Saturday, July 31, 2021

What Is a Breakthrough COVID Infection? How common and serious is the COVID-19 infection in the fully vaccinated?

“If you’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, maybe you figured you no longer need to worry about contracting the coronavirus. But along with the rising number of new COVID-19 cases globally and growing concern about highly transmissible strains like the delta variant come reports of fully vaccinated people testing positive for COVID-19. Members of the New York Yankees, U.S. Olympic gymnast Kara Eaker and U.K. health secretary Sajid Javid are some of those diagnosed with what is called a ‘breakthrough infection.’

“As scary as the term may sound, the bottom line is that the existing COVID-19 vaccines are still very good at preventing symptomatic infections, and breakthrough infections happen very rarely. But just how common and how dangerous are they? Here’s a guide to what you need to know.

What is ‘breakthrough infection?’

“No vaccine is 100% effective. Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was 80%-90% effective in preventing paralytic disease. Even for the gold standard measles vaccine, the efficacy was 94% among a highly vaccinated population during large outbreaks. Comparably, clinical trials found the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna were 94%–95% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 – much more protective than initially hoped.

“A quick reminder: A vaccine efficacy of 95% does not mean that the shot protects 95% of people while the other 5% will contract the virus. Vaccine efficacy is a measure of relative risk – you need to compare a group of vaccinated people to a group of unvaccinated people under the same exposure conditions. So consider a three-month study period during which 100 out of 10,000 unvaccinated people got COVID-19. You’d expect five vaccinated people to get sick during that same time. That’s 5% of the 100 unvaccinated people who fell ill, not 5% of the whole group of 10,000. When people get infected after vaccination, scientists call these cases 'breakthrough' infections because the virus broke through the protective barrier the vaccine provides.

How common is COVID-19 infection in the fully vaccinated?

“Breakthrough infections are a little more frequent than previously expected and are probably increasing because of growing dominance of the delta variant. But infections in vaccinated people are still very rare and usually cause mild or no symptoms. For instance, 46 U.S. states and territories voluntarily reported 10,262 breakthrough infections to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between Jan. 1 and April 30, 2021. By comparison, there were 11.8 million COVID-19 diagnoses in total during the same period.

“Beginning May 1, 2021, the CDC stopped monitoring vaccine breakthrough cases unless they resulted in hospitalization or death. Through July 19, 2021, there were 5,914 patients with COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough infections who were hospitalized or died in the U.S., out of more than 159 million people fully vaccinated nationwide.

“One study between Dec. 15, 2020, and March 31, 2021, that included 258,716 veterans who received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, counted 410 who got breakthrough infections – that’s 0.16% of the total. Similarly, a study in New York noted 86 cases of COVID-19 breakthrough infections between Feb. 1 and April 30, 2021, among 126,367 people who were fully vaccinated, mostly with mRNA vaccines. This accounts for 1.2% of total COVID-19 cases and 0.07% of the fully vaccinated population.

How serious is a COVID-19 breakthrough infection?

“The CDC defines a vaccine breakthrough infection as one in which a nasal swab can detect the SARS-CoV-2 RNA or protein more than 14 days after a person has completed the full recommended doses of an FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccine. Note that a breakthrough infection doesn’t necessarily mean the person feels sick – and in fact, 27% of breakthrough cases reported to the CDC were asymptomatic. Only 10% of the breakthrough-infected people were known to be hospitalized (some for reasons other than COVID-19), and 2% died. For comparison, during the spring of 2020 when vaccines were not yet available, over 6% of confirmed infections were fatal.

“In a study at U.S. military treatment facilities, none of the breakthrough infections led to hospitalization. In another study, after just one dose of Pfizer vaccine the vaccinated people who tested positive for COVID-19 had a quarter less virus in their bodies than those who were unvaccinated and tested positive.

What makes a breakthrough infection more likely?

“Nationwide, on average more than 5% of COVID-19 tests are coming back positive; in Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma, the positivity rate is above 30%. Lots of coronavirus circulating in a community pushes the chance of breakthrough infections higher. The likelihood is greater in situations of close contact, such as in a cramped working space, party, restaurant or stadium. Breakthrough infections are also more likely among health care workers who are in frequent contact with infected patients.

“For reasons that are unclear, nationwide CDC data found that women account for 63% of breakthrough infections. Some smaller studies identified women as the majority of breakthrough cases as well. Vaccines trigger a less robust immune response among older people, and the chances of a breakthrough infection get higher with increasing age. Among the breakthrough cases tracked by the CDC, 75% occurred in patients age 65 and older.

Being immunocompromised or having underlying conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, chronic kidney and lung diseases and cancer increase the chances of breakthrough infections and can lead to severe COVID-19. For example, fully vaccinated organ transplant recipients were 82 times more likely to get a breakthrough infection and had a 485-fold higher risk of hospitalization and death after a breakthrough infection compared with the vaccinated general population in one study.

How do variants like delta change things?

“Researchers developed today’s vaccines to ward off earlier strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Since then new variants have emerged, many of which are better at dodging the antibodies produced by the currently authorized vaccines. While existing vaccines are still very effective against these variants for preventing hospitalization, they are less effective than against previous variants.

Two doses of the mRNA vaccines were only 79% effective at preventing symptomatic disease with delta, compared with 89% effective in the case of the earlier alpha variant, according to Public Health England. A single dose was only 35% protective against delta. About 12.5% of the 229,218 delta variant cases across England through July 19 were among fully vaccinated people.

“Israel, with high vaccination rates, has reported that full vaccination with the Pfizer vaccine might be only 39%-40.5% effective at preventing delta variant infections of any severity, down from early estimates of 90%. Israel’s findings suggest that within six months, COVID-19 vaccines’ efficacy at preventing infection and symptomatic disease declines. The good news, though, is that the vaccine is still highly effective at protecting against hospitalization (88%) and severe illness (91.4%) caused by the now-dominant delta variant.

So how well are vaccines holding up?

“As of the end of July 2021, 49.1% of the U.S. population, or just over 163 million people, are fully vaccinated. Nearly 90% of Americans over the age of 65 have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Scientists’ models suggest that vaccination may have saved approximately 279,000 lives in the U.S. and prevented up to 1.25 million hospitalizations by the end of June 2021. Similarly, in England about 30,300 deaths, 46,300 hospitalizations and 8.15 million infections may have been prevented by COVID-19 vaccines. In Israel, the high vaccination rate is thought to have caused a 77% drop in cases and a 68% drop in hospitalizations from that nation’s pandemic peak.

“Across the U.S., only 150 out of more than 18,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in May were of people who had been fully vaccinated. That means nearly all COVID-19 deaths in U.S. are among those who remain unvaccinated. The U.S. is becoming ‘almost like two Americas,’ as Anthony Fauci put it, divided between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Those who have not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 remain at risk from the coronavirus that has so far killed more than 600,000 people in the U.S.” (The Conversation).

by Sanjay Mishra, PhD, Project Coordinator & Staff Scientist, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Vanderbilt University


Thursday, July 29, 2021

“New Zealand, Iceland, the UK, Tasmania and Ireland are the places best suited to survive a global collapse of society, according to a study” by Damian Carrington


“Researchers said human civilisation was ‘in a perilous state’ due to the highly interconnected and energy-intensive society that had developed and the environmental damage this had caused. A collapse could arise from shocks, such as a severe financial crisis, the impacts of the climate crisis, destruction of nature, an even worse pandemic than Covid-19 or a combination of these, the scientists said.

“To assess which nations would be most resilient to such a collapse, countries were ranked according to their ability to grow food for their population, protect their borders from unwanted mass migration, and maintain an electrical grid and some manufacturing ability. Islands in temperate regions and mostly with low population densities came out on top.

“The researchers said their study highlighted the factors that nations must improve to increase resilience. They said that a globalised society that prized economic efficiency damaged resilience, and that spare capacity needed to exist in food and other vital sectors.

“Billionaires have been reported to be buying land for bunkers in New Zealand in preparation for an apocalypse. “We weren’t surprised New Zealand was on our list,” said Prof Aled Jones, at the Global Sustainability Institute, at Anglia Ruskin University, in the UK. Jones added: ‘We chose that you had to be able to protect borders and places had to be temperate. So with hindsight it’s quite obvious that large islands with complex societies on them already [make up the list]. We were quite surprised the UK came out strongly. It is densely populated, has traditionally outsourced manufacturing, hasn’t been the quickest to develop renewable technology, and only produces 50% of its own food at the moment. But it has the potential to withstand shocks.’

“The study, published in the journal Sustainability, said: ‘The globe-spanning, energy-intensive industrial civilisation that characterises the modern era represents an anomalous situation when it is considered against the majority of human history.’ The study also said, that due to environmental destruction, limited resources, and population growth: ‘The [academic] literature paints a picture of human civilisation that is in a perilous state, with large and growing risks developing in multiple spheres of the human endeavour.’

“Places that did not suffer ‘the most egregious effects of societal collapses and are therefore able to maintain significant populations” have been described as “collapse lifeboats,’ the study said. New Zealand was found to have the greatest potential to survive relatively unscathed due to its geothermal and hydroelectric energy, abundant agricultural land and low human population density.

“Jones said major global food losses, a financial crisis and a pandemic had all happened in recent years, and ‘we’ve been lucky that things haven’t all happened at the same time – there’s no real reason why they can’t all happen in the same year.’

“He added: ‘As you start to see these events happening, I get more worried but I also hope we can learn more quickly than we have in the past that resilience is important. With everyone talking about ‘building back better’ from the pandemic, if we don’t lose that momentum I might be more optimistic than I have been in the past.’

“He said the coronavirus pandemic had shown that governments could act quickly when needed. ‘It’s interesting how quickly we can close borders, and how quickly governments can make decisions to change things.’ But he added: ‘This drive for just-in-time, ever-more efficient, economies aren’t the thing you want to do for resilience. We need to build in some slack in the system, so that if there is a shock then you have the ability to respond because you’ve got spare capacity. We need to start thinking about resilience much more in global planning. But obviously, the ideal thing is that a quick collapse doesn’t happen’” (The Conversation).

by Damian Carrington, Environmental Editor


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Spotted Lanternfly, a Voracious Pest (The Conversation)


The spotted lanternfly was first detected in Pennsylvania in 2014 and has since spread to 26 counties in that state and at least six other eastern states. It’s moving into southern New England, Ohio and Indiana. This approximately 1-inch-long species from Asia has attractive polka-dotted front wings but can infest and kill trees and plants. We recently caught up with Professor Frank Hale, an entomologist who is tracking this species.

The Conversation: How did the spotted lanternfly get to the U.S., and how quickly is it spreading?

Frank Hale: It is native to India, China and Vietnam and probably arrived in a cut stone shipment in 2012. The first sighting was in 2014 in Berks County, Pennsylvania, on a tree of heaven — a common invasive tree brought to North America from China in the late 1700s.

By July 2021 the lanternfly had spread to about half of Pennsylvania, large areas of New Jersey, parts of New York state, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. It also had been found in western Connecticut, eastern Ohio, and now Indiana. To give an idea of how fast these lanternflies spread, they were introduced into South Korea in 2004 and spread throughout that entire country – which is approximately the size of Pennsylvania – in only three years.

In only seven years, the spotted lanternfly has infested large areas of the Middle Atlantic and has begun to push into Connecticut. New York State Integrated Pest Management Program

TC: How do they spread so fast?

FH: The lanternflies lay egg masses in late summer and autumn on the trunks of trees and any smooth-surfaced item sitting outdoors. The egg masses, which resemble smears of dry mud, can also be laid on the smooth surfaces of cars, trucks and trains. Then, they can be unintentionally transported to any part of the country in just a few days. Once the eggs hatch, they crawl to nearby host plants to start a new infestation.

An adult spotted lanternfly crawls along a branch in Pennsylvania. The red, white, and black nymph below will molt into an adult. Stephen Ausmus/USDA

TC: How do they damage trees and plants? What do they feed on?

FH They feed by piercing the bark of trees and vines to tap into the plant’s vascular system to feast on sap. For a sucking insect, lanternflies are relatively big. They remove large amounts of sap and excrete copious amounts of clear, sticky “honeydew” that can coat the tree and anything beneath. A black sooty mold grows wherever the honeydew has been deposited. While unsightly, sooty mold isn’t harmful when growing on the bark of the tree or beneath it. Lanternfly feeding seriously stresses trees and vines, which lose carbohydrates and other nutrients meant for storage in the roots and eventually for new growth. Infested trees and vines grow more slowly, exhibit dieback – begin to die from the branch tips – and can even die.

TC: How are scientists and officials trying to stop their spread?

FH: Biological control shows some promise for the future. Two naturally occurring fungal pathogens of spotted lanternflies have been identified in the U.S. Also, U.S. labs are testing two parasitoid insects – insects that grow by feeding on lanternflies and killing them in the process – that have been brought from China for testing and possible future release.

TC: How worried should people be about this lanternfly?

FH: Very worried. Lanternflies easily build to high numbers. The area where host trees live is relatively wide, and lanternflies damage crops, the forest and the landscape. They damage many plants and cause a major nuisance to the general public. The heavy flow of honeydew and the resulting sooty mold makes a mess of the landscape. The adults start to aggregate on plants and structures to lay their egg masses in September. Their sudden, mass appearance can be alarming to people the way periodical cicada populations shock people when they come out of the ground. But lanternflies are more shocking because the few predators that could feed on them, like wheel bugs and predatory stink bugs, do not seem to control the infestations. That is why the introduction of parasitoids from Asia are important for achieving some meaningful level of biological control.

Spotted lanternflies invade sidewalks and buildings in Philadelphia.

Lanternflies can be a serious pest of grapes, and where found, they have reduced grape yields and damaged or killed vines. Multiple applications of insecticides are often needed to kill them, but this increases the cost of crop production. The pest threatens the major wine-producing regions in the East, such as the Finger Lakes and Long Island in New York; parts of Virginia; and Newport, Rhode Island.

TC: Have any other pests similarly damaged trees?

FH: Yes, the emerald ash borer, which arrived in the U.S. from China by accident and was discovered in 2002. It has killed millions of ash trees in North America. The Asian longhorned beetle, which feeds on and kills many species of trees, has turned up in multiple locations, most recently near Charleston, South Carolina. Maple, buckeye, horse chestnut, willow and elm would be threatened if this pest ever got widely established.

The box tree moth damages boxwoods and is known to live in Canada. It has been seen in Connecticut, Michigan and South Carolina. It possibly was spread accidentally into the U.S. in shipments of boxwoods from Canada. It is not known to be established in any state, but a federal government order has halted importing host plants like boxwood, euonymus and holly from Canada.

TC: What should I do if I see one?

FH: If it has already infested the region where you live and you find spotted lanternflies on your property, contact your local county extension office for control recommendations.

But if it has not been found in your county or state, report it to your state department of agriculture. If the infestation is caught early before it can become established in your area, hopefully it can be eradicated there. Eventually, it will spread to many parts of the country. We can slow the spread by identifying and eradicating new infestations wherever they arise. 

-by Frank A. Hale, Professor, Horticultural Crop Entomology, University of Tennessee

The Conversation

Monday, July 26, 2021

Something Bezos should consider doing instead of space travel: Swedish Johan Eliasch on why he’s saving the Amazon rainforest


“Johan Eliasch, chairman and CEO of sporting-goods group Head, founded Cool Earth to work with local communities to protect forests around the world. Here he explains why:

“‘There aren’t many areas of human endeavour where no progress has been made in the past 40 years... One area with only patchy signs of advancement is how we treat the environment. Perhaps the greatest shortcoming is not achieving that well-worn slogan of the 1970s green movement: ‘Save the Rainforest.’

“‘The scale of this shortcoming isn’t just in the appalling loss of forest (half has been destroyed since the first Earth Day in 1970). It is also in the fact that the value of tropical forest is so well understood that it has become a truism. Whether it be as a vault of biodiversity, a fresh water generator, an oxygen manufacturer or a global thermostat, the role of rainforest is the cornerstone of third grade syllabi and nature documentaries. If there was ever a motherhood and apple pie cause, it is saving the rainforest.

“‘The recent response of policymakers to this continued problem has been to place value on living rainforest. This has generally been done by imposing penalties on their destruction and through the creation of reserves and forest codes that limit extraction. Yet they still shrink.

“‘This state of affairs has encouraged a rethink, with even the effectiveness of reserves coming into question. My opinion is that reserves and federal laws are not capable of saving the forest. I’ve sought to prove that there are better alternatives.

Logging off

“‘My first effort was a unilateral one when I bought a logging concession in Brazil and closed it down. The reasoning was simple: it was about to clear one of the most beautiful tracts of forest in the Amazon, and there would be no appreciable benefit for local people. So instead of watching migrant workers clear thousands of acres of trees, local communities got full access again to the forest to use as their food store and medicine chest. All that was asked in return was that they keep it standing. On a small scale, it could quickly be seen that people who depend on the forest are its best custodians.

“‘With the help of Frank Field, the smart and unconventional British politician, in 2007 I launched the NGO Cool Earth. The UK-US charity refined the model by working with indigenous communities in Peru, Ecuador, and the DR Congo to put local people back in control of the forest.

“‘By offering an alternative to offers of quick cash from loggers, Cool Earth makes sure communities with most to lose from deforestation actually gain the most from its protection. In six years, Cool Earth has built schools, clinics, fish farms and co-operatives that boost life chances and livelihoods.

“‘From an initial target of saving 4,500 acres of rainforest, Cool Earth and its community partners now protect over 500,000 acres. Even more important, we ask every community to ask their neighbours to work with them. As a result, the acres we protect form long shields that make even more forest inaccessible to loggers.

“‘For an issue as intractable as tropical deforestation, there are no quick answers. Helping communities on the ground protect the forest upon which they depend is a good place to start.’”

-Johan Eliasch, Cool Earth Founder and Trustee


Sunday, July 25, 2021

Is climate change to blame for the recent weather disasters? Two things you need to understand (The Conversation)


Summer isn’t even half over, and we’ve seen heat waves in the Pacific Northwest and Canada with temperatures that would make news in Death Valley, enormous fires that have sent smoke across North America, and lethal floods of biblical proportions in Germany and China. Scientists have warned for over 50 years about increases in extreme events arising from subtle changes in average climate, but many people have been shocked by the ferocity of recent weather disasters.

A couple of things are important to understand about climate change’s role in extreme weather like this.

First, humans have pumped so much carbon dioxide and other planet-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that what’s “normal” has shifted.

Second, not every extreme weather event is connected to global warming.

Shifting the bell curve

Like so many things, temperature statistics follow a bell curve – mathematicians call these “normal distributions.” The most frequent and likely temperatures are near the average, and values farther from the average quickly become much less likely.

All else being equal, a little bit of warming shifts the bell to the right – toward higher temperatures. Even a shift of just a few degrees makes the really unlikely temperatures in the extreme “tail” of the bell happen dramatically more often.

NASA mapped the changing temperature bell curve year by year starting in 1951.

The stream of broken temperature records in the North American West lately is a great example. Portland hit 116 degrees – 9 degrees above its record before the heat wave. That would be an extreme at the end of the tail. One study determined the heat wave would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change. Extreme heat waves that were once ridiculously improbable are on their way to becoming more commonplace, and unimaginable events are becoming possible.

The width of a bell curve is measured by its standard deviation. About two-thirds of all values fall within one standard deviation of the average. Based on historical temperature records, the heat wave in 2003 that killed more than 70,000 people in Europe was five standard deviations above the mean, so it was a 1 in 1 million event.

Without eliminating emissions from fossil fuels, heat like that is likely to happen a few times a decade by the time today’s toddlers are retirees.

So, is climate change to blame?

There’s a basic hierarchy of the extreme events that scientific research so far has shown are most affected by human-caused climate change.

At the top of the list are extreme events like heat waves that are certain to be influenced by global warming. In these, three lines of evidence converge: observations, physics and computer model simulations that predict and explain the changes. At the bottom of the list are things that might plausibly be caused by rising levels of greenhouse gases but for which the evidence is not yet convincing. Here’s a partial list.

1) Heat waves: Studies show these are certain to increase dramatically with global warming, and indeed that’s exactly what we’re observing.

Map showing cities in the Southeast in particular will see the longest heat seasons
The hot season is getting a lot longer in some places. Michael Kolian/U.S. Global Change Research Program

2) Coastal flooding: Heat is causing ocean waters to expand, pushing up sea levels and melting ice sheets around the world. Both high-tide flooding and catastrophic storm surge will become much more frequent as those events start from a higher average level because of sea level rise.

3) Drought: Warmer air evaporates more water from reservoirs, crops and forests, so drought will increase because of increased water demand, even though changes in rainfall vary and hard to predict.

4) Wildfires: As the western U.S. and Canada are seeing, heat dries out the soils and vegetation, providing drier fuel that’s ready to burn. Forests lose more water during hotter summers, and fire seasons are getting longer.

A greenhouse surrounded by dry brush with fire in the forest on the hill behind it
The Tamarack Fire spread through dry forest and grass near Lake Tahoe on July 17, 2021. AP Photo/Noah Berger

5) Reduced spring snowpack: Snow starts accumulating later in the fall, more water is lost from the snowpack during winter, and the snow melts earlier in the spring, reducing the flush of water into reservoirs that supports the economies of semiarid regions.

6) Very heavy rainfall: Warmer air can transport more water vapor. Damaging rainstorms are due to strong updrafts that cool the air and condense the vapor as rainfall. The more water is in the air during a strong updraft, the more rain can fall.

7) Hurricanes and tropical storms: These derive their energy from evaporation from the warm sea surface. As oceans warm, larger regions can spawn these storms and provide more energy. But changes in winds aloft are expected to reduce hurricane intensification, so it’s not clear that global warming will increase damage from tropical storms.

8) Extreme cold weather: Some research has attributed cold weather than moves south with the meandering of the jet stream – sometimes referred to as “polar vortex” outbreaks – to warming in the Arctic. Other studies strongly dispute that Arctic warming is likely to affect winter weather farther south, and this idea remains controversial.

9) Severe thunderstorms, hail and tornadoes: These storms are triggered by strong surface heating, so it’s plausible that they could increase in a warming world. But their development depends on the circumstances of each storm. There is not yet evidence that the frequency of tornadoes is increasing.

A warning that can’t be ignored

The catastrophic impacts of extreme weather depend at least as much on people as on climate.

The evidence is clear that the more coal, oil and gas are burned, the more the world will warm, and the more likely it will be for any given location to experience heat waves that are far outside anything they’ve experienced.

Disaster preparedness can quickly fail when extreme events blow past all previous experience. Portland’s melting streetcar power cables are a good example. How communities develop infrastructure, social and economic systems, planning and preparedness can make them more resilient – or more vulnerable – to extreme events.

by Scott Denning, Professor of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University


Saturday, July 24, 2021

"I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this…." -Jeff Bezos (by Heather Cox Richardson)


On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first humans ever to land, and then to walk, on the moon.

They were part of the Apollo program, designed to put an American man on the moon. Their spacecraft launched on July 16 and landed back on Earth in the Pacific Ocean July 24, giving them eight days in space, three of them orbiting the moon 30 times. Armstrong and Aldrin spent almost 22 hours on the moon’s surface, where they collected soil and rock samples and set up scientific equipment, while the pilot of the command module, Michael Collins, kept the module on course above them.

The American space program that created the Apollo 11 spaceflight grew out of the Cold War. The year after the Soviet Union launched an artificial satellite in 1957, Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to demonstrate American superiority by sending a man into space. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy moved the goalposts, challenging the country to put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to earth again. He told Congress: “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

A year later, in a famous speech at Rice University in Texas, Kennedy tied space exploration to America’s traditional willingness to attempt great things. “Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it—we mean to lead it,” he said.

[T]here is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people…. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills….”

But the benefits to the country would not only be psychological, he said. “The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.” The effort would create “a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs…new demands in investment and skilled personnel,” as the government invested billions in it.

“To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money…. I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.”

Seven years later, people across the country gathered around television sets to watch Armstrong step onto the moon and to hear his famous words: “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

President Richard Nixon called the astronauts from the White House: “I just can't tell you how proud we all are of what you have done,” he said. “For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives…. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man's world…. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one…in their pride in what you have done, and…in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.”

And yet, by the time Armstrong and Aldrin were stepping onto the moon in a grand symbol of the success of the nation’s moon shot, Americans back on earth were turning against each other. Movement conservatives who hated post–World War II business regulation, taxation, and civil rights demanded smaller government and championed the idea of individualism, while those opposed to the war in Vietnam increasingly distrusted the government.

After May 4, 1970, when the shooting of college students at Kent State University in Ohio badly weakened Nixon’s support, he began to rally supporters to his side with what his vice president, Spiro Agnew, called “positive polarization.” They characterized those who opposed the administration as anti-American layabouts who simply wanted a handout from the government. The idea that Americans could come together to construct a daring new future ran aground on the idea that anti-war protesters, people of color, and women were draining hardworking taxpayers of their hard-earned money.

Ten years later, former actor and governor of California Ronald Reagan won the White House by promising to defend white taxpayers from people like the “welfare queen,” who, he said, “has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands.” Reagan promised to champion individual Americans, getting government, and the taxes it swallowed, off people’s backs.

“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Reagan said in his Inaugural Address. Americans increasingly turned away from the post–World War II teamwork and solidarity that had made the Apollo program a success, and instead focused on liberating individual men to climb upward on their own terms, unhampered by regulation or taxes.

This week, on July 20, 2021, 52 years to the day after Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto the moon, former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and four passengers spent 11 minutes in the air, three of them more than 62 miles above the earth, where many scientists say space starts. For those three minutes, they were weightless. And then the pilotless spaceship returned to Earth.

Traveling with Bezos were his brother, Mark; 82-year-old Wally Funk, a woman who trained to be an astronaut in the 1960s but was never permitted to go to space; and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen from the Netherlands, whose father paid something under $28 million for the seat.

Bezos’s goal, he says, is not simply to launch space tourism, but also to spread humans to other planets in order to grow beyond the resource limits on earth. The solar system can easily support a trillion humans,” Bezos has said. “We would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited—for all practical purposes—resources and solar power and so on. That's the world that I want my great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren to live in.”

Ariane Cornell, astronaut-sales director of Bezos’s space company Blue Origin, live-streamed the event, telling the audience that the launch “represents a number of firsts.” It was “[t]he first time a privately funded spaceflight vehicle has launched private citizens to space from a private launch site and private range down here in Texas. It’s also a giant first step towards our vision to have millions of people living and working in space.”

In 2021, Bezos paid $973 million in taxes on $4.22 billion in income while his wealth increased by $99 billion, making his true tax rate 0.98%. After his trip into the sky, he told reporters: “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this…. Seriously, for every Amazon customer out there and every Amazon employee, thank you from the bottom of my heart very much. It’s very appreciated.”

—by Heather Cox Richardson