September 14, 2018

In February 2017, Elon Musk announced that his SpaceX rockets would take two unidentified space tourists on a trip around the moon by the end of 2018. That timeline was pushed back to 2019 earlier this year, but on Thursday night, SpaceX dropped a surprise announcement.

Who is this mystery passenger? Probably not Musk, who dropped a clue — a Japanese flag emoji — on Twitter when asked about the space tourist. The original plan had been to send the two space tourists around the moon on a Dragon spacecraft powered by a Falcon Heavy rocket, which SpaceX successfully launched in May. The BFR, which Musk has described as the biggest rocket ever made, is still in the development stage.

If Musk does end up being one of the passengers on his around-the-moon vacation, he wouldn't be the only billionaire space tourism entrepreneur to ride on his own spacecraft. "Before the end of the year I hope to be sitting in a Virgin Galactic spaceship, going to space," Virgin chief Richard Branson told Bloomberg TV in May. Peter Weber

6:51 p.m.

With a vote of 364-62, the House of Representatives on Tuesday passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which directs the Department of Justice to task a point person with expediting the review of coronavirus-related hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

All of the opposing votes were from Republicans. The Senate approved the legislation 94-1 in April, with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) the lone vote against it. President Biden is expected to sign the bill into law later this week.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began last spring, there has been a sharp increase in the number of attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and the bill also calls on federal agencies to work with community-based organizations to spread awareness of hate crimes and establish a way for law enforcement to report hate crimes online.

Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) introduced the legislation with Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and said on Tuesday it is "a necessary step to confront the second pandemic of racism and discrimination. We cannot mend what we do not measure." Catherine Garcia

6:14 p.m.

If Republicans take back the House in 2022, at least one sitting GOP member of the chamber doesn't think House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is the right fit to serve as speaker — and you can probably guess who.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who some observers believe isn't a shoo-in to hold her seat, told Politico she won't vote for McCarthy in that hypothetical situation. "I think that we've got to have leaders who lead based on principle, and that's not what we've seen from him," Cheney said.

The rift between the two lawmakers, who not too long ago were leading the House GOP together, has grown significantly since the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, culminating in a vote to oust Cheney — who has remained fiercely critical of former President Donald Trump and his role in the future of the Republican Party — as the House Republican conference chair, so her candid words didn't exactly come out of the blue. Read more about Cheney's own potential path forward in the party at Politico. Tim O'Donnell

6:08 p.m.

Well, if they are government drones, we're all doomed.

Researchers have estimated the Earth's individual bird population to be about 50 billion, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday. That's roughly one human for every six birds, CNET reports. Per National Geographic, the study is "the first attempt to estimate the world population of birds, species by species."

Since birds are flighty creatures (pun intended) by nature, researchers, of course, weren't able to count them individually. Instead, scientists used a combination of computer algorithms and "citizen-scientist" observations from bird watching database eBird to arrive at their monumental number.

You may be asking yourself, "Why now?" or just, "Why?" The answer is simple: "For the fields of ecology, evolutionary biology, and conservation, abundance estimates of organisms are essential," write the study's authors. "The distribution of species abundances is fundamental to numerous longstanding questions in ecology."

Although the researchers make sure to qualify their results as estimates (the census focused on only about 92 percent of "all living bird species"), their findings do "represent the best-available data" at the moment, per CNET.

Now, there's only one question left to ask — did or did they not accurately count Martha Stewart's peacocks? Brigid Kennedy

5:47 p.m.

Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle company is standing behind its vagina-scented candle that has now been accused of exploding on more than one occasion.

A Texas man is suing Goop, the company Paltrow founded, alleging he purchased one of its "This Smells Like My Vagina" candles and that it "exploded" and became "engulfed in high flames" after burning for around three hours, NBC News reports.

Colby Watson, who filed the class-action complaint, reportedly acknowledges that Goop provides a "limited" warning to customers that the candle shouldn't burn for more than two hours at a time, but he alleges Goop "knew the candles were defective." In January, a U.K. woman also alleged the candle "exploded and emitted huge flames," at which time Goop said it was in touch with her to see "if she followed the specific fire safety instructions."

A representative for Goop on Tuesday dismissed the lawsuit as "frivolous" and an "attempt to secure an outsized payout from a press-heavy product," per TMZ. They added that "we stand behind the brands we carry and the safety of the products we sell" and that the brand that supplies the candle has "substantiated the product's performance and safety through industry standard testing."

According to NBC, Watson is seeking over $5 million in punitive damages for himself and for others who "through no fault of their own, purchased defective and dangerous vagina-scented candles." Brendan Morrow

5:17 p.m.

Back in February, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration considered the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will transport natural gas from Russia to Germany, "a bad deal" that "exposes Ukraine and Central Europe" to Moscow and "goes against Europe's own stated energy and security goals." Similarly, during his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he is "determined to do whatever we can to prevent" the completion of the controversial pipeline. But on Tuesday, Axios reported the Biden administration is set to waive sanctions on the company overseeing its construction, as well its CEO, Matthias Warnig, who is considered a "crony" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That doesn't mean President Biden now supports Nord Stream 2 — on the contrary, the White House reportedly still hopes it doesn't go into use — but it does suggest his administration feels sanctions are ultimately a bigger risk than safeguard. Per Axios, sources close to the situation said that Biden officials have determined sanctioning the German-end users of the gas is the only way to stop construction, 95 percent of which is already complete, at this point. The administration simply doesn't want to jeopardize its relationship with Berlin over the pipeline.

The waivers reportedly could be lifted, and sanctions reinstated, at any moment, so administration sources told Axios the looming threat should still give Washington leverage in the situation. Read more at Axios. Tim O'Donnell

3:34 p.m.

Unlike House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seems open to a negotiated House bill that would set up a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

Even though a bipartisan deal was struck in the lower chamber last week, McCarthy slammed the result Tuesday morning, and it was widely assumed the proposal was dead on arrival in the Senate anyway after it presumably passes the Democratic-majority House. But McConnell surprised some analysts Tuesday when he said Senate Republicans were "undecided" about the bill and are "willing to listen" to arguments in favor of it. The senator certainly seems to have his concerns — namely that the commission may be unbalanced in favor of Democrats — but he didn't reiterate his previous suggestion that it needs to expand its scope beyond the riot (which is McCarthy's main gripe).

Regardless, Brian Rosenwald, a contributer at TheWeek.com, thinks that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) may be able to get to 60 votes without too much haggling. If all seven senators who voted to convict former President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial back the bill, the Senate would need just three more defectors, and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) has already hinted at his support. Tim O'Donnell

2:55 p.m.

Charles Grodin, the star of stage and screen known for his roles in films like Midnight Run and The Heartbreak Kid, has died at 86.

Grodin died on Tuesday at his home in Connecticut from bone marrow cancer, his son, Nicholas, confirmed to The New York Times.

Among the films Grodin starred in throughout his career include Catch-22, The Heartbreak Kid, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Run, Dave, and Beethoven, and his stage work included "Same Time, Next Year," which he performed in alongside Ellen Burstyn. In 1973, Grodin was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in The Heartbreak Kid, and he earned an Emmy in 1978 for writing a Paul Simon TV special.

"With a great sense of deadpan comedy and the kind of everyman good looks that lend themselves to playing businessmen or curmudgeonly fathers, Mr. Grodin found plenty of work as a supporting player and the occasional lead," the Times writes.

Grodin also authored numerous plays and books and hosted a talk show, and he was known for his appearances on Johnny Carson's and David Letterman's late night shows, the Times notes. "His dry, understated sense of humor" made him the "perfect talkshow guest," Variety writes.

Comedian Marc Maron remembered Grodin as "one of the great cranky comedic geniuses," and Comedy Central paid tribute by writing, "Charles Grodin was a legendary actor and his impact on comedy across film and television was massive. He'll be missed." Brendan Morrow

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