TIME vaccines

How Words Can Kill in the Vaccine Fight

Farrow: Right ideas, wrong words
Farrow: Right ideas, wrong words NBC/Getty Images

To own the argument you've got to own the language. At the moment, the dangerous anti-vaxxers are winning that war

Chances are you wouldn’t sit down to a plate of sautéed thymus glands, to say nothing of a poached patagonian tooth fish; and the odds are you’d be reluctant to tuck into a monkey peach too. But sweetbreads, Chilean sea bass and kiwifruit? They’re a different matter—except they’re not. All of those scrumptious foods once went by those less scrumptious names—but few people went near them until there was something pleasant to call them. Words have that kind of power.

That’s true in advertising, in politics and in business too. And it’s true when it comes to vaccines as well—but in this case those words can have a lethal power. The bad news is that in the vaccine word game, the good guys (they would be the ones who know that vaccines are safe, effective and save from two to three million lives per year) are being caught flat-footed by the bad guys (those would be the ones whose beliefs are precisely opposite—and therefore precisely wrong).

The battle plays out on Twitter, with the handy—and uninformed—handle #CDCWhistleBlower repeatedly invoked by virtually every fevered anti-vax tweet like a solemn incantation. The term refers to Dr. William Thompson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who supposedly blew the lid off of the great vaccine conspiracy by confessing to irregularities in a 2004 study that deliberately excluded data suggesting a higher rate of autism in African-American boys who had been vaccinated. Scary stuff alright, except that the study was poorly conducted, the data was left out for purely statistical and methodological reasons, and the paper itself has now been withdrawn. But the hashtag stain remains all the same—with the usually noble whistleblower label being put to low purpose.

Something similar is true with the widely cited Vaccine Injury Court, another frightening term, except that no such thing exists—at least not by that name. It’s true there is an Office of Special Masters which, under a smart 1986 law, hears the claims of parents who believe their children have been injured by vaccines. The panel was created to provide no-fault compensation in all such cases, since drugs that are as vital and are administered as widely as vaccines could never be manufactured or sold affordably if the companies themselves had to pour millions and even billions of dollars into defending themselves against claims.

It’s true too that the court has paid out about $2.8 billion to parents and families since 1989, but those awards are overwhelmingly for relatively minor side effects that are fully disclosed by the ostensibly secretive CDC for any parents caring to look on the agency’s website. And to put that $2.8 billion in perspective: The money went to 3,727 claimants over an approximate generation-long period during which 78 million American children were safely vaccinated, preventing an estimated 322 million illnesses and 732,000 deaths. If you’re crunching the numbers (and it’s not hard to do) that factors out to a .0048% risk of developing what is overwhelmingly likely to be a transient problem—in exchange for a lifetime of immunity from multiple lethal diseases.

But brace for more anyway because October is, yes, Vaccine Injury Awareness Month. Because really, what does a dangerous campaign of misinformation need more than 31 catchily named days devoted to itself?

Still, there’s no denying that catchiness works, and on this one the doctors and other smart folks are going to have to get off the dime. MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow—who either is or isn’t to your liking depending in part on whether MSNBC itself is—has emerged as a smart, persuasive, often brilliantly cutting advocate for the vaccine cause. And on his Oct. 10 show he deftly filleted the arguments of a vocal anti-vax mother whose child is undeniably suffering from a number of illnesses, but who wrong-headedly blames them on vaccines. In this show as in others he invites his audience to learn the truth about vaccines and to connect with him and one another via the handle #VaccineDebate.

And right there he tripped up. For the billionth time (as Farrow knows) there is no debate. Just as there is no climate change debate. Just as there is no moon-landings-were-faked debate. And just as there was nothing to the tobacco company’s disingenuous invention of a “cigarette controversy,” a fallback position they assumed when even they knew that cigarettes were killers and that they couldn’t straight-facedly say otherwise, so the best they could do was sow doubt and hope people stayed hooked.

Little more than 30 seconds spent listening to Farrow talk about vaccines makes it unmistakably clear where he stands—but the very fact that we now live in a hashtag culture means that it’s by no means certain he’s going to get that 30 seconds. So step up your game, smart people. You want to get the vaccine message out, do it in a way that works in the 21st century. And if that means a hashtag, why not #VaccinesWork or #VaccinesAreSafe or #VaccinesSaveLives. Of course, there’s also the more thorough and satisfying #AntivaxxersDon’tKnowWhatThey’reTalkingAboutSoPleaseStopListeningToThem, but that gets you exactly halfway to your 140-character limit. So keep it brief folks—and make it stick.

TIME anniversary

SpaceShipOne’s Dubious Birthday

Going somewhere? The start of SpaceShipOne's maybe-historic flight in 2004
Going somewhere? The start of SpaceShipOne's maybe-historic flight in 2004 HECTOR MATA; AFP/Getty Images

A decade ago the first private spacecraft crossed the boundary of space and big promises followed. But there've been big disappointments too.

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when you achieve something great? Easy: don’t start promising more greatness to come. It’s fine to hoist a Super Bowl trophy, but that’s not the time to predict a threepeat over the next couple years. Ditto the first-time Oscar winner who goes public about buying a new mantlepiece for all the statuettes to come; ditto too the one-hit wonder who’s already boasting about one day joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

That’s just the hubris that afflicted Burt Rutan, Paul Allen and the other folks behind SpaceShipOne a decade ago when their little rocket plane won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize, beating 25 other teams from 10 nations competing to be the first private group to pull off a piloted suborbital space flight twice within two weeks. After that mission was accomplished, Rutan, the ship’s designer, publicly predicted that the big aerospace players like Boeing would realize they had just lost out in the most promising new market of all: space tourism. “I think they’re looking at each other now and saying, ‘We’re screwed,'” he averred.

Almost immediately, he and Allen—the co-founder of Microsoft—licensed the SpaceShipOne technology to Virgin Atlantic’s Sir Richard Branson, who predicted a five-ship fleet with a five-person capacity on each vehicle within three years. So how’s all that working out?

SpaceShipOne, for all of the understandable applause its gutsy mission earned, was always overhyped. The ship was required to achieve an altitude of at least 100 km (62.5 mi.)—which it beat slightly—then arc over in three minutes of weightless flight and return safely to earth. Nifty stuff, but it’s also something the U.S. accomplished with the flight of Alan Shepard as long ago as 1961, and the old Soviet Union didn’t even bother with since they were capable of achieving orbit—where you can get some real flying done.

The scientific applications for SpaceShipOne are limited too. Yes, there are some basic experiments that can be run during the brief cosmic toe-dip of a suborbital flight, involving testing hardware in space conditions, studying the behavior of fluids and other substances, and making brief atmospheric measurements. But if popgun missions like that could do the really substantive stuff, we wouldn’t have built a massive orbiting lab like the International Space Station (ISS).

Instead, the promise has always been space tourism—offering paying passengers the chance to experience space and, after a fashion, call themselves astronauts. There are now up to 20 companies around the world competing in this new game—including big names like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic—but none have flown so much as a single paying customer.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic is the closest to delivering. His SpaceShipTwo is the direct descendant of the original Rutan-Allen ship, and he has signed up a long list of potential passengers who have all put down deposits toward their $200,000 fare. Last year, TIME attended something of a pep rally at the outfit’s Mojave Desert headquarters, during which hundreds of those passengers-on-standby gathered, mingled, ate high-end finger food and cheered speeches and videos hyping the ride to come. But a promised test flight of the ship was scrubbed due to high winds and that day’s much-repeated pledge that the spacecraft’s maiden space trip would occur before the end of the year has slipped—as it has so many times before—this time to what Branson describes only as “earlyish in the new year.” As recently as August, he said he’d be “bitterly disappointed” if he didn’t make his before-2015 deadline.

None of this is to say that space tourism is doomed, but it is to say that the thinking behind it has always been flawed. The Ansari XPrize was modeled after the 1919 Orteig Prize, which offered $25,000 (the equivalent of $344,000 in 2014) to the first person who could fly nonstop from New York to Paris. Charles Lindbergh won that one in 1927 and before long, his historic trip became one anybody could make. But air travel is not space travel—an exponentially harder, riskier and costlier proposition. SpaceShipOne—despite the decade-old hoopla—was never the achievement of a dream, it was merely the beginning of one. Its true fulfillment is still many years away.

TIME Disease

What It Will Take to End Polio

President Franklin D. Roosevelt leaves his home at 49 East 65th Street for a short visit to his family estate at Hyde Park, north of New York City on Sept. 27, 1933.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt leaves his home at 49 East 65th Street for a short visit to his family estate at Hyde Park, north of New York City on Sept. 27, 1933. Martin Mcevilly—NY Daily News/Getty Images

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Franklin Roosevelt never knew the Pakistani babies battling polio today, but he knew their pain. The world is fighting to end that suffering forever

You can still see the ramps and rails at Franklin Roosevelt’s house on East 65th Street in Manhattan—even though they’ve been gone for decades. They’re easily visible in the pictures that decorate the home. They’re visible, too, in the popular iconography of Roosevelt, who was photographed standing countless times after being paralyzed by polio in 1921, but always with a hand on a bannister, an arm on an aide, a cane in his grip—and ramps and rails at the ready.

The six-story Roosevelt house, where the family lived from 1908 until their move to the White House in 1933, is now owned—and was restored—by New York’s Hunter College. These days it’s a place of learning and policy conferences. But it is also a place of historical serendipity.

“When the house was built, it was one of the first private residences in New York that had its own elevators,” Hunter president Jennifer Raab told me as we toured the building this morning. Those became indispensable once FDR became paralyzed, and it was in that house that his kitchen cabinet thus gathered in the four months between his election in 1932 and his inauguration 1933. “The New Deal was born here,” Raab says.

For FDR, there were abundant compensations for polio. As Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts makes clear, the disease deepened and grounded him. It made him a champion of children with polio—an effort that led to the March of Dimes and the later Salk and Sabin vaccines—and for that matter a champion of all people who suffered hardship. It was polio that gave Roosevelt a fuller temperament—and in turn gave the nation a fuller Roosevelt.

There are no such compensations for the handful of children around the world who still contract the crippling disease. On the same morning I was making my visit to the Roosevelt house, word came out of Pakistan that the country is on target to top 200 polio cases in 2014, its biggest caseload since 2000. Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic—the other two are Afghanistan and Nigeria, with 10 and six cases respectively so far this year—and it’s the only one in which the caseloads are moving in the wrong direction.

As recently as 2005, Pakistan’s case count was down to just 28, helping to push polio to the brink of eradication. That same year, however, religious leaders in northern Nigeria declared a boycott of the vaccine, claiming that it contained HIV and was intended to sterilize Muslim girls. This led to a wildfire spread of the Nigerian strain that stretched as far southeast as Indonesia.

But Nigeria got its house in order, and the hot zone now—a more challenging one—has shifted to Pakistan, particularly in the tribal areas in the north and in the mega-city of Karachi. Some of the problem is simply the crowded, unhygienic conditions in Karachi. But the bigger piece is the fighting in the tribal regions, which have made vaccinations difficult or impossible. That’s been exacerbated by Taliban gunmen, who have shot and killed 59 polio field workers and police officers trying to protect them since 2012.

“It’s a very sad thing,” Aziz Memon, head of Rotary International’s PolioPlus team, told TIME by phone from Pakistan today. “We’re trying to get vaccinators on the ground and into the field despite the ban. And now rains and flooding that have broken 100-year-old records are creating more problems.”

Rotary, which has been the point-organization for the eradication of polio for more than 25 years, is being assisted by the Gates Foundation, Save the Children and multiple other international groups, all working to push back against the Taliban blockade. Vaccinators routinely wait at bus stops around Pakistan, climbing aboard and looking for kids who have no vaccination records and administering the drops on the spot. Refugee camps in the war torn tribal regions provide another way of standing between the virus and the babies.

“When the virus is contained like this it’s a good opportunity to step in and control it,” says Memon. “We can also take advantage of the low-transmission season, which starts soon.”

The effort to snuff out polio altogether is more than merely the moral thing, it’s also the practical thing. Bill Gates repeatedly stresses that $1 billion spent per year over the next few years can save $50 billion of the next 20 years, money that would otherwise be spent treating polio and constantly fighting the brushfire war of vaccinating against outbreaks. Eliminate the disease for good and those costs go with it. What’s more, the delivery networks that are put in place to do the job can be easily repurposed to fight other diseases.

None of this long-range thinking makes a lick of difference to the 187 Pakistani children—or the 10 Afghanis or six Nigerians—who forever lost the use of their legs this year. They are paralyzed, as they will be for life. For them, there is no offsetting wealth, no townhouse with an elevator, no path to global greatness. There is only the disease—a pain FDR recognized and fought to fix. In Pakistan, that same fight is being waged today.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME human behavior

The One Equation That Explains All of Humanity’s Problems

Relax, it's not nearly this complicated
Relax, it's not nearly this complicated niarchos Getty Images

There's you, there's me and there's everyone else on the planet. How many of those people do you care about?

Good news! If you’re like most Americans, you don’t have much reason to worry about the dangerous state of the world. Take Ebola. Do you have it? No, you don’t, and neither does anyone in your family. As for Ukraine, it’s not your neighborhood, right? Ditto ISIS.

Reasonable people might argue that a position like this lacks a certain, well, perspective, and reasonable people would be right. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a position way too many of us adopt all the same, even if we don’t admit it. If it’s not happening here, it’s not happening at all—and we get to move on to other things.

I was put freshly in mind of this yesterday, after I wrote a story on the newest—and arguably least honest—argument being used by the dwindling community of climate deniers, and then posted the link to the piece on Twitter. Yes, yes, I know. If you can’t stand the tweet heat stay out of the Twitter kitchen. But all the same, I was surprised by one response:

Just out of curiosity, how has ‘climate change’ personally affected you? Has it brought you harm?

And right there, in 140 characters or less, was the problem—the all-politics-is-local, not-in-my-backyard, no-man-is-an-island-except-me heart of the matter. It is the sample group of one—or, as scientists express it, n=1—the least statistically reliable, most flawed of all sample groups. The best thing you can call conclusions drawn from such a source is anecdotal. The worst is flat out selfish.

No, climate change has not yet affected me personally—or at least not in a way that’s scientifically provable. Sure, I was in New York for Superstorm Sandy and endured the breakdown of services that followed. But was that a result of climate change? Scientists aren’t sure. The run of above-normal, heat wave summers in the city are likelier linked to global warming, and those have been miserable. But my experience is not really the point, is it?

What about the island nations that are all-but certain to be under water in another few generations? What about the endless droughts in the southwest and the disappearance of the Arctic ice cap and the dying plants and animals whose climates are changing faster than they can adapt—which in turn disrupts economies all over the world? What about the cluster of studies just published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society firmly linking the 2013-2014 heat wave in Australia—which saw temperatures hit 111ºF (44ºC)—to climate change?

Not one of those things has affected me personally. My cozy n=1 redoubt has not been touched. As for the n=millions? Not on my watch, babe.

That kind of thinking is causing all kinds of problems. N=1 are the politicians acting against the public interest so they can please a febrile faction of their base and ensure themselves another term. N=1 is the parent refusing to vaccinate a child because, hey, no polio around here; it’s the open-carry zealots who shrug off Sandy Hook but would wake up fast if 20 babies in their own town were shot; it’s refusing to think about Social Security as long as your own check still clears, and as for the Millennials who come along later? Well, you’ll be dead by then so who cares?

N=1 is a fundamental denial of the larger reality that n=humanity. That includes your children, and it includes a whole lot of other people’s children, too—children who may be strangers to you but are the first reason those other parents get out of bed in the morning.

Human beings are innately selfish creatures; our very survival demands that we tend to our immediate needs before anyone else’s—which is why you put on your own face mask first when the plane depressurizes. But the other reason you do that is so you can help other people. N=all of the passengers in all of the seats around yours—and in case you haven’t noticed, we’re all flying in the same plane together.

TIME Environment

The Climate Deniers’ Newest Argument

Ok, this part is settled. The rest, not so much
Ok, this part is settled. The rest, not so much Meriel Jane Waissman; Getty Images

It's a lot easier to attack environmental scientists when you make up something they didn't say—and then criticize them for saying it

There are few things more satisfying than when people you’re arguing with say something manifestly wrong or tone-deaf. It’s the polemical equivalent of getting a big, fat fastball right right in your sweet spot. Just swing away with a look of disdain or checkable fact and the home run trot is yours.

Alas, that happens less often than one might like, but there’s nothing that stops you from pretending your adversary said something dumb and then pouncing on the imaginary remark. Thus we had the “You didn’t build that” and “Let Detroit go bankrupt” silliness of the 2012 Presidential campaign, in which both President Obama and Mitt Romney were pilloried for saying things they never actually said—or at least didn’t mean—at all. And so, too, we have the “Climate science is settled” charade, in which climate change deniers hand-select four words environmental scientists often do say, reframe those words to mean something else entirely, and then beat the scientists up for faux-saying it.

We saw the examplar of this ignoble formula earlier in the year when Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Washington Post, conceded that CO2 emissions aren’t good for the planet, but declared, “I also believe that those scientists who pretend to know exactly what this will cause in 20, 30 or 50 years are white-coated propagandists.” As I observed at the time, these white-coated propagandists are actually white-coated strawmen, since virtually all credible scientists acknowledge that climate systems are far, far too complex to analyze with precise accuracy. Do environmental researchers and green politicians ever say the science is “settled?” Yes they do—but they mean that the fake debate over whether climate change is a vast hoax is finished. They don’t mean there’s no work ahead.

Krauthammer, of course, is not a climate scientist—which gives him at least a small excuse. The same cannot be said of Steven E. Koonin, whose recent piece in the Wall Street Journal took a more nuanced approach to making the same point. Koonin is director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University and a former Energy Department undersecretary during Obama’s first term. Yet he runs with the same dishonest baton Krauthammer did.

“The idea that ‘Climate science is settled’ runs through today’s popular and policy discussions,” he writes. “Unfortunately, that claim is misguided.” Koonin then ticks off the usual right-wing talking points: The computer models are imperfect; the oceans’ role in warming has not been studied fully; the history of Earth’s climate is poorly understood; there has been a slowing of warming over the past 15 years. Stipulated, stipulated, stipulated and stipulated.

Again and again, climate scientists acknowledge every single one of these x-factors and again and again they come back to the fact that the planet is sick and we’re playing a role. Knowing that cigarettes can kill you is not the same as pretending to predict which fatal illness—if any—you’re going to contract or just when and how severely that disease is going to strike. But you can surely tell when you’re beginning to cough, and if you don’t quit smoking straightaway you’re a fool.

In some ways, Koonin’s own familiarity with the climate field gets in the way of his argument. He cites, for example, the fact that 55 different computer models have been used by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and not one of them is in precise agreement with the others. But where does he get that supposedly damning evidence? From the IPCC’s own 2013 report. That sounds a whole lot like a group of researchers openly acknowledging that the science is not settled, even if it all points in the same direction.

Koonin also makes the mistake of counterfeit-evenhandedness when he writes, “I fear that rigidly promulgating the idea that climate science is ‘settled’ (or is a ‘hoax’) demeans and chills the scientific enterprise.” That conspicuous parenthetical is meant to provide the illusion of balance, except the deniers truly do make the hoax claim (we’re looking at you Okla. Sen. James Inhofe, former chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee) and climate scientists truly don’t make the settledness claim—at least not the way Koonin is implying.

This isn’t to say all climate papers cover themselves in glory. Just last year, a study published in Nature tried to forecast the exact year in which various cities around the world would reach a tipping point, after which their climates would have moved permanently outside the boundaries of the mean. And so we got New York in 2047, Paris in 2054, Moscow in 2063 and on and on. Yes, there were generous margins of error built into the study, but even to suggest such precision is to misrepresent the science—at least in the popular mind.

Still, studies like this one are outliers—overzealous pieces of prognosticating in a discipline better known for caution and candor. The same moderation has not been true of the folks who have spent the better part of 25 years flinging accusations of conspiracy and fraud at climate scientists just trying to do their work. The disingenuous “settled science” argument may be a less shrill approach, but it’s a no more honest one.

TIME health

Dear Rob Schneider: Please Shut Up About Vaccines

The doctor is in the house: by all means, take vaccine advice from this guy
The doctor is in the house: by all means, take vaccine advice from this guy

State Farm dumps ad campaign after Deuce Bigalow's ignorant remarks about vaccinations

If there’s one thing I regret about the job I’ve done raising my kids, it’s that when it was time to get them their vaccines, I did not heed the wisdom of a man who is currently filming a TV series with a storyline titled “The Penis Episode, Part 2.” And if that doesn’t convince you about this deep thinker’s credibility, consider that his earlier body of work includes such powerful pieces as The Hot Chick, The Beverly Hillbillies movie and Deuce Bigalow Male Gigolo.

How’s that for a guy worth listening to? Not.

We are talking, of course, about Rob Schneider, the Saturday Night Live alum who parlayed a single character—Richard Laymer, the obnoxious office guy—into a career of small-bore, dropped pants, toilet joke movies, plus the occasional cartoon voiceover. Nothing wrong with those kinds of projects; they’re honest work and the checks generally clear.

But Schneider is at the center of a much-deserved storm this week, after State Farm Insurance announced it was pulling a new ad campaign featuring the comedian in a reprise of his office guy role, since—while the company whose job it is to help people live better, healthier, more fiscally secure lives wasn’t looking—its newly minted star has been popping off about (deep sigh here) the hidden dangers of vaccines.

Take this observation from Dr. Bigalow, in a widely circulated video shot when he was campaigning against a California law that would have made it harder for parents to refuse vaccines:

“The efficacy of these shots have not been proven. And the toxicity of these things—we’re having more and more side effects. We’re having more and more autism.”

Or this one: “You can’t make people do procedures that they don’t want. It can’t be the government saying that. It’s against the Nuremberg Laws.”

It’s actually worth watching the entire jaw-dropping display, because Schneider somehow manages to thread the extraordinary needle of being wrong on every single point he makes. Remember in high school when they used to say it was impossible to score a zero on the SATs because you get a few points just for writing your name? Schneider, presumably, would have left that part blank.

And then there are the cringe-worthy Twitter posts suggesting he has been denied his freedom of speech:

For the record Rob, no, there is no government conspiracy to force vaccines on kids. No, doctors are not bought off by big pharma. No, vaccines are not filled with toxins. And no, this is not a free speech issue—it’s a public health, common-sense and, not for nothing, business issue, since State Farm, like any company, is free to sack a spokesperson who makes them look very, very bad. Simply quoting George Washington does not mean any of the great man’s wisdom rubs off on you. It just means you looked up a quote.

But as long as we’re in the quote game, how about one of your own, from your video harangue: “The government,” you said, “can’t make decisions about what I do to my body.” On this score, you’re right. So please do continue making movies that allow you to appear on posters with a towel on your head, seaweed cream on your face and cucumbers on your nipples. Maybe George Washington would have been pleased with you. State Farm? Not so much these days.

TIME vaccines

Watch a Science Cop Take on the Anti-Vaccine Movement

"Again, and always, they're wrong."

Nothing gets the anti-vaccine fringe going quite so much as believing they’ve found a scandal—some bit of gotcha’ proof that the global medical establishment really, truly is covering up a terrible secret about the dangers of vaccines.

Recently, this always-vocal but rarely-rational crowd announced that they had what they were looking for, with the discovery that a comparatively old study had excluded some data suggesting that African-American children who had been vaccinated were slightly likelier than other kids to have developed autism.

But again—and always—the anti-vaxxers were wrong, misunderstanding the science, misrepresenting the findings, and recruiting the worst possible person imaginable to argue their wrong-headed case.

TIME space

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: Space Case

Just because you're a Master of the Universe on Earth doesn't mean the real universe will agree. Rich boys playing with space toys have a lot to learn

Time was, billionaires had no shortage of bling to buy—a yacht here, a Learjet there, a professional football team if you happen to have your Sundays free. But that’s all so yesterday. The must-have, 21st-century toy for the man with real cash to burn is fast becoming a spanking new spacecraft company.

That’s the way is seems at least, with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and, most enigmatically of all, Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos and his double super-secret, my-lips-are-sealed Blue Origin. While the other boys are anything but press shy, Bezos has kept his operation under a comparative cone of silence. The company is based in Kent, Washington, and while it doesn’t have any actual spaceships yet, it does have a website, some cool graphics and a very nifty coat of arms featuring what appear to be two turtles holding a shield with the Earth below them, the cosmos above and the motto Gradatim Ferociter (by degrees, ferociously) inscribed beneath. Really.

The last few days have been big ones for Bezos, however, with the announcement on Sept. 17 that he was partnering with United Launch Alliance (ULA)—itself a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing—to produce a new engine for ULA’s workhorse Atlas V booster. Currently, ULA uses a Russian-made RD-180 engine in the first stage of the Atlas. That became both politically and logistically untenable last spring, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western sanctions against Moscow and an announcement from Russia that it would tighten sales of the engine in retaliation.

So it’s good news that ULA is swapping out its hardware, but huge news—at least judging by the media response—that the universe’s biggest bookseller is part of the deal. The Washington Post—which is owned by . . . oh, let me check my notes. Ah yes, Jeff Bezos—declared the news “a historic partnership between ‘Old Space’ and ‘New Space.’” Bloomberg News and Businessweek, noting the bad blood that has long existed between Musk and Bezos in the race for the high ground, declared it a “battle of the billionaires” and even ran a madcap little graphic showing the two lads jousting on the backs of cartoon rockets, because why not?

But let’s sweep away the packing peanuts and see what’s really inside this latest shipping box. First of all, this may be a Musk-Bezos cage match, but if so, Bezos really should have been part of the undercard. It is a not inconsequential fact that he has yet to fire so much as a push pin into space, while Musk’s SpaceX is already flying satellite payloads for paying customers and is about to make its fourth unmanned cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Bezos has been talking for a while about taking paying tourists to suborbital space—a dream Branson is chasing too—but he is vague about when this will happen and shows no signs at all of having the wherewithal to do it.

Then too there was the timing of his big announcement, which occurred on the very day that NASA announced the companies it had chosen—after a years-long competition—to take over the business of flying astronauts to the ISS. The two winners were Boeing and, yes, Musk. It’s true that nobody knew exactly the day or time that NASA would be revealing its picks, but everybody in the space world did know it was coming sometime in mid-September. Bezos may or may not have intended to spit in the other guys’ soup, but that’s what he wound up doing.

In fairness to Bezos, the engine he is developing, dubbed the BE4 (for Blue Engine), sounds like a real gem. Most rocket engines run on a combination of liquid oxygen and a fuel known as RP1—which sounds a little less nifty when you realize it stands simply for Rocket Propellant 1, and a lot less nifty when you realize that means kerosene. Bezos plans to replace that with far cleaner liquefied natural gas. He also makes the very good point that most of the engines flying today (excluding Musk’s) were designed in the 50s, 60s and 70s and it really is time to bring 21st century materials and computer models into the mix. One BE4 could produce 550,000 lbs. (250,000 kg) of thrust. That’s less than a Russian RD-180 and much more that Musk’s Merlin. But engines are routinely bundled—Musk’s biggest working booster has 9 Merlins and NASA’s historic Saturn V moon rocket had five massive F-1 engines—so thrust is by no means a deal-breaker.

But the thing is, the F-1’s were real, as is the Merlin and as is the RD-180. The BE4, like so much in the space billionaire’s toy box, is either vaporware or hardware that has yet to actually do anything. Bezos and ULA do promise their engine will be flying by 2018—unless, of course, it’s not.

That uncertainty is the biggest message that guys who fancy themselves Masters of the Universe (albeit on Earth) have to learn. Space travel is hard—exceedingly, often lethally hard. You can’t negotiate with physics or bully orbital mechanics. You can’t delete gravity’s Buy button. Elon Musk—so far—is making a real go of things. The rest are little more than dreamers until proven otherwise. It’s not business, fellas, it’s science.

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