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Boeing’s second Starliner mission to the ISS is a make-or-break moment

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Boeing’s second Starliner mission to the ISS is a make-or-break moment


Now, Boeing is going for a high-stakes redo of that mission. On August 3, Orbital Flight Test 2, or OFT-2, will send Starliner to the ISS again. The company cannot afford another failure.

“There is a lot of credibility at stake here,” says Greg Autry, a space policy expert at Arizona State University. “Nothing is more visible than space systems that fly humans.”

The afternoon of July 30 was a stark reminder of that visibility. After Russia’s new 23-ton multipurpose Nauka module docked with the ISS, it began firing its thrusters unexpectedly and without command, shifting the ISS out of its proper and normal position in orbit. NASA and Russia fixed the problem and had things stabilized in under an hour, but we still don’t know what happened, and it’s unnerving to think what could have happened if conditions had been worse. The whole incident is still under investigation and has forced NASA to postpone the Starliner launch from July 31 to August 3. 

It’s precisely this kind of near-disaster Boeing wants to avoid, for OFT-2 and any future mission with people onboard.

How Starliner got here

The shutdown of the space shuttle program in 2011 gave NASA a chance to rethink its approach. Instead of building a new spacecraft designed for travel to low Earth orbit, the agency elected to open up opportunities to the private sector as part of a new Commercial Crew Program. It awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to build their own crewed vehicles: Starliner and Crew Dragon, respectively. NASA would buy flights on these vehicles and focus its own efforts on building new technologies for missions to the moon, Mars, and elsewhere. 

Both companies hit development delays, and for nine years NASA’s only way of getting to space was by handing over millions of dollars to Russia for seats on Soyuz missions. SpaceX finally sent astronauts to space in May 2020 (followed by two more crewed missions since), but Boeing is still lagging behind. Its December 2019 flight was supposed to prove that all its systems worked, and that it was capable of docking with the ISS and returning to Earth safely. But a glitch with its internal clock caused it to execute a critical burn prematurely, making it impossible to dock with the ISS. 

A subsequent investigation revealed that a second glitch would have caused Starliner to fire its thrusters at the wrong time when making its descent back to Earth, which could have destroyed the spacecraft. That glitch was fixed mere hours before Starliner was set to come back home. Software issues aren’t unexpected in spacecraft development, but they’re things Boeing could have resolved ahead of time with better quality control or better oversight from NASA.

Boeing has had 21 months to fix these problems. NASA never demanded another Starliner flight test; Boeing elected to redo it and foot the $410 million bill on its own.

“I fully expect the test to go perfectly,” says Autry. “These problems involved software systems, and those should be easily resolvable.”

What’s at stake

If things go wrong, the repercussions will depend on what those things are. Should the spacecraft experience another set of software problems, there’ll likely be hell to pay, and it’s very hard to see how Boeing’s relationship with NASA could recover. A catastrophic failure for other reasons would also be bad, but space is volatile, and even tiny problems that are hard to anticipate and control for can lead to explosive outcomes. That may be more forgivable.

If the new test doesn’t succeed, NASA will still work with Boeing, but a re-flight “might be a couple years off,” says Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida. “NASA would likely go back to SpaceX for more flights, further disadvantaging Boeing.”

Boeing needs OFT-2 to go well for reasons beyond just fulfilling its contract with NASA. Neither SpaceX nor Boeing built its new vehicles to carry out ISS missions—they each had larger ambitions. “There is real demand [for access to space] from high-net-worth individuals, demonstrated since the early 2000s, when several flew on the Russian Soyuz,” says Autry. “There is also a very strong business in flying the sovereign astronaut corps of many countries that are not ready to build their own vehicles.”

SpaceX will prove to be very stiff competition. It has private missions—its own and through Axiom Space—already slated for the next few years. More are sure to come, especially since Axiom, Sierra Nevada, and other companies plan to build private space stations for paying visitors. 

Boeing’s biggest problem is cost. NASA is paying the company $90 million per seat to fly astronauts to the ISS, versus $55 million per seat to SpaceX. “NASA can afford them because after the shuttle problems the agency did not want to become dependent upon a single flight system—if that breaks, everything stops,” says Handberg. But private citizens and other countries are likely to plump for the cheaper—and more experienced—option.

Boeing could definitely use some good PR these days. It is building the main booster for the $20-billion-and-counting Space Launch System, set to be the most powerful rocket in the world. But high costs and massive delays have turned it into a lightning rod for criticism. Meanwhile, alternatives like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Super Heavy, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and ULA’s Vulcan Centaur have emerged or are set to debut in the next few years. In 2019, NASA’s inspector general looked at potential fraud in Boeing contracts worth up $661 million. And the company is one of the main characters at the center of a criminal probe involving a previous bid for a lunar lander contract. 

If there was ever a time Boeing wanted to remind people what it’s capable of and what it can do for the US space program, it’s next week.

“Another failure would put Boeing so far behind SpaceX that they might have to consider major changes in their approach,” says Handberg. “For Boeing, this is the show.”

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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