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Dear Readers,

A man from NASA once confided an extraordinary truth. It was back in the days when I was still in unembarrassed awe that I could be in the presence of a man from NASA at all. I wasn't the only person with him. There were a hundred or so other boys in the room and about 25 counselors, and we were assembled in the rec hall of my summer camp which was wonderfully named Camp Comet—"The Space Age Camp for Boys," as it was proudly touted. It was very much the space age; the one-man Mercury missions had recently wrapped up, the two-man Gemini missions were coming soon and the hundred or so boys in the rec hall were wholly, utterly drunk on it all.

The man from NASA had come to give an educational talk on the space program—with all manner of profoundly cool spacecraft models and other visual aids—and eventually got around to talking about space suits. The new Gemini suits were going to be white, which was fine, I guessed. But the Mercury suits had been silver—silver!—and it would be awfully hard to say goodby to them.

Then the man from NASA told his great truth: the original Mercury suits could have been olive green—little different from the suits the astronauts wore when they were military pilots flying jets with pressurized cockpits. "But silver," he told us, "just looked spacier."

Things were actually a little more complicated than that. As NASA engineer Dennis R. Jenkins pointed out in his book Dressing for Altitude, the reflective color of the suits "provided a small measure of additional insulation against extreme temperatures." But that small measure was really a small part of the decision to go silver. Telling that truth to an audience of small boys was a surprising bit of candor, a glimpse behind the curtain at a space agency that was always acutely aware of the impression it was making not only on the tax-paying public but on the Soviet Union, America's sworn rival in a high-stakes race for supremacy in space. As anyone who ever staged a show or styled a wedding or coronation knows, costuming counts.

In the space community, however, it's starting to count too much. This week Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Under Armour sportswear manufacturer, unveiled their collaboratively designed "world's first spacesuit engineered for the masses," to be worn by paying passengers on brief suborbital flights as early as 2020, for which they will pay roughly $250,000. The suit is blue, and kind of cool looking—a little like a wet suit that's not supposed to get wet. It's made of "a proprietary auxetic material that forms to the exact shape of the body for a precision fit and zero-distraction feel," or pretty much what any tailor promises you after fitting you for a suit. It will have a name badge and the passenger's country flag sewn to the sleeve, and Virgin stresses especially that it will have, um, pockets, "dedicated to personal effects include an inside transparent pocket for photographs of loved ones, who will literally be close to the heart."

So that's fine and that's fun. The rub is that those flights that could begin as early as next year, were originally supposed to start happening a decade ago, in 2009, or five years after the company's 2004 founding. Delays in development led to commensurate delays in the start of operations, and a 2014 crash of one of the company's spacecraft killed one pilot and left the other injured. The company has since achieved two crewed suborbital flights, in late 2018 and early 2019, but when, and whether, the promised flights of the hundreds of tourists on the company's waiting list will at last start to happen is unknown, all of which makes the media fanfare over a space suit seem a little premature—dressing for the wedding before you've got a bride.

But it's not just Virgin galactic. In the same oddly sartorial week, NASA unveiled "A New Spacesuit for Artemis Generation Astronauts." Artemis is the Apollo of the 21st century, the name of the program that aims to have Americans back on the lunar by 2024. As befits the space agency's gender-conscious marketing—which has had it repeating again and again that Artemis will land "the first woman and next man on the moon"—the suits were modeled by both a man and a woman.

It's an undeniably good thing that NASA is getting its gender-equality house in order, and given the space agency's extraordinary team of highly talented astronauts, there is surely no shortage of women from whom to choose to command the return-to-the-moon mission. And abiding by the tradition established by Neil Armstrong in 1969, the commander will be first down the ladder, so the next person on the moon and the first woman on the moon may well be the same person.

Fine. But lost in all of NASA's virtue-signaling and costume modeling was the less-reported news that the the first launch SLS rocket—NASA 21st century answer to the Saturn V—which will be needed for any moon dreams to come true, will likely be delayed yet again, until 2021. The SLS had been in more or less constant development since 2004, was beset by delays ind development and funding, and as long ago as 2011, when the space shuttle was retired, was already far behind schedule. At the launch, I spoke with then NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, who assured me that 2016 was the absolute, drop-dead, take-it-to-the-bank year that SLS would start flying. garver has since left the agency, the shuttles are eight years gone—and the SLS remains in the factory.

None of this is to say NASA shouldn't tell the best story it can tell, and if gender equality and fashion shows are part of that story, then by all means talk about them. But there's a different side to spacesuits too, and it was best told during the shuttle era. Never mind the sleek silver of the Mercury era, the shuttle suits were bulky, awkward-looking and a jarring orange color, better suited to perp walks than spacewalks. But the orange was smart—providing better visibility if the astronauts had to ditch in the ocean. And absence of overall style seemed somehow suited to cargo-carrying, satellite-launching, hubble-repairing work the shuttle crews did. They performed a brand of labor—labor that required years of training and boundless smarts—but labor all the same. And so the crews left the earth dressed in work clothes.

Space is a form of grand adventure—but also of simple, noble work. That's not true of Virgin Galactic—selling popgun flights to millionaires—but it's very much true of NASA. In both cases though, the priority should be the same: build the spacecraft, make them flightworthy and safe, and then you get to talk about the clothes.

WHAT WE’RE READING

And speaking of life

Plenty of people can't pronounce Enceladus (for the record, it's en-SEL-a-dus), but we all may be talking about the Saturnian moon soon. It was long known that Enceladus was in some respects a cosmic snowball—a world covered in water ice like Jupiter's Europa. Thanks to the Cassini probe, which orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017, astronomers discovered that Enceladus periodically blasts frosty plumes of salty water into space. Liquid water and salt are powerful indicators of an environment that could, in theory, support life, and now there's more evidence for that possibility: NASA just announced that analyses of Cassini data have revealed that organic compounds essential to the formation of amino acids are mixed in with the water plumes—principally nitrogen and oxygen compounds that serve as organic building blocks. That, again, is only an indicator: it's not the same as actual amino acids, which themselves would not be the same as life. But each discovery brings closer the possibility that something could be stirring in the waters of Enceladus.

This is why we need people on Mars

It's hard to fix a machine when the person with the know-how and the tools is 243 million miles away—and that's a problem for the Mars InSight lander. The spacecraft, which landed on Mars in 2018, is equipped with a heat probe meant to be hammered 16 feet into the surface, but it's gotten stuck just 14 inches deep, with the probe simple bouncing in place with every hammer blow. A human with a hammer could just, you know, hit harder. But for now, the best NASA can do is use the spacecraft's scoop to apply pressure to the side of the probe, pushing it against the side of the hole that's been dug so far, which could provide enough friction to stop it from bouncing. This isn't the first time NASA has faced a simple problem that became devilishly difficult when handled from afar before. The Galileo Jupiter probe, launched in 1989, relied on a high-gain antenna that was supposed to open like an umbrella. One of the ribs got stuck, however, almost scuttling the mission until engineers found a way to send data back through a much smaller low-gain antenna. That worked, but it hobbled the mission for much of its 14 years. A person would have been able to flick the rib free with little more than a finger.

Mini-moon race

With five countries and the European Space Agency already having gotten spacecraft into orbit around the moon, three (the U.S., the USSR and China) having soft landed there and one (guess who!) having landed astronauts, a couple of modest little spacecraft making modest little landings should not amount to much. But they do. In 2021, two different landers will head to the moon, both built by private companies flying aboard private rockets, as part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, designed to augment the Artemis program, which is aiming to have astronauts back on the moon by 2024. CLPS is intended to outsource and privatize cargo delivery to the lunar surface, following the model now being used successfully to resupply the International Space Station. The 2024 lunar goal may well (probably will) turn out to be too ambitious, but the relative speed with which CLPS is moving does make it more plausible. A moon base needs cargo, and the necessary delivery services might soon be flying.

No. Don't do that. Just don't

Look away vegans, but there's meat on the menu on the International Space Station. OK, there's always been meat on the menu on the ISS—but it was flown there, not grown there. Now that's changed. Bloomberg reports on an Israeli startup, Aleph Farms, that launched an experiment to the station that produced a small scrap of tissue 3D-printed meat from bovine cells. The company calls the experiment a proof-of-concept exercise, and says that the hope is that the system could one day produce protein on-site, sparing the animals and providing nutrition for astronauts. That's a worthy goal. Regrettably, the picture in the Bloomberg story of what Aleph has produced so far—admittedly little more than a cluster of starter cells so far—does not exactly scream "chow time!" Call me when they've got a burger.

Greatest car factory ever

There's no assembly plant like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's clean-rooms, where spacecraft bound for other worlds are hand-built and tested over the course of years. The technicians who work there dress in surgical bunny suits, masks and hair covers, and operate in a positive-pressure environment in which air can escape the room, but not flow in—thus minimizing exterior dust. In a brief series of just-released, stop-action images, NASA shared a quick moment in a straightforward test in which the descent stage of the Mars 2020 spacecraft separates from the rover itself, as it will have to do during landing. It couldn't look simpler in the JL clean-room—and it couldn't be harder over the Martian surface.


WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU

Last week we asked you what you thought was the greatest American space machine ever built. Here's how you voted:

Just a few days ago, the Carnegie Institution for Science announced the discovery of 20 new moons orbiting Saturn—and there's a contest to name them. We wanted you, our readers, to help us choose the official TIME magazine submission to the contest. The moons of Saturn are grouped into categories, each with their own naming convention; we've decided to focus on finding a new name for the Inuit group, which are named for giants from the mythology of the Inuit people of northern Canada and parts of Greenland and Alaska.

1) Nanurluk, a giant polar bear

2) Kinak, a giant who saves a woman from her abusive husband

3) Sedna, the Goddess of the seas

4) Pukimna, the Caribou Mother

Let us know via email at space@time.com!


THANKS FOR READING

TIME Space is written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME magazine, and the author of 10 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8 and two novels for young adults. Follow him at @jeffreykluger.

We welcome any feedback at space@time.com.

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