Weekend Reading: Travels to Outer Space, Vaccine Mandates, COP26 Climate Coverage, and More

The best reporting and writing from the past week, and context to understand it.

There’s a lot of great journalism out there. Every week, in a format short enough that it won’t be clipped by your inbox, we aim to share some of the best, with additional context for understanding the biggest news of the day. This is a weekly digest of stories you can savor and reporting you can rely on.

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Ad Astra — Rachel Riederer, Harper’s

Space is one of the last remaining frontiers for which human civilization has remarkably few governing principles. This piece begins in January of 2020, when a U.S. reconnaissance satellite was seemingly approached by a Russian unmanned spacecraft. What followed was a series of provocations, but, technically, Russia had broken no laws.

In fact, the primary source for international law in space is a drastically outdated document from 1967 called the Outer Space Treaty, designed for an environment far simpler than the current field. In a September of 2019 address at a conference for air, space, and cyber security, General Raymond put it this way: “The Outer Space Treaty says you can’t have nuclear weapons in space. That’s about what it says. The rest is the wild, wild West.”

The decadal survey, organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, recommends that NASA establish a program to produce several more major space-based observatories in the coming decades, and that the next one should look for exoplanets — planets beyond our solar system — resembling this little chunk of rock that we call home. In other words, the report recommends, with a sense of urgency not seen in earlier surveys, that we should focus on the search for other Earths.

Pepper plants self-pollinate, so they are easy to grow, and they are a pick-and-eat crop that doesn't have to be cooked. They also contain low microbial levels, so they are safe to eat raw.

  • 🗄️ From 2007: Home — Chris Jones, Esquire: In February of 2003, the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster happened. In 2007, Chris Jones wrote about the two Americans aboard the International Space Station who had no way to get home after the tragedy. 

“I have some bad news,” Howell says, and because it's Howell who's delivering it, Pettit and Bowersox know exactly how bad before he gets it out: “We’ve lost the vehicle.” Nine words. That's all. Everything else is left unspoken, and in the quiet, the blanks are left for each of them to fill in on his own. In the way the parents of missing children hang on to the faintest hope that their loved ones are just lost, not lost for good, Pettit and Bowersox wonder whether any of Columbia’s evacuation systems triggered, and whether any of their friends are floating down to a cloudless Earth under parachutes.

  • 🗄️ From 2009: One Giant Leap to Nowhere, Tom Wolfe, The New York Times: Revel in Tom Wolfe’s prose as he recounts the glory of NASA’s early accomplishments and dismay at how those accomplishments seemed to plateau, as he calls for a manned flight to Mars.

How Tyson Foods Got 60,500 Workers to Get the Coronavirus Vaccine Quickly — Lauren Hirsch & Michael Corkery, The New York Times

Just days after the Biden administration announced its requirements for its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, employers around the country are feeling the pinch. Many workers are now faced with a stark decision: get vaccinated or lose their job. But Tyson, one of the largest meatpacking companies in the world, made the call early that it would require its 120,000 employees to be vaccinated, many of whom were situated in the South and Midwest where local vaccination rates were quite low.

In nearly every statement other than Biden’s, and in many news reports on the matter, the OSHA rule was described as a “vaccine mandate.” But this is not actually correct. The new rule is better understood as a testing mandate with a vaccine exception — and that distinction could be crucial as it works its way through courts of law and public opinion.

  • 📖 As Villanueva Blasts Vaccine Mandate, Sheriff’s Department Falls Further Behind LAPD in Shots — Alene Tchekmedyian, Kevin Rector & Richard Winton, The Los Angeles Times: There are many instances in popular culture where the county sheriff’s deputies and city police officers — and their respective leaderships — are seen as being odds with each other, prone to jurisdictional squabbling and a seeming lack of conviction that they’re on the same side, so to speak. I see it in good-natured ribbing between the two in my interactions with law enforcement in Wyoming. But what’s happening in Los Angeles County shows the stark difference of elected positions versus appointed ones, as the sheriff, gearing up for re-election, is staking out a conservative path and refusing vaccine mandates for his deputies, while the police chief, appointed by the city, is seeing a much greater success rate for getting his officers vaccinated.

3,000 Miles From Glasgow, a Town and Its Polar Bears Face the Future — Binyamin Appelbaum, The New York Times

This is not another story about saving Hudson Bay’s polar bears. It’s too late for that. This is a story about what comes next for a small town that bills itself as the Polar Bear Capital of the World. In Churchill, an isolated town perched on the southern edge of the Arctic, climate change is not a looming danger. It imbues daily life. It is broken sewer lines and taller trees, longer summers and bigger snowstorms and moose where caribou used to go. Most of all, it is the fear that Americans won’t come visit anymore. Yet the mood in Churchill is surprisingly sunny. If people aren’t exactly cheering for climate change, many are focused on the opportunities global warming could bring to this cold-weather town. The polar bears are in trouble. The people dream of building a maritime city.

  • 📖 The U.S. Is Turning Green. What Will This Climate Plan Cost and Who Will Pay? — Shane Shifflett, The Wall Street Journal: More than 200 countries gathered this week in Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Conference, and the Wall Street Journal previewed the event in the thorough, detailed way that only the Journal really can, exploring the biggest hindrance to climate change policies: the cost.

The bill for climate change is coming due, and it will be big. Businesses, investors and the U.S. government are planning to turn the country carbon neutral in the coming 30 years. They are also trying to limit and pay the cost of the climate change that has already occurred.

  • 📖 Sunday Reading: The World of Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert — The New Yorker: This link is definitely a two-for-one special. The New Yorker has a rich archive from which to draw, and David Remnick introduces two classic stories by two of its most storied reporters on environmental issues. Prompted by the U.N. Climate Conference, Remnick simply picked from a long list of possible stories, but his reasoning is solid.

Every writer and editor knows the peril of publishing work about the climate emergency; many readers, fearing gloom, would prefer to read almost anything else. And yet both McKibben and Kolbert, in their own ways, bring such intellectual and literary force to their work that attention must be paid. So by all means follow the daily coverage of Glasgow — but, to understand the stakes, go deep, take the time: read Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert.

  • 📖 The Cutest Way to Fight Climate Change? Send in the Otters. — Matt Simon, Wired: Off the coast of California, there is a forest of kelp that could do wonders at reducing carbon — it could be even more effective than trees on land. But purple urchins have been decimating the kelp since the 18th century, when it became popular to hunt sea otters for their fur. Otters are the natural predators of the urchins. But a team of scientists has overseen an otter adoption program, which has helped reintroduce otters to the California coast in impressive numbers.

More of Our Favorites From the Past Week

Can Jake Paul Fight His Way Out of Trouble? — Kalefa Sanneh, The New Yorker

Slow Burn: The L.A. Riots — Joel Anderson, Slate

Did COVID Change How We Dream? — Brooke Jarvis, The New York Times Magazine

Here’s Why Rapid COVID Tests Are So Expensive and Hard to Find — Lydia DePillis & Eric Umansky, ProPublica

The Nation’s Last Uranium Mill Plans to Import Estonia’s Radioactive Waste — Jessica Douglas, High Country News

The Follow-Up

The news doesn’t stop. If you checked out last week’s edition and found the topics interesting, here’s a collection of stories published since.

The Facebook Papers

The French Dispatch

The Best of the Believer

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The Postscript

This week, elsewhere on The Postscript.

The Tech Threat: Literary Journalism in the Age of Interruption

Digital tools can benefit their users as long as they do not overpower personal relationships and social bonds.

Seeking 'Debwewin': Literary Journalism Through an Indigenous Lens

Interpreting works of literary journalism through an Anishinaabe analytical framework for truth.