TIME space

What Richard Branson Can Learn From the Virgin Galactic Tragedy

Broken dream: Debris from Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo sits in a desert field on Nov. 2, 2014 north of Mojave, Calif.
Sandy Huffaker—Getty Images Broken dream: Debris from Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo sits in a desert field on Nov. 2, 2014 north of Mojave, Calif.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Every disaster can be equal parts tragedy and travesty. Both are avoidable.

Am I the first person to discover that the ecosystem of Twitter can be a little bit toxic? Those 140 characters, it seems, don’t always lend themselves to nuanced and reasoned discussion, and so the discussion that does take place is often—how best to put this?—discourteous.

All right, maybe that’s not news to anyone. But I’ve discovered that ugly truth anew in the past few days, in the wake of my Oct. 31 piece arguing that that day’s crash of Sir Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo—which took the life of test pilot Michael Alsbury, a 39-year-old married father of two—could be laid directly at the feet of Branson himself. I accused Branson of too much hucksterism and too much hubris. I meant what I said, and I stand by it.

Many of the tweets that opinion elicited are best left in the Twitter muck, particularly this thoughtful take, and this one and this one, which would be so much better if the author had taken the time to spell-check schmuck. There was, too, a response from Chris Sacca, a deservedly well-regarded investor in Uber, Kickstarter, Instagram and more and a man with an impressive 1.49 million Twitter followers: “Brave pioneer died conducting research. Go f*ck yourself, Time.” (Asterisk not provided in original.)

O.K., let’s all take a deep breath and try to collect ourselves. All disasters can be equal parts tragedy and travesty if we don’t keep our heads about us, but that doesn’t mean they have to remain that way. I’m happy to concede that my phrasing was provocative, and I indeed conceded it on CBS This Morning the day after the crash. But that doesn’t mean it was misplaced. Let’s start with that hubris thing.

As I mentioned in my earlier piece, I attended the Mojave Desert jamboree that Virgin Galactic threw last year for a few hundred of its paying passengers and got a look at SpaceShipTwo up close. What struck me the most was a bit of company artwork stenciled on the fuselage of the ship, as well as on all of the press materials distributed that day and even on the very lanyards that held the credentials of all of the attendees.

It was a series of silhouettes that represented a sort of walking tour of the key mile markers of human spaceflight. First was an Icarus-looking figure with large feathered wings; next came the Wright Brothers’ plane, then what appeared to be Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. Those were followed by an X-1 (the first plane to break the sound barrier), a 747, the Apollo lunar module, and then SpaceShipOne (the forerunner of SpaceShipTwo, and the first private craft to achieve suborbital flight). Finally came SpaceShipTwo itself, mated to its larger carrier craft.

So of the eight greatest pivot points in the long history of human aviation, Branson claims a connection to two—one of which (SpaceShipTwo) has never even done the thing that it was built to do, which is to get to space. Yes, logos are just semiotics—but semiotics count, especially when they seem to define the company’s culture.

As recently as Sept. 27, according to Mail Online, Branson was predicting that success for SpaceShipTwo was just months away, despite the fact that the company has been in operation since 2004 and has continually missed such self-imposed deadlines; had just switched from a rubber-based to a plastic-based fuel that had not even been tested in flight until last week; and still holds only an experimental—not operational—permit from the FAA. But never mind.

“I would very much hope that before Christmas, Virgin Galactic has visited space,” Branson told Mail Online. “And then we’ll move the whole program to New Mexico where myself and my son will be the first people to go up from the Spaceport in the spring of next year.”

These are less the words of a pioneer than those of an entrepreneur who has to keep the enthusiasm around his enterprise high, partly because he’s answerable to a lot of other people with a lot of money on the line: There is, for example, the $218.5 million the taxpayers of New Mexico have ponied up to build that spaceport near the appropriately named town of Truth or Consequences. There’s the estimated $300 million that’s been poured into Virgin Galactic by the Abu Dhabi–based firm Aabar Investments. And most troubling of all, there are the $20,000 deposits Virgin’s estimated 800 customers have put down to hold their reservations for their eventual flight.

This is where Branson dramatically parts company with all of the legends his acolytes in the Twitterverse and elsewhere like to invoke—especially the Wright brothers. Orville and Wilbur, it’s worth remembering, risked only their own hides on their first flights—and they never, ever presumed to take their highly experimental plane commercial no matter how confident they were in its reliability.

What’s more, they were genuinely attempting to accomplish something that had never been done before—powered flight—as opposed to simply coming up with a new way to fly a manned suborbital mission that was first checked off humanity’s bucket list on May 5, 1961, when Alan Shepard pulled it off. And if you’re going to make the argument that Branson is trying to democratize (the go-to word) spaceflight, making it available to everyone as opposed to just the elite, I would argue that you have to be pretty darned elite to be able to plunk down $250,000 for a 15-minute vacation—which factors out to a cool $16,666 per minute.

Second to the Wrights when it comes to easy and inapt comparisons are the heroes of NASA’s early days, who—argue the enthusiasts—lost plenty of pilots themselves and never would have gotten anywhere if they hadn’t taken bold risks. “You’ve read The Right Stuff, right?”@Kazanjy challenged me in a tweet. Yes, @Kazanjy, I have. And more relevant to our conversation, I wrote Apollo 13. I’ve also reported and written extensively about multiple space disasters over the years, including the loss of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia and the Mir space station accident in 1997.

The Challenger explosion in particular, as history has shown, was the direct result of the same get-it-done, fly-it-now, meet-the-deadline urgency the Virgin Galactic brass are applying to the SpaceShipTwo engineers. This doesn’t mean Branson has been cavalier with the lives of his pilots any more than NASA was, or that he isn’t genuinely heartbroken at the loss of one of them. It does mean that both he and the space agency of the Challenger era were pushing their staffs to keep unrealistic promises they themselves had made: a workable vehicle that could go commercial as soon as spring, in Branson’s case; and a shuttle that could fly payloads cheaply with a quick turnaround time, in NASA’s case. Something similar was true of the Apollo 1 launchpad fire that cost the lives of three astronauts in 1967, as NASA raced to meet the deadline President Kennedy set of having Americans on the moon by 1970.

What Apollo 13 showed was that even when the pressure is off—when the moon race is won and the hardware has been proven and you can finally begin flying missions that are less about just getting home in one piece and more about doing some actual science—you still can’t take anything for granted.

The reason the Apollo 13 astronauts, who had exhaustively prepared for every conceivable thing that could go wrong with their spacecraft, never rehearsed for the one that did, was that no one ever conceived of a quadruple failure of multiply redundant hardware. And if anyone did conceive of it, there was no point in preparing for it, because it would be like preparing for what to do if you drive your car over a cliff. You do nothing; you just die.

The Apollo 13 crew survived, but in the case of Virgin Galactic, a man has indeed been lost. It’s a hard and tragic truth that that death, unlike the Apollo 13 breakdown, was foreseeable. So too is the risk of a ship full of paying tourists suffering the same fate if Branson’s enterprise ever gets off the ground. It shouldn’t.

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 space

Enough With Amateur-Hour Space Flight

A fatal accident in the Mojave Desert is a lesson in the perils of space hubris

It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for the hard-working people of Virgin Galactic—Sir Richard Branson’s private space tourism company—after the loss of their SpaceShipTwo vehicle in a crash in the Mojave Desert at a little after 10 a.m. PDT Friday. And it’s completely impossible not to hurt for the families of the two pilots involved in the accident—one of whom was killed and the other of whom suffered serious injuries, according to local police.

But it’s hard too not to be angry, even disgusted, with Branson himself. He is, as today’s tragedy shows, a man driven by too much hubris, too much hucksterism and too little knowledge of the head-crackingly complex business of engineering. For the 21st century billionaire, space travel is what buying a professional sports team was for the rich boys of an earlier era: the biggest, coolest, most impressive toy imaginable. Amazon.com zillionaire Jeff Bezos has his own spacecraft company—because what can better qualify a man to build machines able to travel to space than selling books, TVs and lawn furniture online? Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has a space operation too because, well, spacecraft have computers and that’s sort of the same thing, right?

Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, is at least in the business of flying aircraft, but the key part of that compound word is air. Space, as Branson surely knows, has none of that—and that changes the physics considerably.

A Virgin crash always seemed troublingly likely. And since it is the company’s whole purpose to carry passengers, it seemed equally likely to hurt or kill a lot of people too. I visited Branson’s self-styled spaceport in the Mojave last year to watch a brief test flight of his spacecraft. The mission that day was intended more as an air show than anything else—part of a pep rally for the hundreds of Virgin customers who would be attending to hear about the company’s progress. All of them had reserved a seat and paid a deposit toward their $200,000 ticket for a trip that—if it ever happened—would last just 15 minutes and ascend to just 62 miles (100 kilometers), which technically counts as being in space, but only to the extent that riding a jet ski off the beach in Ft. Lauderdale counts as going to sea.

But never mind, because the crowd seemed happy to be there and to take Branson’s word that they really, truly would get their chance to be astronauts. For the record, the demonstration flight they had come to see never took off due to high desert winds.

The Virgin crash comes just three days after the Oct. 28 explosion of an Antares rocket taking off from Wallops Island, Va., on an unmanned resupply mission to the International Space Station. That first part of a very bad week for the space industry was especially cautionary, because Orbital Sciences, the Virginia-based manufacturer of the rocket, is by no means a newcomer. It’s been in the business for more than three decades and has a very good track record of getting payloads—not passengers—off the ground and into orbit. Yet even it cannot control all of the lethal variables—technical, meteorological, human—that make space travel such a dicey game.

The practice of non-professionals insinuating themselves into the space business is not new. We have a launch facility at Cape Canaveral yet built a Mission Control center halfway across the country in Houston—the least efficient, most senseless arrangement imaginable—because then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson was the White House point man for the space program and he wanted his home state of Texas to get a bite of the big moon pie. Ex-Sen. Jake Garn and current Sen. Bill Nelson both elbowed their way aboard space shuttle flights since, unlike all of the other American kids who want to play spaceman, they were powerful figures in Congress and could loosen or tighten NASA’s purse strings at will.

Once NASA announced that after the shuttle program ended in 2011 it would be outsourcing the low Earth orbit portion of its portfolio to the private sector, it was inevitable that there would be a scramble of companies vying for those contracts—and that’s by no means all bad. In some respects, space has always been privatized: North American Aviation, Grumman Aerospace, Boeing and others have all been major NASA contractors, and they are hardly government-owned operations.

All, however, are deeply experienced in the business of aeronautical and astronautical design, too. Elon Musk, founder of the upstart SpaceX is, so far, defying doubters, with a string of both commercial launches and resupply missions to the ISS and no major disasters. But SpaceX is a rare bird—and still a young one—and it has a while to go before it establishes its true space cred.

It’s Branson, however, who has always been the most troubling of the cosmic cowboys—selling not just himself on his fever dreams but his trusting customers. One of those would-be astronauts I met in the Mojave that day was a teenage girl, whose parents had put aside enough money to buy her the singular experience of a trip to space. They beamed at her courage as we spoke, and seemed thrilled about the ride she was soon to take. Those plans, presumably, are being rethought now.

TIME space

The Great Lakes—a Billion Miles From Earth

This near-infrared, color mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan's north polar seas.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho This near-infrared, color mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan's north polar seas.

A new picture from the Cassini spacecraft reveals a dazzling vista on Saturn's moon Titan

Titan coulda’ been a contender. Saturn’s largest moon is a very distant, very cold place, -289º F (-179º C) worth of cold in fact. But even before the Cassini probe arrived in the Saturnian system in 2004, it was clear the giant world had unrealized potential. Its hydrocarbon atmosphere always suggested that had it been situated closer to the incubating warmth of the sun, it might have cooked up life. Indeed, astronomers long considered Titan a sort of flash-frozen version of the early Earth—back in the epoch when biology had yet to emerge but all of the ingredients for it were in place.

One other thing Titan was thought to share with Earth was the presence of oceans and lakes. The Titanian version would be filled with liquid methane and ethane instead of water, but the behavior of those bodies—freezing, evaporating, lapping up against shorelines—would be the same. When Cassini arrived, its radar scanners confirmed that these theories were true, and its infrared imagers have been returning better and better images of the lakes and seas—none so striking as the one above, just released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which oversees the mission.

The image shows the region around Titan’s north pole, with the sun—more than 900 million miles (1.4 billion km) distant at the time the picture was taken—glinting off the sea known as Kraken Mare. Clouds farther north of the site are likely refilling the sea with rain—the methane and ethane variety again. Close analysis by JPL researchers has also revealed what they call a bathtub ring around Kraken Mare, the residue left over when some of the contents of the sea evaporated, reducing its overall size.

The north pole is not the only region of Titan that is home to lakes and seas; the southern extremes of the moon have them too, but not nearly as many. This, investigators believe, is due to greater volcanic activity occurring in the north, leaving the region scarred with divots. These then served as the basins that became the seas.

Nobody is seriously expecting to find life in the Titanian depths—unless it’s a form of life that needs no liquid water and can somehow survive the punishing temperatures of the deep solar system. But nobody minimizes the value of the science that’s coming back from Cassini either. If nothing else, studying Titan reminds us of how precise the conditions must be for biology to exist on any world—and how lucky we are that those conditions were met here.

TIME movies

Watch an Exclusive Interstellar Clip With Matthew McConaughey

Cooper faces some dubious realities in this exclusive first look at Christopher Nolan's space epic Interstellar

Of all of the conspiracy loonies currently at large — birthers, truthers and grassy-knollers, we’re looking at you — there are none quite as febrile as the folks who claim the Apollo moon landings were faked. The theory (with apologies to the word “theory”) presumes that all of the 400,000 people directly or indirectly involved in the moon landings schemed in perfect secrecy to pull off the greatest scam in history, and have maintained their silence for more than two generations since the lunar program ended in 1972. It would be easier just to go to the flipping moon.

But what’s preposterous in real life plays for poignant drama in the new film Interstellar — set sometime in the vaguely defined future, when Earth is slowly being suffocated by an unnamed blight and luxuries like space travel are out of the question. To keep people’s minds off the great things humanity once did so they can better accept their sadly reduced state, the U.S. government itself adopts the Apollo hoax story, writing it into all federally approved textbooks. In a movie in which so much takes place in the trackless expanse of space, one of the most affecting scenes plays out in a principal’s office, where a grounded astronaut (Matthew McConaughey) is being told that his daughter has gotten into trouble for spreading the purported lie that yes, in a different age, human boots indeed left prints on another world.

TIME space

NASA’s Antares Explosion: What it Means

An unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket explodes shortly after takeoff at Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. on Oct. 28, 2014.
Jay Diem—AP An unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket explodes shortly after takeoff at Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. on Oct. 28, 2014.

The rocket's fortunately fatality-free failure to launch spells trouble for one of NASA's major contractors

The good news—the very, very good news—is that no one was aboard Orbital Sciences’ Antares booster when it exploded just six seconds after leaving the launch pad on Wallops Island, Va. at 6:30 PM EDT on Oct. 28. It was the fifth launch of the Antares and the fourth that was headed for the International Space Station (ISS) on a resupply mission. The booster made it barely 200 feet off the ground.

The bad news—the very, very bad news—is what this means for Orbital as a continued player in the competition to supply the ISS. It was in 2008 that Orbital (which has a long history in the space biz) and Elon Musk’s SpaceX (which had none at all) won a $3.5 billion NASA contract, with Orbital taking $1.9 billion of that for eight flights. Halfway through the contract, the company was looking to re-up, and this will not reflect well on them at the bargaining table.

Orbital was never a serious part of the even more furious competition to take over the manned portion of NASA’s low Earth orbit portfolio. The winners of that battle, named Sept. 16, were SpaceX again, and Boeing—a venerable part of the NASA family and prime contractor of the ISS. Tonight’s explosion would be a lot more worrisome if one of those two—already gearing up to carry people—had been responsible. But for Orbital, it will be bad enough.

Worse for the company is CEO David Thompson’s admission on Oct. 29 that part of the problem could be the AJ-26 engines used in the deceased booster’s first stage. Originally designed by the Soviet Union (that’s not a typo—we’re talking about Russia long before the fall of communism) the engines were later updated and retrofitted for the Antares booster.

It is too early to say if the AJ-26’s were indeed responsible for the explosion, but old hardware is old hardware and in an era in which the likes of Musk are starting with a blank page when they design their engines, taking outdated stuff off the shelf is not the way to inspire confidence. In 2012, a catty Musk made that point, telling Wired magazine:

One of our competitors, Orbital Sciences, has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke. It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s. I don’t mean their design is from the ’60s—I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere.

Musk being Musk, that’s more than a little hyperbolic, but the snark still stung Orbital. It is an especially bad time for any aerospace company to have to be defending the use of Russian-made engines, ever since spring when U.S. sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Crimea led Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin to mock America’s dependence on Russia’s Soyuz rockets to reach the International Space Station. “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry,” Rogozin said, “I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

More worrisome was Rogozin’s threat to limit sales to the U.S. the RD-180 engines that are used in America’s workhorse Atlas V rocket. That bit of bluster soured politicians on continuing to do space business with Russia at all and kick-started efforts to develop a domestic alternative to the RD-180. Now comes Orbital with an older, far worse Russian engine that just may have caused an entire rocket and its cargo to go up in flames.

A reputation-saving case the company could plausibly make—though it would be suicide to try—is the “stuff blows up” argument. Space travel is notoriously hard and rockets are notoriously ill-tempered. They are, after all, little more than massive canisters of exploding gasses and liquids, with the weight of the fuel often much greater than the weight of the rocket itself. This is not remotely the first time launch controllers have witnessed such a fiery spectacle on the pad and it won’t be the last. Realistically, there will never be a last.

But Orbital is supposed to be a senior member of the space community, not one of the freshmen like SpaceX or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. No exploding rocket is good—especially when contracts are ending and NASA is again looking for free agents. It’s much worse for an outfit that’s been in the game for a while. Final determination of how bad the damage is will await the investigation into the cause of the explosion. But one thing’s certain: you wouldn’t want to be on the company’s Vienna, Va. campus tonight—on what is surely going to be the first of a lot of very long nights to come.

TIME behavior

Breaking Bad Action Figures? Really, Toys R Us?

No, you're not hallucinating, that really is a Walter White doll.
No, you're not hallucinating, that really is a Walter White doll.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

In a spectacularly bad bit of judgment, the big box store puts a meth manufacturer on its shelves.

Human history is often defined by its very worst pitch meetings. Take the one in 1812, when one of Napoleon’s generals told the Great Emperor, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s invade Russia—in the winter!” Or the one in 1985, when the anonymous product developer at Coca-Cola said, “How ’bout we take a product everyone loves, quit making it and replace it with a different formulation no one is asking for! What could go wrong?”

So too it must have gone in the executive suites of Toys R Us, when someone made the compelling case for stocking a brand-new line of action figures based on the wildly successful Breaking Bad series. After all, nothing quite says holiday shopping like a bendable, fully costumed figurine of Walter White—the murderous chemistry teacher turned crystal meth manufacturer—and Jesse Pinkman, his former student and current bag man. And you want accessories? We’ve got accessories—including a duffle bag stuffed with imaginary cash and a plastic bag of, yes, faux crystal meth for White. Pinkman comes with a gas mask, because the folks at Toys R Us are not the kind to forget about corporate responsibility. If your kids are going to grow up to run a meth lab, it’s never too early to teach them basic safety.

It might not surprise you to learn that Toys R Us has faced a teensy bit of blowback from this curious marketing decision. Florida mom Susan Schrivjer has posted a petition on Change.org that has just exceeded 2,000 signatures, demanding that the company pull the products. She also appeared on The Today Show to make her case more publicly.

“Anything to do with drugs is not doing the right thing,” she said. “I just think they need to look at their vision and values as they call them.”

The part that’s more surprising—but sadly only a little—is that even after being called on its appalling lack of judgment, Toys R Us has not responded with the quickest, loudest, most abject oops in corporate history. Instead, it is standing its ground. Why? Because the dolls are sold only in the “adult section” of the store, of course—the ones intended for shoppers 15 and up.

OK, let’s start with the fact that Toys R Us has an adult section at all—something I never knew and I suspect many other parents didn’t either. So what will they stock there next? A line of Toys R Us hard cider? Toys R Us adult literature? A Toys R Us edition of Fifty Shades of Gray—which is really OK because hey, it actually comes with a set of 50 gray crayons? If an adult section must exist at all, at what point does full disclosure require the company to rebrand itself “Toys as Well as Other Things Not Remotely Appropriate For Children But Don’t Worry Because We Keep Them in a Separate Section, R Us”?

More important, let’s look at above-15 as the dividing line for the adult section—a distinction that makes perfect sense because if there’s anything 15 year olds are known for, it’s their solid judgment, their awareness of consequences, their exceptional impulse control and their utter imperviousness to the siren song of drugs and alcohol. Oh, and they never, ever emulate bad role models they encounter on TV, in the movies or among their peers. What’s more, kids below the age of 15 never, ever run wild in a sensory theme park like a big box toy store, finding themselves in departments not meant for them and seeing products they shouldn’t see. Toys R Us, you’ve thought this one out to the last detail!

What the company’s consumer researchers probably know and if they don’t they ought to, is that the brain’s frontal lobes—where higher order executive functions live—aren’t even fully myelinated until we reach our late 20s, which is why young people can be so spectacularly reckless, why soldiers and political firebrands tend to be young and why judges, heads of state and clerical leaders tend to be old. The adult fan of Breaking Bad might actually enjoy the new toys as collectors items–something to be bought or given as a gift with a little twinkle of irony, a this-is-so-wrong-it’s-right sort of thing. But that kind of nuance isn’t remotely within a child’s visible spectrum.

Really, Toys R Us, there is absolutely no surviving this one. Back up the truck, pack up the toys and send them to a landfill. And if you’re even thinking about following this one up with a Boardwalk Empire board game complete with a Nucky Thompson plush toy, stop now. Or at the very least, invite me to the pitch meeting.

Read next: Toys R Us ‘Breaks Bad’ with New Crystal Meth Toys

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 vaccines

Very Good and Very Bad News in the Vaccine Wars

Just say yes.—but too many Americans say no to vaccines
Steve Debenport; Getty Images Just say yes.—but too many Americans say no to vaccines

Like any trench war, the fight to protect America's kids against disease is proceeding only inch by inch. A new report shows why there's reason for hope—and reason for worry

It’s just as well that no one knows the names of the 17,253 sets of parents in California who have opted not to have their children vaccinated, citing “philosophic” reasons for declining the shots. The same is true of the anonymous 3,097 in Colorado who have made the same choice—giving their far smaller state the dubious distinction of being dead last among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the simple business of protecting their children against disease.

On the other hand, kudos to you, Mississippi, for finishing number one—with an overall kindergartener vaccination rate in the past school year of 99.7%—and to you, Louisiana, Texas and Utah, for finishing not far behind. Your children, by this measure at least, are the safest and healthiest in the country.

These and other findings were part of the alternately reassuring and deeply disturbing survey from the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), looking at vaccination coverage for more than 4.25 million kindergarteners and the opt-out rates for more than 3.9 million in the 2013-2014 school year

The report’s top line number seems encouraging. The national compliance rate for the three major vaccines covered in the survey ranged from 93.3% (for chicken pox) to 94.7% (measles, mumps, rubella, or MMR) to 95% (diptheria, tetanus, pertussis).

But even those numbers don’t mean America has aced the test. Vaccination rates need to reach or exceed 95%, depending on the disease, to maintain herd immunity—the protection afforded by vaccinated people to those few who can’t be vaccinated, by giving the virus too few ways to body-surf its way across a population until it finds someone who’s vulnerable. So while a 90% vaccination rate might look like an A, it in fact may be no better than a middling C.

And in some parts of the country, the numbers are much, much worse. As I reported in TIME’s Oct. 6 issue, vaccination refusal tends to be a phenomenon of the wealthier, better educated, politically bluer parts of the country—the northeast, the Pacific coast and pockets around major universities. Those are communities in which folks know just enough to convince themselves that they know it all—which means they know better than the doctors, scientists and other members of medical community at large, who have overwhelmingly shown that vaccines are safe and effective.

That’s part of the reason New York City’s elite private schools have vaccination rates far lower than the city’s public schools, and why, according to a shocking story by the Hollywood Reporter, some schools in the wealthier neighborhoods of Los Angeles have a lower vaccination rate than in South Sudan.

Digging deeper into the MMWR report, there are other, broader causes for worry. There are the 26 states plus the District of Columbia that don’t meet the Department of Health and Human Services’ guidelines of 95% coverage for the MMR vaccine. There are the 37 states that don’t even meet the CDC’s standards for properly gathering data on vaccination rates in the first place. And there are the 11 states with opt-out rates of 4% or higher.

The anti-vaccine crowd frames the refusers as part of a brave vanguard of parents who won’t be hectored into getting their children protections that they, the parents, have decided are useless or dangerous. But it’s worth remembering what the world looked like in the era before vaccines. And you don’t have to work too hard to do that, because you know what it looked like? It looked like West Africa today, where people are being infected with the Ebola virus at a rate of 1,000 new cases per week—on target to be 10,000 by December—where entire families and indeed entire villages are dying agonizing deaths, and where whole populations would line up by the millions for the protection a vaccine would offer.

Vaccine refusal is increasingly the indulgence of the privileged. And it is, as the Ebola crisis shows, the indulgence of the foolish, too.

TIME Health Care

The Price of Staying Alive For the Next 3 Hours

Stayin' alive—and cheap at the price
ZU_09; Getty Images Stayin' alive—and cheap at the price

A new study suggests a little spending now can buy you a lot of time later

How much do you reckon you’d pay not to be dead three hours from now? That probably depends. If you’re 25 and healthy, a whole lot. If you’re 95 and sickly, maybe not so much. But for people in one part of the world—the former East Germany—the cost has been figured out, and it’s surprisingly cheap: three hours of life will set you back (or your government, really) just one euro, or a little below a buck-thirty at current exchange rates.

That’s the conclusion of a new study out of Germany’s Max Planck Institute, and it says a lot about the power of a little bit of money now to save a lot of suffering later—with implications for all manner of public health challenges, including the current Ebola crisis.

The new findings are a result of one of the greatest, real-time longitudinal studies ever conducted, one that began the moment the Berlin Wall fell, on Nov. 9 1989. Before that year, there were two Germanys not just politically, but epidemiologically. Life expectancy in the western half of the country was 76 years; in the poorer, sicker east, it was 73.5. But after unification began, social spending in the East began rising, from the equivalent of €2,100 per person per year to €5,100 by the year 2000. In that same period, the difference in lifespan across the old divide went in the opposite direction, shrinking from 2.5 years to just one year as the east Germans gained more time. Crunch those numbers and you get the three extra hours of extra life per person per euro per year.

“Without the pension payments of citizens in east and west converging to equivalent levels,” said Max Planck demographer Tobias Vogt in a statement, “the gap in life expectancy could not have been closed.” Increased public spending, Vogt adds, is often framed as an unfortunate knock-on effect of longer life. “But in contrast,” he says, “our analysis shows that public spending can also be seen as an investment in longer life.”

The idea that generous, tactical spending now can be both a money-saver and lifesaver is one that health policy experts tirelessly make—and that people in charge of approving the budgets too often ignore. Bill Gates often makes the point that $1 billion spent to eradicate polio over the next few years will save $50 billion over the next 20 years, not just because there will no longer be any cases of the disease to treat, but because the global vaccination programs which are necessary just to contain the virus can be stopped altogether when that virus is no more.

As TIME reported in September, British inventor Marc Koska made a splash at the TEDMed conference in Washington DC when he unveiled his K1 syringe—an auto-destruct needle that locks after it’s used just once and breaks if too much force is used to pull the plunger back out. That prevents needle re-use—and that in turn not only reduces blood-borne pathogens from being spread, it does so at a saving. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), $1 spent on K1 syringes saves $14.57 in health care costs down the line—or $280 for a $20 order of the shots.

All across the health care spectrum, such leveraging is possible. Critics of the Affordable Care Act have slammed the law for the cost of the preventative services it provides, and while it’s way too early to determine exactly how successful the law will be, the encouraging stabilization in the growth of health costs suggests that something, at least, is working.

Global health officials are making a similar, though more urgent, preventative argument concerning the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Americans are rightly jumpy over the few cases that have landed on our shores, but the 1,000 new infections per week that are occurring in the hot-spot nations of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone make our concerns look small. Frighteningly, according to the WHO’s newest projections, that figure will explode to 10,000 cases per week by December if the resources are not deployed to contain the epidemic fast.

“We either stop Ebola now,” WHO’s Anthony Banbury said in a stark presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Sept. 14, “or we face an entirely unprecedented situation for which we do not have a plan.”

Suiting up and wading into the Ebola infection zone is a decidedly bigger and scarier deal than spending an extra euro on public health or an extra dollar for a new syringe. But the larger idea of intervention today preventing far larger suffering tomorrow remains one of medicine’s enduring truths. We lose sight of it at our peril.

TIME space

Think You Could Live on Mars? Think Again

Mars
Getty Images

A new analysis of Mars One's plans to colonize the Red Planet finds that the explorers would begin dying within 68 days of touching down

Hear that? That’s the sound of 200,000 reservations being reconsidered. Two hundred thousand is the announced number of intrepid folks who signed up last year for the chance to be among the first Earthlings to colonize Mars, with flights beginning as early as 2024. The catch: the trips will be one way, as in no return ticket, as in farewell friends, family, charbroiled steaks and vodka martinis, to say nothing of such everyday luxuries as modern hospitals and, you know, breathable air.

But the settlers in Jamestown weren’t exactly volunteering for a weekend in Aspen either, and in both cases, the compensations—being the first people on a distant shore—seemed attractive enough. Now, however, the Mars plan seems to have run into a teensy snag. According to a new analysis by a team of grad students at MIT, the new arrivals would begin dying within just 68 days of touching down.

The organizers of the burn-your-boats expedition is a group called Mars One, headed by Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch entrepreneur and mechanical engineer. As Lansdorp sees things, habitat modules and other hardware would be sent to the Red Planet in advance of any astronauts, who would arrive in four-person crews at two-year intervals—when Mars and Earth make their closest approach, which holds the outbound journey to a brief (relatively speaking) eight months. The crew-selection process would be part of (yes) a sponsored reality show, which would ensure a steady flow of cash—and since the settlers would grow their own food onsite, there would be little to carry along with them. All that would keep the overall cost of the project to a shoestring (relative again) $6 billion.

So what could go wrong? That’s what the four MIT students set out to find out, and the short answer is: a lot.

The biggest problem, the students discovered, concerns that business of breathable air. One of the things that’s always made Earth such a niftily habitable place to live is that what animals exhale, plants inhale, and vice versa. Since the Martian astronauts and their crops would be living and respiring in the same enclosed habitats, a perfect closed loop should result in which we provide them all the carbon dioxide they need and they return the favor with oxygen.

Only it doesn’t, the MIT students found. The problem begins with the lettuce and the wheat, both of which are considered essential crops. As lettuce matures, peaking about 30 days after planting, it pushes the 02 level past what’s known as .3 molar fractions, which, whatever it means, doesn’t sound terribly dangerous — except it’s also the point at which the threat of fire rises to unacceptable levels. That risk begins to tail off as the crop is harvested and eaten, but it explodes upward again, far past the .3 level, at 68 days when the far gassier wheat matures.

A simple answer would be simply to vent a little of the excess O2 out, which actually could work, except the venting apparatus is not able to distinguish one gas from another. That means that nitrogen—which would, as on Earth, make up the majority of the astronauts’ atmosphere—would be lost too. That, in turn, would lower the internal pressure to unsurvivable levels—and that’s what gets your 68-day doomsday clock ticking.

There is some question too about whether the hardware that Mars One is counting on would even be ready for prime time. The mission planners make much of the fact that a lot of what they’re planning to use on Mars has already been proven aboard the International Space Station (ISS), which is true enough. But that hardware is built to operate in microgravity—effectively zero g—while Mars’s gravity is nearly 40% of Earth’s. So a mechanical component that would weigh 10 lbs. on Earth can be designed with little concern about certain kinds of wear since it would weigh 0 lbs. in orbit. But on Mars it would be 4 lbs., and that can make all the difference.

“The introduction of a partial gravity environment,” the grad students write, “will inevitably lead to different [environmental] technologies.”

For that and other reasons, technical breakdowns are a certainty. The need for replacement parts is factored into Mars One’s plans, but probably not in the way that they should be. According to the MIT team, over the course of 130 months, spare parts alone would gobble up 62% of the payload space on resupply missions, making it harder to get such essentials as seeds, clothes and medicine—to say nothing of other crew members—launched on schedule.

Then too, there is the question of habitat crowding. It’s easy to keep people alive if you feed them, say, a single calorie-dense food product every day. But energy bars forever means quickly losing your marbles, which is why Mars One plans for a variety of crops—just not a big enough variety. “Given that the crop selection will significantly influence the wellbeing of the crew for the entirety of their lives after reaching Mars,” the authors write, “we opt for crop variety over minimizing growth area.”

Then there is the question of cost—there’s not a space program in history whose initial price tag wasn’t badly lowballed—to say nothing of maintaining that biennial launch schedule, to say nothing of the cabin fever that could soon enough set the settlers at one another’s throats. Jamestown may not have been a picnic, but when things got to be too much you could always go for a walk by the creek.

No creeks here, nor much of anything else either. Human beings may indeed colonize Mars one day, and it’s a very worthy goal. But as with any other kind of travel, the best part of going is often coming home.

Read next: 20 Breathtaking Images Of The Earth As Seen From Space

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