers in the Arctic, where they breed and build up their energy reserves. By feasting on mollusks, crustaceans and worms along the shore, the godwits are able to double in size, half of which is fat. To compensate for that extra weight, their bodies shrink some of the organs that won’t be of much use during their trip, such as the stomach and liver.

When they’re ready for takeoff, they’ll fly over the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and head south to spend a warm winter in New Zealand. In March, the birds will leave the island and fly over Australia, along Asia’s east coast, and through Russia before completing their migratory loop in Alaska. For that return trip, they’ll make stops along the way to refuel.

As arduous as these treks across the Pacific Ocean may seem, bar-tailed godwits are uniquely adapted to complete these major feats.

“They have an incredibly efficient fuel-to-energy rate,” Jesse Conklin, a scientist with the Global Flyway Network, tells The Guardian. “They are designed like a jet fighter. [They have] long, pointed wings and a really sleek design, which gives them a lot of aerodynamic potential.”

As scientists work to better understand avian migration, they are still curious about how migratory birds are able to navigate halfway across the globe year after year. They seem to have “internal compasses that sense earth’s magnetic field,” reports Gizmodo. Conklin tells The Guardian that birds seem to have an “onboard map.”

“They are flying over open ocean for days and days in the mid-Pacific; there is no land at all,” Conklin says. “Then they get to New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea where there are quite a few islands and, we might be anthropomorphising, but it really looks like they start spotting land and sort of think: ‘Oh, I need to start veering or

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