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Pope, Iraq’s top Shia cleric hold historic meeting

Pope Francis and Iraq’s top Shia cleric delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence Saturday, urging Muslims in the war-weary Arab nation to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority during an historic meeting in the holy city of Najaf.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians, and that Christians should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis. The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.

Al-Sistani, 90, is one of the most senior clerics in Shia Islam and his rare but powerful political interventions have helped shape present-day Iraq. He is a deeply revered figure in Shia-majority Iraq and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shias worldwide.

The historic meeting in al-Sistani’s humble home was months in the making, with every detail painstakingly discussed and negotiated between the ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.

Early Saturday, the 84-year-old pontiff, travelling in a bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz, pulled up along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in Shia Islam. He then walked the few metres to al-Sistani’s modest home, which the cleric has rented for decades.

Pope Francis arrives to meet with the Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in Najaf, Iraq on Saturday. (Vatican Media/Reuters)

A group of Iraqis wearing traditional clothes welcomed him outside. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, a few white doves were released in a sign of peace. He emerged just under an hour later, still limping from an apparent flare-up of sciatica nerve pain that makes walking difficult.

The “very positive” meeting lasted a total of 40 minutes, said a religious official in Najaf, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.

The official said al-Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room — a rare honour. Al-Sistani and Francis sat close to one another, without masks.

The official said there was some concern about the fact that the Pope had met with so many people the day before. Francis has received the coronavirus vaccine but al-Sistani has not.

The Pope removed his shoes before entering al-Sistani’s room. Al-Sistani spoke for most of meeting. Francis was served tea and a plastic bottle of water, but only drank the latter. Francis paused before leaving al-Sistani’s room to have a last look, the official said.

The Pope arrived later in the ancient city of Ur for an interfaith meeting aimed at urging Iraq’s Muslims, Christians and other believers to put aside historic animosities and work together for peace and unity. Ur is the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Pope Francis, left, attends an inter-religious meeting near the archaeological area of the Sumerian city-state of Ur, 20 kilometres south-west of Nasiriyah, Iraq on Saturday. (Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press)

“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” Francis said. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”

Religious leaders stood to greet him. While Francis wore a mask, few of the leaders on the tented stage did. The meeting was held in the shadow of Ur’s magnificent ziggurat, the 6,000-year-old archaeological complex near the modern city of Nasiriyah.

The Vatican said the historic visit to al-Sistani was a chance for Francis to emphasize the need for collaboration and friendship between different religious communities.

In a statement issued by his office after the meeting, al-Sistani affirmed that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.” He pointed out the “role that the religious authority plays in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”

WATCH | Pope Francis visits Iraq in his first trip during the pandemic:

Pope Francis is on a historic visit to Iraq despite the global pandemic. After a year of laying low in Vatican City, he’s resumed his travels with a message of unity for a country ravaged by religious violence. 2:04

Al-Sistani wished Francis and the followers of the Catholic Church happiness, and thanked him for taking the trouble to visit him in Najaf, the statement said.

For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement — and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shia militiamen against their community.

Iraqis cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.

“We welcome the Pope’s visit to Iraq and especially to the holy city of Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” said Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi. “It is an historic visit and hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”

1st trip abroad since start of pandemic

Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and met with senior government officials on the first-ever papal visit to the country. It is also his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and his meeting Saturday marked the first time a pope had met a grand ayatollah.

On the few occasions where he has made his opinion known, the notoriously reclusive al-Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq’s modern history.

In the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm and restraint as the Shia majority came under attack by al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists. The country was nevertheless plunged into years of sectarian violence.

His 2014 fatwa, or religious edict, calling on able-bodied men to join the security forces in fighting the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) swelled the ranks of Shia militias, many closely tied to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, his sermon lead to the resignation of then-prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Iraqis have welcomed the visit and the international attention it has given the country as it struggles to recover from decades of war and unrest. Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group in 2017 but still sees sporadic attacks.

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Boxing star Claressa Shields is back for a historic card — and she’s fighting a Canadian

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.

A Canadian is fighting one of the best boxers in the world

American Claressa Shields rose to stardom at the 2012 Olympics, where she won middleweight gold at the age of 17. She repeated as Olympic champ in 2016 and also won a pair of middleweight titles at the boxing world championships during her stellar amateur career.

Since turning pro in late 2016, Shields has won all 10 of her fights and captured titles in three different weight classes. In addition to being the current undisputed middleweight (160 pounds) champ, the 25-year-old also holds the WBC and WBO women’s light middleweight (154 pounds) belts. ESPN and The Ring magazine both rate her as the second-best pound-for-pound women’s boxer in the world.

On Friday night in her hometown of Flint, Mich., Shields will step into the ring for the first time in 14 months. Her opponent is a Canadian, 34-year-old Marie-Eve Dicaire, who’s 17-0 as a pro and currently holds the IBF light middleweight title. The bout will unify the two fighters’ various light middleweight belts, and the vacant WBA and The Ring titles are up for grabs too.

Shields is also putting herself out there. She and her manager personally put together Friday night’s card, which is being billed as the first-ever all-female pay-per-view boxing event. The Shields-Dicaire main event is the first women’s bout to headline a boxing pay-per-view since Laila Ali (Muhammad Ali’s daughter) fought Jacqui Frazier-Lyde (Joe Frazier’s daughter) in 2001.

As this story by ESPN’s Michael Rothstein explains, Shields decided to go the DIY route after growing increasingly frustrated with her broadcast partner Showtime. She felt the cable network wasn’t offering her the same opportunities as some of its big-name male boxers.

At the same time, she noticed that mixed martial arts does a better job of showcasing its women’s stars (case in point: the co-main event on this Saturday’s UFC 259 card is a women’s featherweight title bout between star champion Amanda Nunes and challenger Megan Anderson). So Shields is becoming a two-sport athlete. She recently signed a deal with the Professional Fighters League that will see her do two MMA bouts this year, and she’s also planning to fight twice in the boxing ring. The bout everyone would like to see is Shields vs. Ireland’s Katie Taylor — the reigning undisputed lightweight champion and the consensus No. 1 pound-for-pound women’s boxer in the world. It’s a bit tricky, though, because Shields would have to drop down in weight quite a bit to make the fight.

As for Dicaire’s chances of ruining Shields’ big night with an upset, well, they don’t look great. The Canadian is a good fighter (The Ring rates her No. 2 in the world behind Shields in the light middleweight division) and her 17-0 record looks impressive. But she’s never fought outside of her home province of Quebec, and now she’s going right into the backyard of an opponent who’s nine years younger and more talented.

As CBC Sports’ resident fight expert Cole Shelton (follow him on Twitter here) noted when we talked about this matchup, outpointing Shields over 10 rounds is a tall order for Dicaire. So a surprise knockout is probably the best path to victory for the Canadian. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to have that kind of stopping power. All 17 of her pro fights have gone the distance. As a result, the current betting odds imply Dicaire has only about a 13 per cent chance of beating Shields. But, win, lose or draw, simply getting the opportunity to fight in the main event of this historic card — and getting to do so against one of the world’s very best — is a big deal for Dicaire and for Canadian boxing.

Canada’s Marie-Eve Dicaire is rated the No. 2 women’s light middleweight in the world. (Mathieu Belanger/Getty Images)


The Raptors will be very shorthanded tonight. Five Toronto players — starters Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby; reserves Patrick McCaw and Malachi Flynn — plus head coach Nick Nurse and five of his assistants will miss tonight’s game vs. Detroit as part of the NBA’s health and safety protocols. This is just the latest of the Raptors’ coronavirus-related issues, which started last week when Siakam, Nurse and five coaching assistants missed Friday’s game against Houston. Sunday’s game against Chicago was postponed, and Tuesday’s game vs. Detroit was postponed until tonight due to what the league said was “positive test results and ongoing contact tracing within the Raptors organization.” Mercifully, tomorrow night’s game in Boston is Toronto’s last before the all-star break, which lasts a full week. Read more about the Raptors’ problems here.

And finally…

Trivia question: which NHL team holds the record for most goals scored in a game?

Gotta be one of the ’80s Oilers squads, right? Maybe Lemieux’s early-’90s Penguins? Or the legendary ’76-77 Habs?

No, it’s actually the 1919-20 Canadiens, who on this date 101 years ago beat the Quebec Bulldogs 16-3 to set a single-game goals record that has never been matched (hat tip to CBC News’ Morning Brief newsletter for that factoid). Forward Newsy Lalonde and defenceman Harry Cameron each scored four times, and forwards Odie Cleghorn and Didier Pitre also had hat tricks. The legendary Georges Vezina was in net for the Canadiens that night. Quebec star Joe Malone, who about a month earlier had scored seven goals in a game to set an NHL record that still stands, was held to only one goal.

It might surprise you to hear that 1919-20 was the highest-scoring season in NHL history in terms of average goals per game. Montreal also scored 14 and 12 in separate contests that year, and teams averaged 4.79 goals per game (for comparison, last season it was 3.02). It also might surprise you to hear that, to this day, the four highest-scoring seasons in NHL history are still the first four — 1917-18 through 1920-21.

Coming up from CBC Sports

Snowboard cross: Watch the first of two sets of men’s and women’s World Cup races in Georgia on Thursday from 2-3:30 a.m. ET on CBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports app. The second set goes Friday at the same time. Canada’s Eliot Grondin is second in the men’s season standings with only one World Cup stop left after this one.

Nordic ski world championships: Watch the women’s cross-country 4×5-km relay Thursday at 7:15 a.m. ET on CBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports app.

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Protesting Indian farmers return to camp after storming historic fort

Leaders of a protest movement sought Wednesday to distance themselves from a day of violence when thousands of farmers stormed India’s historic Red Fort, the most dramatic moment in two months of demonstrations that have grown into a major challenge of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Farmers demanding the repeal of new agricultural laws briefly took over of the 17th-century fort, and images broadcast live on television shocked the nation. In a particularly bold rebuke to Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government, the protesters hoisted a Sikh religious flag.

At least one protester died, and several demonstrators were injured, as were more than 300 police officers, and there are concerns the violence could undermine the protest movement that has thus far been largely peaceful and is growing in strength.

Farmers demand laws be repealed

The farmers — many of them Sikhs from the major agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana — are demanding the repeal of new laws that they fear will favour large corporate agriculture and leave smallholders behind. The government insists the laws will benefit farmers and boost production through private investment, but, in the face of protests, it has offered to suspend them for 18 months. The farmers want nothing less than a full repeal.

On Tuesday, more than 10,000 tractors and thousands more people on foot or horseback moved into the capital, shoving aside barricades and buses blocking their path and at times met by police using tear gas and water cannons.

“The situation is normal now. The protesters have left the streets of the capital,” New Delhi police officer Anto Alphonse said Wednesday morning.

Hundreds of police are now guarding the fort, while the farmers have returned to their camp at the edge of the capital, where they have hunkered down since November, when they last tried to march into New Delhi. Unfazed by the winter cold and frequent rains, they have said they will stay until the farm laws are repealed.

Police officers stand guard at the Red Fort in New Delhi on Wednesday, a day after protesting farmers stormed the fort. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

The protesting farmers’ groups are scheduled to meet later Wednesday to discuss the future course of action. Another march is planned for Feb. 1, when the Modi government is scheduled to present the annual budget in Parliament.

Violence could dampen farmers’ power, analyst says

As the protests have gathered strength, they have rattled the government like never before since they form the most influential voting bloc in India and are also crucial to its economy. But political analyst Arti Jerath said Tuesday’s violence could dampen their power.

“The Supreme Court has all along said the farmers can continue with the protest without disrupting the life in New Delhi,” she said. “Tuesday’s development has given the government a handle to go to the top court and say, ‘See?’ This is precisely what it was fearing, that it would turn violent.”

Cracks appeared Wednesday in the protest movement when a former convener of the farmers’ umbrella organization disassociated himself from the group after Tuesday’s violent clashes.

V.M. Singh said he was ready to hold talks with the government on legislation guaranteeing a minimum support price for wheat and rice. He said he is no longer seeking the repeal of the three new laws.

Protest organizer Samyukt Kisan Morcha, or United Farmers’ Front, sought to distance the movement from the violence, accusing two outside groups of sabotage by infiltrating their movement.

WATCH | Farmers and police clash:

Months-long protests in India escalated on Tuesday as thousands of farmers clashed with police in New Delhi over new laws that they say will push small farmers out of the market and let private corporations exploit them. 1:47

“Even if it was a sabotage, we can’t escape responsibility,” said Yogendra Yadav, another protest leader.

Yadav said frustration had built up among the protesting farmers and asked: “How do you control it if the government is not serious about what they have been demanding for two months?”

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Indian farmers storm historic Red Fort in Republic Day protests

Thousands of Indian farmers protesting against agricultural reforms overwhelmed police on Tuesday and stormed into the historic Red Fort complex in New Delhi after tearing down barricades and driving tractors through roadblocks.

Police fired tear gas in an unsuccessful bid to force the protesters back. One protester was killed, a witness said, and Delhi police said 86 officers had been injured across the city.

Some of those who scaled the walls of Red Fort carried ceremonial swords, scattering police who tried to prevent them from entering. Footage from Reuters partner ANI showed police jumping from the ramparts to escape. Once inside, the protesters hoisted flags.

Angered by laws they say help large, private buyers at the expense of producers, farmers have camped outside the capital for almost two months, posing one of the biggest challenges to Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he came to power in 2014.

“Modi will hear us now, he will have to hear us now,” said Sukhdev Singh, 55, a farmer from the northern state of Punjab.

The body of one protester draped in an Indian tricolour lay in the street after the tractor he rode overturned in one clash, said a witness, Vishu Arora.

“He died right there,” Arora said.

WATCH | Indian farmers converge on capital to protest reforms:

Thousands of Indian farmers converged on the capital, New Delhi, to continue their lengthy protest against agricultural reforms that they say will cost them money. 1:00

A Reuters witness saw several police and protesters with head injuries following clashes at the Red Fort, from whose ramparts Modi delivers an annual speech.

The government ordered internet services in some parts of the capital to be blocked, according to mobile carrier Vodafone Idea, in an attempt to prevent further unrest.

Breakaway protests condemned

Tens of thousands of farmers began the day in a convoy of tractors festooned with flags along the city’s fringes.

But hundreds of protesters — some on horseback — broke away from approved routes, heading for government buildings in the city centre where the annual Republic Day parade of troops and military hardware was taking place.

They commandeered cranes and used ropes to tear down roadblocks, forcing constables in riot gear to give way, Reuters witnesses said. A second group rode tractors to a traffic junction, also breaching barricades after clashes with police.

Police accused those who diverged from the agreed routes of “violence and destruction.”

“They have caused great damage to public property and many police personnel have also been injured,” a police statement said.

Protest organizer Samyukt Kisan Morcha said the groups deviating from set routes did not represent the majority of farmers.

“We also condemn and regret the undesirable and unacceptable events that have taken place today and dissociate ourselves from those indulging in such acts,” the group of farm unions said in a statement.

Amarinder Singh, chief minister of Punjab state where many of the protesters came from, called the clashes “shocking.”

“The violence by some elements is unacceptable,” he said in a tweet. “It’ll negate goodwill generated by peacefully protesting farmers.”

Farmers’ unrest concerns government

Agriculture employs about half of India’s population of 1.3 billion, and unrest among an estimated 150 million landowning farmers worries the government.

Nine rounds of talks with farmers’ unions have failed to end the protests, as farm leaders rejected the government’s offer to delay the laws for 18 months, making a push for repeal instead.

A farmer in New Delhi covers his face to protect himself from tear gas during the protest on Tuesday against controversial farm laws introduced by the government. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

“The farm organizations have a very strong hold,” said Ambar Kumar Ghosh, an analyst at New Delhi think-tank the Observer Research Foundation.

“They have the resources to mobilize support, and to continue the protest for a long time. They have also been very successful in keeping the protest really focused.”

India showcases its military hardware with a parade every year on Republic Day, which marks the adoption of its constitution in 1950.

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Qualifier Podoroska continues historic run at French Open, advances to semifinals

Argentine Nadia Podoroska became the first qualifier to reach the French Open semifinals in the women’s singles draw when she downed Ukrainian third seed Elina Svitolina 6-2 6-4 on Tuesday.

The world No.131, on her second appearance in the main draw of a Grand Slam, emulates Belgium’s Filip Dewulf, the only qualifier in either of the singles draws since tennis turned professional in 1968 to make it to the last four at Roland Garros, in 1997.

“It’s a little bit difficult for me to speak after the match, thank you everybody for your support, I’m very very happy,” Podoroska said on court Philippe Chatrier.

“We did a very good job with my coaches during quarantine. That’s why I’m here today.”

Svitolina, one of the pre-tournament favorites after winning the Strasbourg International last month, was on the back foot throughout, failing at the last-eight stage for the third time at the claycourt Grand Slam.

Podoroska next faces either Polish teenager Iga Swiatek or another qualifier, Italian Martina Trevisan.

Should Trevisan prevail in her quarter-final, it would ensure a qualifier plays in the final of a Grand Slam for the first time in the Open era.

Since 1968, only Alexandra Stevenson at Wimbledon in 1999 and Christine Dorey at the 1978 Australian Open had made it to the semi-finals at a major prior to Podoroska. Both of them failed to go one step further.

Coming into Tuesday’s match, the 23-year-old Podoroska had won seven matches in a row at Roland Garros, and she kept that momentum going against Svitolina.

The Ukrainian broke her serve in the first game, but then Podoroska turned on the engine and bagged five games in a row to move to 5-1.

Having converted all of her four break points while Svitolina converted only two of six, Podoroska found herself one set up after 37 minutes.

Perfectly mixing power and a gentle touch with drop shots, Podoroska proved too skilful for Svitolina, who looked nothing like the player who reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year.

Six consecutive games went against serve in the second set until Podoroska held for 5-4 before wrapping it up on Svitolina’s serve on her second match point with a forehand winner. 

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Health charities in Canada hit with historic loss in revenue during COVID-19

Canada’s health charities expect to raise less than half of their normal funds this year because of COVID-19.

The pandemic has led to the cancellation of many in-person events that charities rely on for fundraising, and the financial hit means delays in disease research and fewer supports for people with a variety of illnesses.

The Health Charities Coalition of Canada is an umbrella group of national health charities that typically host walkathons, galas and other major fundraising events which raise around $ 650 million a year. Its members report that revenues have fallen more than 50 per cent as physical distancing requirements during the COVID-19 crisis curtailed those events.

Tammy Moore chairs the board of directors of Health Charities Coalition of Canada and is CEO of ALS Canada, where she says the decline in donations has delayed getting mobility chairs, hospital beds and ceiling lifts to help people with ALS, who can experience progressive paralysis over the span of two to five years before death. 

“This has been so critical because caregivers are seeing an increased burden as the personal support workers are not able to go in the home in the same way,” Moore said. “Making sure that people physically can stay safely in their homes is an important part of the equipment provision that we have.”

Sam Hanna, owner of Rehab Medical Mobility Equipment, repairs a wheelchair with employee Nabeel Saleem, left. The company works with ALS Canada to provide mobility devices during the COVID-19 crisis. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Moore said they’re having a hard time picking up and delivering donated devices in the midst of the pandemic, with fewer volunteers. The group turns to Rehab Medical Mobility Equipment to repair the devices, a service that’s become more critical now.

The Canadian Cancer Society expects a drop of between $ 80 and $ 100 million in donations this year. It’s been forced to cancel hundreds of events such as its Relay for Life, which was “reimagined” as a virtual version that raised around $ 4.2 million, compared to more than $ 20 million in each of the last two years. The organization also anticipates its virtual Run for the Cure in October will raise less money than it has previously.  

Grassroot efforts stifled

Andrea Seale, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society, said the group delivers support to people going through cancer and to their caregivers, runs summer camps for children living with cancer, and advocates on health policies. All of those areas have been hit by what Seale said is likely the greatest financial challenge in the organization’s 80-plus-year history.

“We’re supported by a tremendous amount of grassroots effort from volunteers in the community,” Seale said from Vancouver. “Some of that effort can go online, but certainly not all of it. “

About 60 per cent of net proceeds go to client services in the province in which the funds were raised, and the rest supports research, which Seale said has been deferred and slowed during the pandemic. 

Seale hopes that determination and creativity in finding online ways for people to support the charity will help it get through the pandemic. But, she said, it is hard to predict how long it will take for services to return fully.

Smaller charities hard-hit

Smaller charitable organizations like the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario have also faced a tough year. The group receives no government funding and serves more than 500 people with the inherited disorder that hampers how vital red blood cells function.

The group said it receives around $ 2,000 a month in donations on average. That’s dropped to $ 400 a month since March.

Alvin Merchant says people in the sickle cell community feel particularly isolated during COVID-19. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Alvin Merchant, a board member in Toronto who lives with the disease, said being immune-compromised puts people in a “serious quandary” during COVID-19.

Support groups for adults used to gather in person for yoga warm-ups, physical activity, massage services donated by a local college and child-minding.

“People in the sickle cell community already feel isolated; they’re dealing with a disease that no one understands,” Merchant said.

Merchant said his group hopes to tap into the federal government’s $ 350-million Emergency Community Fund for community organizations serving vulnerable people during COVID-19. But, he said, the organization will have to find unique ways to raise awareness.

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NASA, SpaceX Gear Up for Historic Crewed Launch Today

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NASA and SpaceX are just hours away from making history. After years of development and testing, SpaceX is set to become the first private spaceflight firm to carry American astronauts into space as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. This is also the first crewed launch from US soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, a long-overdue step that will free NASA from reliance on Russian Soyuz launches. With the big moment approaching, we chatted with former astronauts Cady Coleman and Nicole Stott, both veterans of multiple Space Shuttle launches, to see how they felt about the return of crewed spaceflight to the US. Spoiler: pretty excited. 

How We Got Here

SpaceX has moved quickly to develop the technology that makes its launch platform suitable for NASA service — it’s providing both the rocket (Falcon 9) and crew module (Dragon) for these launches. Former astronaut and retired USAF Colonel Cady Coleman says that has a lot to do with the way a private aerospace firm operates. “It’s a different world now. If you think back to the early space program, the government really was the designer. Working together [with private firms] is more necessary than it ever was because of the ability that commercial companies have. They can take bigger risks with [developing] hardware.”

SpaceX didn’t get here on its own, though. “The SpaceX team has had access all along to the lessons learned from NASA’s other programs,” says former astronaut Nicole Stott. “That’s a real advantage when going into a new project. When we have public-private partnerships, we can avoid re-learning the same lessons.”

Today’s launch is primarily about the Crew Dragon capsule, sometimes called Dragon 2. This is the same type of spacecraft that SpaceX used in last year’s uncrewed Demo Mission-1. Unfortunately, that craft exploded when it was undergoing testing back on Earth. SpaceX and NASA had to push back the launch timeline, but all systems are go just a year later. That might seem fast to an outside observer, but both Coleman and Stott expressed great confidence in the way NASA and its commercial crew partners have worked together. “We’ve always had a ‘here’s how we can’ not ‘here’s why we can’t’ approach,” says Coleman. 

The launch

Today’s launch, known as Demo Mission 2 (DM-2), will take place on the historic launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX is using a Falcon 9 Block 5 design, the same rocket the company uses for cargo missions on a regular basis. This core in particular (B1058) has never been launched before, but SpaceX will try to land it on its drone ship after it detaches from the Dragon.

If all goes to plan, the Falcon 9 carrying astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will leave the launchpad at 4:33 PM EDT. This launch will differ from past crewed missions in several ways, and it took time for SpaceX and NASA to come together on the details. “In getting ready for launch, there are some things that are just a given,” says Coleman. “NASA has done this and that forever, but SpaceX says ‘we’re not doing it that way.’ And some of that is maybe not well-thought-out, and some of that is actually a really good new idea.”

Unlike previous NASA crewed launches, SpaceX will fuel the Falcon 9 after Hurley and Behnken board the spacecraft. The launch and approach to the ISS will be automated like the Demo-1 mission last year, but Hurley and Behnken will still have the option to manually control the capsule. According to Nicole Stott, that wasn’t SpaceX’s intention at the outset.

“For a long time, SpaceX as a company thought they wouldn’t need those manual backups anymore — you know, we can do everything redundantly with the electronics in the spacecraft,” she said. “Maybe at some point we’ll get there, but I think when there are humans in the spacecraft, we’re looking for that manual backup.”

Robert Behnken (left) and Douglas Hurley (right)

While the Dragon 2 has superficial similarities to the older capsule-based spacecraft like the Apollo command module and Soyuz, it’s a much more futuristic design. Nicole Stott describes it as having a “new car feel” with a “simple elegance.” Stott says the Space Shuttle cockpit had displays, switches, and circuit breakers almost surrounding the crew. By comparison, the Dragon 2 has a few large touchscreens and compact manual controls. 

After reaching orbit, Hurley and Behnken will be able to remove their restraints and float around the capsule. As this is a demo mission, NASA will most likely have an array of tasks for the crew to complete as they monitor the Dragon’s performance. Just like the ascent, rendezvous and docking will be controlled autonomously by the Dragon. After a brief stay aboard the ISS, Hurley and Behnken will return to Earth in the Dragon. 

The Crew Dragon should splash down in the Atlantic Ocean with parachutes, which SpaceX tested one final time early this month. The Dragon capsule technically has the ability to land propulsively with its SuperDraco engines, which also power the launch abort system. However, NASA opted for the tried-and-true parachute option. That’s not to say SpaceX will never have a chance to use those engines for landing.

“I think we’re going to continue looking at [propulsive landings] as an option,” says Stott. “When you get into reduced gravity environments like landing on the moon or on Mars, we’ve done that in the past. I think we’re looking at what makes the most sense with the time we have available.” Essentially, NASA needs a reliable US spacecraft now, and we know parachutes work. 

The future

After the completion of DM-2, the Crew Dragon will be ready to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS on a regular basis. Of course, that assumes everything goes well. Spaceflight is dangerous, even more so when it’s a new spacecraft. Both SpaceX and NASA have maintained a positive outlook — NASA actually chose to publicize the overall Loss Of Crew (LOC) risk of 1 in 276. Prior to the first Space Shuttle launch, the agency’s engineers estimated the LOC as at least 1 in 500. After reviewing real mission data, they said it was probably closer to 1 in 12. By the end of the Shuttle program, it was 1 in 90. 

We can only hope that the mission is a complete success and these launches become non-events — astronauts just hop on their space bus and commute to the ISS. But today, Hurley and Behnken are making history. Nicole Stott put it succinctly, saying, “They’re setting off a new era of getting back into space from the US, helping us expand what we do with all our partners in space. And as always, with the goal of improving life here on Earth.”

This historic launch will take place at 4:33 PM EDT today with live streams from both NASA and SpaceX. National Geographic and ABC News will also have two hours of live coverage starting at 3 PM EDT today on “Launch America: Mission to Space,” featuring Cady Coleman among others. In the event of bad weather, NASA has another launch window set for May 30th.

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Historic First SpaceX Crewed Mission Scheduled for May 27

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SpaceX is gearing up for its most important mission yet. After years of development and testing, Elon Musk’s private spaceflight firm will fly its first crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has announced the official launch date of May 27, 2020. This will mark the first time in almost a decade that American astronauts head into space aboard an American spacecraft. 

NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing contracts in 2014 to provide crew launch services. SpaceX opted to use the Dragon II, a tweaked version of its already successful cargo vessel. Meanwhile, Boeing began developing the CST-100 Starliner, a new spacecraft based loosely on the Apollo-era command module. Despite getting almost twice as much funding ($ 4.2 billion vs $ 2.6 billion), Boeing has fallen behind SpaceX in the race to return America to space. 

SpaceX successfully completed its uncrewed test flight last year, known as Demo-1. The Dragon capsule launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, docked autonomously at the ISS, and then splashed-down safely on Earth. The company experienced an explosive failure during subsequent ground testing, which set back plans to proceed with the crewed Demo-2 mission. SpaceX has now rectified that issue to NASA’s satisfaction. However, Boeing is in a tough spot. 

It was unclear which company would be first to launch with a crew through late 2019, but then Boeing had its disastrous Demo-1 flight. The CST-100 suffered multiple computer errors that caused it to end up in the wrong orbit, missing the ISS rendezvous entirely. Boeing recently confirmed it would refly the mission, but that won’t happen until fall 2020. That left SpaceX in the lead. 

On May 27th, NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will become the first people to climb aboard the Crew Dragon and ride it into space. The current plan calls for Demo-2 to launch from Launch Complex 39A in Florida around 4:32 PM, weather permitting. The Falcon 9 launch platform will even sport the agency’s classic “worm” logo. The duration of the mission has yet to be determined, but it won’t be a typical ISS transport situation. Following Demo-2, Behnken and Hurley will board the Dragon and return to Earth. Future missions will use the Dragon to get new crew members to the ISS and return astronauts who have completed their tours aboard the ISS to Earth. 

With this step forward, NASA can finally stop relying on expensive seats on Russian Soyuz capsules for access to space. NASA should be well-equipped to continue its human spaceflight projects when the Starliner is available later this year or in early 2021. Work also continues on the Space Launch System, which will support the Artemis program to return humans to the moon.

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‘Survivor: Winners at War’: Jeremy, Sarah and Kim All Make Major Moves After Jeff Probst’s ‘Historic’ Reveal

‘Survivor: Winners at War’: Jeremy, Sarah and Kim All Make Major Moves After Jeff Probst’s ‘Historic’ Reveal | Entertainment Tonight

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The sorrow and the savage: Leafs’ historic loss to Zamboni driver inspires range of emotional reactions

It’s rare that a regular season NHL game in mid February is guaranteed to be remembered until the end of time, but Saturday’s meeting between the Toronto Maple Leafs and visiting Carolina Hurricanes is most definitely one for the history books.

That’s because the former Zamboni driver for the Maple Leafs’ AHL team played net for the Hurricanes.

And he won.

For those just stumbling across this, here’s a brief game synopsis: Carolina’s starting goalie James Reimer left the game in the first period with an lower-body injury.

Petr Mrazek was summoned to fill in for the injured Reimer, and was humming along nicely until he was bowled over by Toronto’s Kyle Clifford, and was forced to leave the game in the second period with his team up 3-1.

NHL teams only (usually) dress two goaltenders, so that meant the emergency backup goalie, David Ayres, was called into action. The former Zamboni driver has been a practice goalie for the Leafs’ AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies for the past eight years, and also practices with the Leafs.

This was him in net during the Maple Leafs outdoor practice in front of city hall:

So he’s faced plenty of shots from pro players, but Saturday was the first time he’d been called into action in an NHL game.

Long story short, Ayres allowed two goals on the first two shots he faced, but he and his new team held on for a 6-3 win.

At 42, he became the oldest goaltender in league history to win in his NHL debut.

Naturally, all of this blew the mind of pretty much every hockey fan on social media, including those that knew him personally.

A couple of fellow NHL goaltenders also got in on the conversation.

And then there was Ayres’ wife, Sarah, who had to watch nervously from Scotiabank Arena alone after her husband ditched her to, you know, make his NHL debut and all that.

But in all of the excitement for Ayres success, there was also some extremely distressed Leafs fans who had to watch their beloved team muster just 8 shots in 30 minutes of play.

But hey, no matter what the Leafs players are feeling today, at least they’ll be able to discuss it with the guy who put them here in the first place.

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