LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It's been an exciting year for developments in space. Just earlier this week, SpaceX successfully landed a 15-story tall section of one of their rockets back on Earth. And joining me to discuss what's been going on off our planet during 2015 is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. So explain exactly what happened that a part of the rocket returned.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: In some sense, this was just another rocket launch for SpaceX. You know, they sent 11 communication satellites into orbit. What really makes this special is what happened to the big first stage of the rocket. Now, normally this would just fall back to Earth. But this time, SpaceX flipped it around and then flew it back to near the launch site and actually landed it. They fired the engines a second time and it sort of floated down onto the pad. It was pretty spectacular to watch.
WERTHEIMER: The space pad looks big when you're looking at it on the Earth. But from space, it must be a tiny dot.
BRUMFIEL: Yeah, I mean SpaceX describes it as trying to shoot a pencil over the Empire State Building, have it turn around and land in a shoebox vertically. That's how hard this is.
WERTHEIMER: There were also exciting developments billions of miles away. This year, we got our first look at Pluto. Do we think Pluto is a planet? What do we think Pluto is?
BRUMFIEL: Well, Pluto's official designation is a dwarf planet. And I have to tell you the people who sent this probe all the way out to Pluto are a little angry about that because when they launched it a decade ago, Pluto was still a planet.
BRUMFIEL: It got downgraded in the intervening years.
WERTHEIMER: That seems so unfair.
BRUMFIEL: I know, I know. Well, they will talk your ear off about how unfair it is. But this was still a huge achievement, one of the biggest highlights of the year. This probe, called New Horizons, sort of swept past Pluto and gave us our first real up-close pictures. And, I mean, I've got to say, it's not at all what you would expect. It's not sort of a cratered dead world. It's got huge mountains, it's got glaciers, there's a lot going on down there.
WERTHEIMER: There appears to be ice and water and whatnot.
BRUMFIEL: That's right.
WERTHEIMER: We get very excited about that when we think that might exist on Mars.
BRUMFIEL: Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, I mean, we do excited about it. And in the case of Pluto, we're excited about it because Pluto could be a remnant from the early solar system. It could really tell us a lot about how we all got here. So, for me, this was really the highlight of the year, personally. I mean, we - you know, humanity sends a probe from more than three billion miles away, so far away it took four and a half hours just for the photos to make their way back at the speed of light. And, you know, this little probe gets these great pictures, sends them back and we learn just an enormous amount. It was very cool.
WERTHEIMER: Now, I don't want to leave without talking about space cuisine. I understand there were important advances in the grub you get in space.
BRUMFIEL: That's right. Space food is notoriously horrible to eat. It's all this vacuum-packed, freeze-dried stuff. It's sort of - they - they extrude it out of these packages and it comes out as a paste. It looks awful. But this year, they managed to grow some lettuce up there. And so for the first time, astronauts were actually allowed to eat it. They brought up a little balsamic vinaigrette to put on it. You know, this sounds kind of trivial. It is a little silly, but it's not as easy as it sounds. I mean, remember, plants, you know, grow on Earth and...
WERTHEIMER: Well, we've all seen the movie where they had a hell of a time trying to grow potatoes on Mars.
BRUMFIEL: That's right. "The Martian," exactly. But this is even harder 'cause it's zero gravity so you have to get the water, which is just floating around, to go in the roots. I mean, it's a trick. But if you go to space, I mean, you're not going for the food, let's face it.
WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) OK. Geoff Brumfiel, thank you very much.
BRUMFIEL: Thank you.
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