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NASA’s head of human spaceflight resigns ahead of historic SpaceX launch

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The head of NASA’s human exploration program, Doug Loverro, has resigned less than six months after assuming the position within the agency, according to a NASA memo. The drastic change in leadership comes just a week before NASA will launch its first astronauts from the US in nearly a decade, on top of SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon spacecraft.

This is the second time during the Trump administration that this role has been in turmoil. In July 2019, NASA demoted the original person in this position, William Gerstenmaier, who had been serving as the associate administrator for human exploration at NASA for nearly 15 years. Loverro took over the position in December after a long search by NASA, but now his tenure has been cut short.

“Loverro hit the ground running this year and has made significant progress in his time at NASA,” a memo to NASA employees states. “His leadership of [human exploration] has moved us closer to accomplishing our goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024. Loverro has dedicated more than four decades of his life in service to our country, and we thank him for his service and contributions to the agency.”

Loverro resigned on Monday, May 18th, however NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine did not mention the change to Vice President Mike Pence during the meeting of the National Space Council, which took place on Tuesday, May 19th. In a memo to staff, Loverro attributes his resignation to a risk he took earlier this year, but doesn’t explain what it was. “Our mission is certainly not easy, nor for the faint of heart, and risk-taking is part of the job description,” he writes. “The risks we take, whether technical, political, or personal, all have potential consequences if we judge them incorrectly. I took such a risk earlier in the year because I judged it necessary to fulfill our mission. Now, over the balance of time, it is clear that I made a mistake in that choice for which I alone must bear the consequences.”

Ken Bowersox, who filled the position temporarily when Gerstenmaier was demoted, will take over the role once again now that Loverro is gone. Bowersox is a former astronaut and currently the deputy associate administrator for human exploration.

As the associate administrator for human spaceflight, Loverro oversaw the agency’s Artemis program, the plan to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024. Loverro had also been in charge of reorganizing NASA’s plans to help turn low Earth orbit into a more commercial domain. “I want to be clear that the fact that I am taking this step has nothing to do with your performance as an organization nor with the plans we have placed in motion to fulfill our mission,” Loverro wrote in a memo to staff. “If anything, your performance and those plans make everything we have worked for over the past six months more attainable and more certain than ever before. My leaving is because of my personal actions, not anything we have accomplished together.”

It’s a wild time for this kind of change, too, as Loverro has been effectively overseeing NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which has been developing new private vehicles to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX is set to fly its first two astronauts through the program on May 27th, a little more than a week away.

NASA argues that the change will not affect the program or the mission. “We have full confidence in the work [program manager] Kathy Lueders and her entire Commercial Crew team have done to bring us here,” NASA’s memo states. “This test flight will be a historic and momentous occasion that will see the return of human spaceflight to our country, and the incredible dedication by the men and women of NASA is what has made this mission possible.”

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SpaceX delays first historic crewed launch to space due to weather

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After getting down to just 17 minutes until launch, SpaceX had to postpone its first crewed flight to space on Wednesday afternoon due to bad weather over the launch site in Florida. Now, the two passengers on board SpaceX’s capsule — NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — will disembark the vehicle and try again on Saturday, May 30th.

Developing…

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Nearly two dozen attorneys general sue Trump administration over controversial fuel standard

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The Trump administration was sued by attorneys general from 23 states and the District of Columbia over the controversial rolling back of Obama-era fuel standards. A coalition of environmental and health groups also filed suit today over the rollback. It’s the latest legal battle in President Donald Trump’s efforts to undo Obama-era plans to cut back on air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

In March, Trump finalized a rule that would require car manufacturers to make their new fleets 1.5 percent more fuel efficient each year, setting a goal of reaching an average of about 40 miles per gallon by 2026. That’s a much lower bar than what was set during the Obama administration, which would have pushed automakers to ramp up fuel efficiency by 5 percent each year in order to reach an average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025.

The lawsuit alleges the Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration used a flawed analysis to justify their rollback. The agencies did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Trump administration has argued that the Obama-era standards would have made cars more expensive, forcing people to stick with older, less-safe models. But the attorneys general point to evidence that the weaker rules could result in an estimated thousands of premature deaths because of increased tailpipe emissions.

“What makes [Trump’s] rule so offensive is [that the Obama-era standard] is not a rule where people can say it was a disconnect. No, this was a smooth path,” Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said on a press call. “This was a promising path. This was a future that we need. But nonetheless, we’re seeing this happening.”

The Obama-era standards had already saved vehicle owners $86 billion at the gas pump and reduced planet-heating carbon dioxide by half a billion metric tons, according to the EPA. The new standards, on the other hand, could add up to an additional 2 billion barrels of oil and nearly an additional 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s about as much as 257 coal-fired power plants would put out over a year.

“Just read the text of the rule and you will discover that it is a job-killer and public health hazard,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “It will increase costs to consumers and allow the emission of dangerous pollutants that directly threaten the health of our families.” The battle over cleaner cars and air is playing out as COVID-19 strikes people with respiratory diseases especially hard, the attorneys general pointed out in today’s call.

Car companies are split over what fuel efficiency standards should be. Volkswagen, Ford, Honda, and BMW last year committed to year-over-year gains in fuel economy that exceed Trump’s weakened standards. General Motors, Toyota, and Fiat Chrysler, on the other hand, have backed Trump’s bid to revoke California’s ability to set state vehicle emissions standards higher than the federal mandate.

Ford said today that it is neither joining the suit nor defending the Trump administration’s new rule. “We have chosen a different path in support of a voluntary framework in California,” it said in a statement. “The voluntary framework gives more regulatory certainty which protects the long-term interests of the industry, affordability, consumers, and the environment.”

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Human activity threatens 50 billion years of evolution, say scientists

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The punk-haired Mary River turtle is under threat of extinction (Credits: Chris Van-Wyk / ZSL / SWNS.COM)

Our ‘human footprint’ is destroying more than 50 billion years of unique evolutionary history, warns a new study.

Research led by the Zoological Society of London and Imperial College found that many regions home to the greatest amount of unique evolutionary history are facing unprecedented levels of human pressure.

These include the Caribbean, the Western Ghats of India, and large parts of Southeast Asia.

The team mapped the evolutionary history of the world’s terrestrial vertebrates including amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles.

They explored how areas with large concentrations of evolutionarily distinct and threatened species are being impacted by our ever-increasing ‘human footprint’.

Biodiversity is under massive threat from the human footprint (Credits: PA)

Lead author Dr Rikki Gumbs, of Imperial College London, said: ‘Our analyses reveal the incomprehensible scale of the losses we face if we don’t work harder to save global biodiversity.

‘To put some of the numbers into perspective, reptiles alone stand to lose at least 13 billion years of unique evolutionary history, roughly the same number of years as have passed since the beginning of the entire universe.’

Using extinction risk data for around 25,000 species, the researchers also calculated the amount of evolutionary history – branches on the tree of life – currently threatened with extinction.

They found at least 50 billion years of evolutionary heritage is under threat, as well as a large number of species.

The Shoebill stork that lives in Africa is under threat too (Credits: Claudia Gray / ZSL / SWNS.COM)

The greatest losses of evolutionary history will be driven by the extinction of entire groups of closely-related species that share long branches of the tree of life, such as pangolins and tapirs.

We could also lose highly evolutionarily distinct species that sit alone at the ends of extremely long branches, such as the ancient Chinese crocodile lizards, the Shoebill a gigantic bird that stalks the wetlands of Africa and the iconic Aye-aye, a nocturnal lemur with large yellow eyes and long spindly fingers.

This is an Aye-Aye (Credits: ZSL / SWNS.COM)

This new study highlights priority species for conservation, based on their evolutionary uniqueness and the intense human pressure across the environments where they are thought to exist.

Many of these species are also a priority for ZSL’s EDGE of Existence programme, which works to conserve the world’s most evolutionarily distinct and threatened species from extinction – including the punk-haired Mary River turtle and the Purple frog.

We don’t want to lose a species as great looking as this (Credits: Chris Van-Wyk / ZSL / SWNS.COM)

Dr Gumbs said: ‘These are some of the most incredible and overlooked animals on Planet Earth.

‘From legless lizards and tiny blind snakes to pink worm-like amphibians called caecilians, we know precious little about these fascinating creatures, many of which may be sliding silently toward extinction.’

A baby Pangolin (Credits: Yingboon Chongsomchai /ZSL / SWN)

Co-author Dr James Rosindell, from Imperial College London, added: ‘Our findings highlight the importance of acting urgently to conserve these extraordinary species and the remaining habitat that they occupy – in the face of intense human pressures.’

The findings are published in Nature Communications.

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