More boosters are approved, kids’ shots prove effective, and more countries open up. Here’s what you should know:
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The FDA and CDC approve Moderna and J&J boosters
Yesterday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed boosters for eligible people who received initial doses of the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which means that tens of millions more Americans can get an additional shot as soon as today. The agency’s approval followed similar authorization from the FDA the day prior. The FDA, and later the CDC, also said that people who are eligible for boosters can get them from a different drugmaker than their first shots. There’s some evidence to show that any extra dose increases immunity, and in particular that people who got a first shot from Johnson & Johnson had a much better immune response if they got a second dose of an mRNA vaccine. The FDA said anyone who got a Johnson & Johnson shot is eligible for a booster two months after their initial vaccination.
Already, there are more boosters than first doses being administered in the US. But some medical ethicists and international organizations continue to voice their dismay with the way the US has prioritized eradicating any infection within its own borders over helping other countries secure initial doses, thereby reducing severe illness and death worldwide.
Pfizer and BioNTech submit data to the FDA demonstrating their vaccine’s efficacy in kids
Pfizer and BioNTech submitted data to the FDA today showing that their Covid-19 vaccine proved 90.7 percent effective at preventing symptomatic disease in children ages 5 to 11 during clinical trials. Participants received one-third of the adult dosage and saw only mild side effects. There were no cases of severe illness or myocarditis or pericarditis, heart conditions that have been seen in some other age groups of vaccine recipients, notably young men. Earlier this week the White House outlined its plan for distributing shots to kids once they’re approved, which could happen within weeks. The administration will partner with pediatricians’ offices and community clinics, among other health care providers, and will focus on educating parents about the shots.
Pfizer and BioNTech also filed with Health Canada for approval of their vaccine in younger kids this week. When it comes to vaccinating adolescents, Canada has been an exemplar. It was the first country to approve shots for kids ages 12 to 15 last spring, and more than 80 percent of Canadians 12 and older are fully inoculated.
Countries around the world ease restrictions for vaccinated residents and tourists
On Friday, Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, reopened after being locked down for 262 days, the longest cumulative lockdown for any city in the world during the pandemic. It follows in the footsteps of Sydney, where restrictions began easing two weeks ago. Starting next month, fully vaccinated international travelers will no longer need to quarantine when entering the two cities. In neighboring New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that country’s lockdown will end when 90 percent of eligible residents are vaccinated; so far, 86 percent of the population has received at least one dose. Kuwait also announced it will lift restrictions for people who’ve been vaccinated. And Thailand has said it will open up to visitors who’ve received their shots.
The FDA backs additional doses, international travel restrictions end, and vaccine mandate rules progress. Here’s what you should know:
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FDA panel signs off on additional Moderna and Johnson & Johnson doses
Today, an FDA advisory committee recommended a second dose of the Johnson & Johnson shot. Many fewer Americans received this vaccine than either of the mRNA shots, so there’s less data overall, but the group has recommended that a second dose be available to recipients 18 and older two months after their initial vaccine. On Thursday, the same committee unanimously recommended booster shots for recipients of Moderna’s vaccine who are 65 and older or are part of several other vulnerable populations. The next step will be for a Centers for Disease Control advisory panel to discuss additional doses in meetings scheduled for next week. If they approve, distribution could start shortly thereafter.
The first boosters, third doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, were approved in the US in August, and in the time since, President Biden has touted additional shots as an effective way for vulnerable Americans to protect themselves. But boosters have not been without controversy, especially because so many countries around the world are still struggling to procure initial doses.
Pandemic travel constraints lift around the world
The Biden administration announced today that, starting November 8, it will lift travel restrictions for fully vaccinated visitors from 33 countries, including a number of European nations, China, and Iran. There will be stricter requirements for travelers coming from places other than these approved countries. Next month, the US will also lift restrictions for fully vaccinated travelers entering the country from Canada or Mexico by land. A different border policy will still apply to migrants.
Outside the US, many other countries are also lifting stringent travel requirements that have been in place for much of the pandemic. Australian officials have said that vaccinated travelers coming to Sydney will no longer need to quarantine starting next month. After 19 months, India is about to start allowing foreign tourists. And Bali and Malaysia will also be opening to vaccinated visitors soon.
Government vaccine mandate rules are in final review despite pushback
Last month, President Biden directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to write rules regarding company vaccine mandates, and earlier this week the agency showed its proposal to the Office of Management and Budget for final review. A number of state attorneys general have said they’ll oppose the measures, but many businesses have already implemented their own protocols in accordance with the president’s executive order. Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, for instance, recently upheld their employee mandates even though both are based in Texas, where the governor has banned such policies. And another aerospace company, Boeing, recently joined the ranks of organizations requiring workers to get their shots.
From Star Trek–like medical scanners to concepts for off-planet agriculture like in The Expanse, science fiction has often inspired actual research at NASA and other space agencies. This week, researchers are meeting at a virtual conference for the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program to brainstorm and investigate sci-fi-like ideas, some of which may very well shape the missions of the next 20 years.
A drone helicopter hopping about a Martian crater or a lunar rover that maps moon ice might have seemed far-fetched a decade ago, but the copter actually flew earlier this year, and the rover is in the planning stages. Now the conference organizers have solicited proposals for more exploratory projects, a few of which the agency might eventually fund. “We invest in long-term, far-out technologies, and most of them probably won’t work. The ones that do might change everything. It’s high risk, high payoff, almost like a venture capital investment portfolio,” says Jason Derleth, the NIAC program executive.
The program isn’t focused on incremental developments but instead seeks game-changing technologies, ones that are 10 times better than the state of the art, Derleth says. He likens it to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which also explores extremely speculative concepts but developed the precursor to the modern internet, among other innovations.
The annual conference, which continues through Thursday, September 23, is publicly viewable on NIAC’s livestream. Some of the proposals discussed so far—such as for new ways to launch foldable space stations or astronaut habitats, or to extract resources from other worlds—revolve around the understanding that, for lengthy space voyages, you have to make the most of every rocket launch.
The next generation of space travelers will need resources for survival, for protective structures, and to fuel the journey further or return home. “This leaves us with two options: Take everything with us, like if you were going on a hiking trip in the desert. Or find new and creative ways to use whatever is already there,” says Amelia Greig, an aerospace engineer at University of Texas at El Paso, who presented at the conference on Tuesday.
To aid creative reuse of lunar resources, Greig and her colleagues propose a technology called ablative arc mining, which would slurp up water ice and the kinds of metals that could be used as building materials. “It’s like using controlled lightning bolts to mine the moon,” she said during her presentation. Her concept describes a van-sized moon crawler—named after the Jawa sandcrawlers of Star Wars—that picks a spot, and then places a ringed device that it carries on its front end parallel to the ground. Electric arcs zap across the ring, which can be made as large as a meter in diameter, ripping particles from the moon’s surface. Those particles, now charged, can then be moved and sorted by the machine’s electromagnetic fields. That way, rather than scoping just one resource, a single piece of equipment could fill one container with water, another with oxygen attached to other elements, and others with silicon, aluminum, or other metal particles.
After spending three days about 360 miles above the ground, the all-civilian crew of SpaceX’s Inspiration4 have returned to Earth. Their Crew Dragon capsule slowed down to 15 miles per hour as it descended under four parachutes and splashed down at 7:07 pm Eastern off the Atlantic coast of Florida, not far from where they launched on Wednesday evening.
“Welcome home to planet Earth. Your mission has shown the world that space is for all of us and that everyday people can make extraordinary impacts in the world around them,” came the voice of SpaceX quality engineer Andy Tran, who was one of the hosts of the company’s livestream from mission control in Hawthorne, California.
“Thank you so much SpaceX, it was a heck of a ride for us,” replied the voice of commander Jared Isaacman. “We’re just getting started!”
“Copy just getting started,” returned Tran.
Their landing spot depended on weather and ocean conditions, which cooperated with their plans: The sky was clear of storms and the water wasn’t choppy. SpaceX also coordinated with the Coast Guard to ensure safety in the area and to discourage boaters from entering the splashdown zone, as they did last year when two American astronauts splashed down in a SpaceX capsule in the Gulf of Mexico.
SpaceX personnel quickly approached the Inspiration4 capsule aboard small boats in order to extract the astronauts and bring them to dry land. The recovery process is expected to take about an hour. From there, the crew will undergo some medical evaluations, head to a private party, and then finally they’ll return home.
“This is the beginning of the private space tourism industry, beyond the suborbital stuff we saw this summer. It’s not like five minutes, a little moment of microgravity, and it’s over. This is much more what the public understands as space tourism,” said Jordan Bimm, a space historian at the University of Chicago.
The Dragon’s manifest includes paying customer Isaacman, the billionaire CEO of the payment processing company Shift4Payments, and three people whose tickets he sponsored: Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and artist; Chris Sembroski, an aeronautical engineer; and Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant. Proctor is the fourth African-American woman to go to space, and Arceneaux made history as the first space traveler with a prosthetic body part. She’s a bone cancer survivor and once was a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Memphis, Tennessee nonprofit for which the Inspiration4 team aims to raise at least $200 million, a goal they have already nearly reached.
Although Dragon flies autonomously, both Proctor and Isaacman, who aren’t professional astronauts, nonetheless have training that would have allowed them to pilot the capsule if necessary. The crew kept busy while orbiting the Earth 15 times a day: Isaacman kept track of the spacecraft’s systems and kept in touch with mission control. Arceneaux conducted medical research on the health effects of space radiation and of extremely low levels of gravity, which can have effects on vision. In collaboration with researchers on the ground at Baylor College and Cornell University, the crew members collected biological samples and biomedical data from each other during the flight, monitoring their heart rates, blood oxygen saturation, and sleep, among other things. Arceneaux also imaged her crewmates’ eyes and other organs using a handheld ultrasound scanner called the Butterfly IQ+, an artificial intelligence-enabled device that is also being tested on the International Space Station.
Proctor brought on board pens, ink, markers, and watercolor paint, although she wasn’t sure how well they’d work in a near-zero-gravity environment. She focused on her metallic markers to make artwork on the second day of their flight. “Here’s my rendition of the Dragon capsule being carried by a dragon off the Earth,” Proctor said, holding up her drawing during a live on-orbit update on Friday.
On the Florida coast, at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the SpaceX team is readying the historic Inspiration4 mission for liftoff. It will be the first all-private, all-civilian spaceflight into orbit. The four crew members—Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Chris Sembroski, and Hayley Arceneaux—have trained intensely for this day, although none of them are professional astronauts. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon craft has previously ferried NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, but everyone aboard this flight is traveling as a guest of Isaacman, the billionaire CEO of Shift4Payments, who paid for all four seats and played a part in selecting the other passengers through a series of contests. (You can read more about the selection process and the mission here.)
The Inspiration4 crew have a five-hour launch window that opens at 8:02 pm Eastern on Wednesday night. If the weather cooperates and all systems are go, the team will blast off on their Falcon 9 rocket, and in a little more than eight minutes their space capsule will be propelled into orbit. They’ll fly about six times higher than Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos did during their edge-of-space jaunts earlier this summer, and stay in orbit for approximately three days.
As early as Saturday evening, the Dragon spacecraft will descend toward Earth and splash down at one of several possible landing sites off the Florida coast, where a SpaceX team will be waiting for them, ready to take the new astronauts ashore.
How to Watch
SpaceX’s webcast of the launch will go live at about 4 pm Eastern time on Wednesday, September 15, about four hours before the launch window opens. SpaceX’s preview coverage will include features on the crew and their lead-up activities. You can stream it below or on the SpaceX website.
Weather condition forecasts have recently been upgraded from 70 percent to 90 percent favorable, so a launch tonight seems likely. But if they have to scrub tonight’s attempt, they’ll try again tomorrow. Their backup five-hour launch window starts Thursday, September 16, at 8:05 pm Eastern.