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

See an Astronaut’s Minimalist Photo of a Sunrise

Sunrise seen from the International Space Station
Reid Wiseman—NASA/EPA

Ever wondered what sunrise looks like from space?

Following the explosion of the Antares rocket, Astronaut Reid Wiseman shot this picture of the sunrise, captured from the International Space Station (ISS).

“Not every day is easy,” Wiseman wrote. “Today was a tough one.”

He was referring to the failure of the Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft, moments after launch at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The Cygnus spacecraft was filled with about 5,000 pounds of supplies slated for the ISS, including science experiments, hardware, spare parts and crew provisions. The station crew is in no danger of running out of food or other critical supplies, NASA said.

TIME #TheBrief

#TheBrief: Ebola Quarantines Get Political

While the federal government works to contain Ebola in the U.S., states are taking matters into their own hands—and butting heads with the White House and the CDC in the process.

The attempt to contain the spread of Ebola in the United States is becoming political, with governors imposing varying, stringent, and sometimes unclear quarantine rules that are hard to enforce across state lines.

President Barack Obama spoke out against these policies Wednesday, saying, “We don’t want to discourage our health care workers from going to the front lines. They are doing God’s work over there, and they are doing it to keep us safe.”

Here’s your brief on the science and politics of Ebola.

TIME stocks

Space Company’s Stock Plummets to Earth After Rocket Explodes During Liftoff

The company whose rocket exploded in a massive fireball about 200 feet in the air Tuesday is taking a beating on the stock market. Shares for Orbital Sciences are down 15% in early morning trading after the company’s unmanned spacecraft, the Antares, malfunctioned just moments into its attempted journey to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Orbital stock was trading at about $25.50 around noon.

As TIME’s Jeff Kluger points out, the failed launch could be devastating for Orbital, which has been launching spacecraft for decades. The company is competing fiercely with the likes of Elon Musk’s upstart SpaceX to win NASA contracts to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Orbital is seeking to extend its contract, and this accident won’t help matters.

TIME space

Cause Sought for Space-Supply Rocket Explosion

(ATLANTIC, Va.) — The owners of a commercial supply ship that exploded moments after liftoff promised to find the cause of the failed delivery mission to the International Space Station and warned residents to not touch any debris they might stumble across from the craft, which was carrying hazardous materials.

Crews planned to hit the ground at daybreak Wednesday to search for pieces of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo module, which blew up Tuesday night just moments after lifting off from NASA’s launch complex at Wallops Island, Virginia, said Bill Wrobel, director of the facility.

The cargo ship was carrying 5,000 pounds of experiments and equipment for NASA, as well as prepackaged meals and freeze-dried Maryland crabcakes for a Baltimore-born astronaut who’s been in orbit for five months. All of the lost materials will be replaced and flown to the 260-mile-high space station, NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini said. He said astronauts at the station currently have enough supplies to last until spring.

The accident could draw scrutiny to the space agency’s growing reliance on private U.S. companies in the post-shuttle era. NASA is paying billions of dollars to Virginia-based Orbital Sciences and the California-based SpaceX company to make station deliveries, and it’s counting on SpaceX and Boeing to start flying U.S. astronauts to the orbiting lab as early as 2017. It was the fourth Cygnus bound for the orbiting lab; the first flew just over a year ago. SpaceX is scheduled to launch another Dragon supply ship from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in December.

Until Tuesday, all of the supply missions by Orbital Sciences and SpaceX had been near-flawless.

President Barack Obama has long championed this commercial space effort. He was in Wisconsin for a campaign rally and was kept informed.

Orbital Sciences’ executive vice president Frank Culbertson said the company carried insurance on the mission, which he valued at more than $200 million, not counting repair costs. The explosion hit Orbital Science’s stock, which fell more than 15 percent in after-hours trading.

By coincidence, the Russian Space Agency was proceeding with its own supply run Wednesday, planned well before the U.S. mishap.

John Logdson, former space policy director at George Washington University, said the explosion was unlikely to be a major setback to NASA’s commercial space plans. But he noted it could derail Orbital Sciences for a while given the company has just one launch pad and the accident occurred right above it.

At a news conference Tuesday night, Culbertson and others said everyone at the launch site had been accounted for and the damage appeared to be limited to the facilities.

He noted that the cargo module was carrying hazardous materials and warned residents to avoid any contact with debris.

“Certainly don’t go souvenir hunting along the beach,” he said.

Things began to go wrong 10 to 12 seconds into the flight and it was all over in 20 seconds when what was left of the rocket came crashing down, Culbertson said. He said he believes the range-safety staff sent a destruct signal before it hit the ground, but was not certain at this point.

This was the second launch attempt for the mission. Monday evening’s try was thwarted by a stray sailboat in the rocket’s danger zone. The restrictions are in case of just such an accident that occurred Tuesday.

Culbertson said the top priority will be repairing the launch pad “as quickly and safely as possible.”

“We will not fly until we understand the root cause,” he said, adding that it was too early to guess how long it might take to make the rocket repairs and fix the launch pad. It will take a few weeks, alone, to assess the damage and extent of potential repairs.

Culbertson also stressed that it was too soon to know whether the Russian-built engines, modified for the Antares and extensively tested, were to blame.

“We will understand what happened — hopefully soon — and we’ll get things back on track,” Culbertson assured his devastated team. “We’ve all seen this happen in our business before, and we’ve all seen the teams recover from this, and we will do the same.”

The Wallops facility is small compared to NASA’s major centers like those in Florida, Texas and California, but vaulted into the public spotlight in September 2013 with a NASA moonshot and the first Cygnus launch to the space station.

Michelle Murphy, an innkeeper at the Garden and Sea Inn, New Church, Virginia, where launches are visible across a bay about 16 miles away, saw the explosion.

“It was scary. Everything rattled,” she said. “There were two explosions. The first one we were ready for. The second one we weren’t. It shook the inn, like an earthquake. It was extremely intense.”

Among the instruments that were lost from the cargo module: a meteor tracker and 32 mini research satellites, along with numerous experiments compiled by schoolchildren.

The two Americans, three Russians and one German on the orbiting space station were watching a live video feed from Mission Control and saw the whole thing unfold, Suffredini said.

___

Dunn reported from Cape Canaveral, Florida. AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington and Associated Press Writer Alex Sanz in Atlanta contributed to this report.

Read next: NASA’s Antares Explosion: What it Means

TIME space

See the Spookiest Space Photos This Halloween

Nebulae that look like witches, zombie stars, and spectral clouds of star dust

TIME animals

Giant Tortoises Are Back From Near Extinction

A giant turtle is pictured at the zoo in Duisburg on Sept. 24, 2007.
A giant turtle is pictured at the zoo in Duisburg on Sept. 24, 2007. Ina Fassbender—Reuters

They were down to only 15 about 50 years ago

Giant tortoises endemic to the Galapagos Islands are back from near extinction, according to a study published Tuesday in PLOS One.

The Espanola giant tortoises, a species that can live for over 100 years, had numbered in the thousands but dropped to 15 by 1960 due to human exploitation, the study said. Between 1963 and 1974, conservationists brought the 12 female and three male surviving giant tortoises into captivity. Over 1,500 of their offspring have since been released onto the island, and the species’ survival no longer requires human intervention, scientists said.

“The population is secure. It’s a rare example of how biologists and managers can collaborate to recover a species from the brink of extinction,” said James P. Gibbs, the study’s lead author and a professor of at the State University of New York’s Environmental Science and Forestry, in a press release.

Reintroducing the giant tortoise population not only promotes biodiversity but also restores their position as “ecosystem engineers” who disperse seeds and other organisms, according to the report. While the population is stable, the number of Espanola giant tortoises is not likely to increase substantially until other problems in the environment, such as the overgrowth of woody plants, are resolved.

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.
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

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 space travel

NASA’s Antares Rocket Explodes During Take-Off

The cargo delivery rocket was unmanned

NASA’s unmanned Antares rocket exploded unexpectedly Tuesday seconds after it took off in an attempt to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

A fireball filled the night sky after the explosion, which destroyed the rocket supplied by Orbital Sciences Corp., at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

NASA officials said on the broadcast of the launch that no personnel appear to be in danger, and the damage to the facility appears to be limited after the burning rocket crashed to the ground. The agency will begin an investigation into the rocket’s failure that includes officials from NASA, Antares’ developer Orbital Sciences Corporation and launch site Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Va.

The Antares rocket had been scheduled to launch on Monday to deliver over 5,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS, but was postponed because a boat was too close to the launch area.

NASA had awarded to Orbital Sciences in 2008 a contract for the rocket company to demonstrate successful cargo delivery to the ISS. The explosion was the rocket’s first unsuccessful launch out of its five launches to date.

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