The Flatliners team could have saved their remake — and chose not to

Back in 2016, in an interview with Metro, actor Kiefer Sutherland said something that promptly made the rounds in the usual film-news outlets: he claimed Niels Arden Oplev’s 2017 Flatliners remake is actually a sequel to the original 1990 film. “I play a professor at the medical university,” he told writer Ann Lee. “It is never stated but it will probably be very clearly understood that I’m the same character I was in the original Flatliners but that I have changed my name and I’ve done some things to move on from the experiments that we were doing in the original film.”

That’s actually an intriguing prospect. Joel Schumacher’s ’90s Flatliners is a schlocky but stylish, propulsive science-fantasy about a handful of medical students who experiment with stopping each other’s hearts and reviving each other, in order to get a hint at what death feels like, and what’s behind the visions patients have during near-death experiences. Before long, four of the five protagonists are haunted by specters from their past, as something in the death-and-revival process converts their guilty consciences into dangerous physical manifestations.

But half the film’s run time goes into watching the characters figuring this out, then fussing over what to do about it. Bringing Sutherland in as a mentor figure — one experienced in the dangers of flatlining, and with advice about how to survive — raised the possibility of a Flatliners sequel that would acknowledge the past and push the franchise into the future. It could have helped move the plot along faster, leaving more time for new territory and new developments. And with an experienced older character on hand to draw out the protagonists’ motives and question their purpose, Flatliners could have focused on character development and conflict past the most basic, obvious first steps.

Instead, Oplev and screenwriter Ben Ripley (who also wrote Duncan Jones’ Source Code) opt for the laziest, most predictable route — an almost blow-by-blow remake that runs a new crew of flatliners through the exact same beats as the old ones, but with less energy and creativity. Sutherland’s character is a near-nonentity, a cameo who turns up in a few scenes as a generic cranky medical-center administrator. The character doesn’t do anything specific or interesting to justify Sutherland’s presence. The same could be said of the film as a whole. It slunk into theaters unheralded, not screened for critics, and without preview screenings, already discarded by the studio, and it’s easy to see why. At every step, it represents a series of possibilities that were rejected, and interesting chances discarded in favor of duller ones.

Columbia Pictures

This time around, X-Men and Inception’s Ellen Page leads the experiment as Courtney, a young med student who has personal reasons for her fascination with the afterlife. Years ago, while texting and driving, she caused a car crash that killed her younger sister. But she lies to fellow students Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) and Jamie (James Norton), telling them she’s chasing a scientific discovery that will make them all famous and highly employable. Sophia is struggling academically, and wants that edge; Jamie, an arrogant rich kid who lives on his family’s yacht, seems more motivated by a thrill he hasn’t tried. But thanks to a lecture from Sutherland’s brusque chief doctor, they’re both aware of the competition they face in an overcrowded medical field, and they leap into the flatlining experiments with only token resistance. Courtney’s first experiment goes wrong, though, and more competent student Ray (Diego Luna) is roped in to revive her. Then competitive student Marlo (Nina Dobrev) finds out what they’re up to, and crashes the party.

Give Ripley this: his story moves fast. Courtney comes back from her flatlining experience with a better memory for obscure medical diagnoses, her grandmother’s bread recipe, enhanced piano-playing skills, and a sense of overall well-being, so everyone but Ray quickly lines up for their turn on the slab and the brain-scanner. Then they all start hallucinating moderately spooky things — a phantom baby, the word “murderer” scrawled in blood, and so forth — and they realize their histories are haunting them. But where Schumacher’s Flatliners created a steady sense of escalation and danger, Oplev’s version is less focused, and the threat never manifests past some generic jump-scares. And the characters aren’t developed well enough for their well-being to become a concern. Only Luna, playing a sort of long-haired, sad-eyed skinny-sexy-Jesus, comes across as sympathetic, but the filmmakers never decide why he’s in the story. The script hints vaguely at some sort of tragic past as a Houston firefighter, then drops it to get on to the next tame boo-eek moment.

Columbia Pictures

Like so many science-fiction horror movies, Flatliners in both its iterations is about the hazards of playing God — or at least, the hazards of playing God via sloppy research protocols. So many “science goes wrong” movies (see also: Splice, Transcendence, Morgan, etc.) imply that there are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know Or Do, and that the indifferent cosmos will punish anyone crossing the wrong line. But these movies are often in such a hurry to get to the exciting consequences that their stars come across as lazy, shallow, and dumb. Here, they each have their own reasons for participating, but those motives are only sketched in the shallowest ways.

Schumacher’s Flatliners at least had an exaggerated sense of style going for it, in an aggressively in tense color scheme and a reliance on strong, evocative images. Oplev mimics some of that in the most literal ways — “The original had an outdoor party around a bonfire, here’s my outdoor party around a bonfire” — but brings nothing new to them. The narrative follows the same rules: the few minor twists are brief and quickly forgotten, both by the characters and the story. But really, the new Flatliners’ problem is that fatal lack of escalation, of rising stakes or the characters being cornered. The filmmakers could have saved it by using its sequel status to up the ante, and move the story somewhere new. Every retread of a familiar story has to bring something new to the table, if it’s going to justify its existence. Instead, this is yet another cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together out of scavenged parts, and shocked back to life for no clear or compelling reason.

The US will spend $170 million to stockpile drugs used to treat the Ebola virus

The US government will purchase up to 1.13 million doses of a pair of Ebola vaccines and treatments to keep on hand in the event of another outbreak, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority said yesterday.

BARDA, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, will spend $170 million to stockpile two vaccines and two treatments. While the authority can purchase the drugs, none have been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration. According to Reuters, BARDA will help each manufacturer “validate its manufacturing processes and make final preparations needed to apply for FDA approval,” but has the authority to keep a stockpile of the drugs on hand, even if they aren’t approved.

The authority is purchasing the drugs through the Project BioShield Act, a 2004 law designed to stockpile treatments for biological, chemical, nuclear incidents for the country’s civilian population. The purchase comes after the West African Ebola Outbreak infected 28,616 people and killed 11,310 between 2013 and 2016. Four cases were reported in the United States, with one dying as a result.

The outbreak prompted numerous efforts to find treatments for the often-fatal disease, and a 2016 trial of a drug manufactured by Merck and Co. in Guinea and Sierra Leone yielded highly effective results. Other efforts are underway as well. Earlier this week, the National Institutes of Health granted Thomas Jefferson University $2.6 million to develop a new vaccine for the Ebola, Sudan, Marburg, and Lassa fever viruses.

The Ebola virus first appeared in Central Africa in the 1970s and is thought to be transmitted to humans through animal contact. Those infected experience fever, headaches, and muscle pain, followed by vomiting, diarrhea, and in some cases, internal and external bleeding. Since its discovery, the disease periodically surfaced in Central Africa in small outbreaks. In 2013, the illness appeared in West Africa, where it quickly spread throughout 10 countries and took months to bring under control. Earlier this summer, four people were killed during a small outbreak of the disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The outbreak was brought to an end in 42 days without the use of the new vaccines or treatments.

Apple’s new iPhone 8 Plus ad showcases its Portrait Lighting feature

Apple released an ad for the iPhone 8 Plus, which shows off the phone’s big new feature, Portrait Lighting. The spot features a singer walking towards the camera, lit with the various lighting setups.

Portrait Lighting is a new feature for the iPhone, which uses software to apply several preset lighting effects to a subject’s face. The various presets — Natural Light, Studio Light, Contour Light, Stage Light, and Stage Light Mono — are still in beta, but it’s a neat effect that builds on the iPhone’s Portrait Mode.

A new book explores the CIA’s crazy plan to snatch a Soviet sub from the bottom of the ocean

During the height of the Cold War, a Soviet submarine mysteriously sank in the Pacific Ocean. K-129 held a crew of nearly 100 sailors, as well as a full payload of nuclear missiles. Following its loss, the US Navy noted the flurry of Soviet activity dispatched to locate the ship and saw an opportunity to gain access to their rival’s military secrets. They decided to locate and then steal the sub. The fact that this was physically, scientifically, and perhaps legally impossible led the team assigned to the project to — often ad hoc, or accidentally — create, iterate, and apply technologies that would radically change the transportation industry forever.

Author and journalist Josh Dean’s new book is The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History and tells the story of the project, which aimed to grab the sub from its resting place — three miles below the surface of the ocean. Spearheaded by the CIA and funded by a top secret black budget, the program required numerous uninvented technologies, an outrageous vehicle to carry and implement them, and a fantastical cover story to keep the Russians and the public in the dark—one that unexpectedly helped jump start the existence of an entire industry.

Image: Penguin Random House

The ship that the CIA contractors designed was called the Glomar Explorer, and it was like nothing that had been built before. One of the largest ships ever constructed, the central section of its 600-foot-long deck was dominated by an enormous derrick, which could lower 17,000 feet of metal piping down to the bottom of the sea. Its hull concealed a huge claw that could be extended on this three miles of piping to grab the sub, along with a secret, giant-doored cavity capable of retracting, swallowing, and transporting it.

View of the CIA spy ship ‘Glomar Explorer’, research ship of Howard Hughes organization.
Credit: Photo by Bettmann / Getty Contributor

The Glomar Explorer was thus extremely conspicuous — it was so big, it could be seen from space. But because it had to operate openly and with impunity on the open seas, the CIA had to invent a believable cover story so the Russians would not become suspicious of their real motives. The one they settled on was that it was an experimental seafloor mining ship, built for an industry that did not exist at the time, and owned by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, who was pressed into service to back up these claims. To foster the perception that this was true, the CIA hired experts to write scientific papers for mining and shipping publications, presented the ship and its mission at industry conferences and publications, and “leaked” the story to the mainstream press to encourage coverage.

“I’ve been calling it the most specific tool ever made,” Dean says in an interview with The Verge. “It wasn’t intended as a step toward anything. It was built to literally do one thing, which was to pull a two million pound hunk of steel off the bottom of the ocean.” At the time, it was so beyond the capabilities of any machine on the planet, creating it required pie-eyed thinking, a nine-figure blank check, and access to some of the nation’s best scientific tools, thinkers, and contractors.

This kind of carte blanche engineering was not an uncommon practice during the era. At the time, there was a shared belief that technological and social challenges could be solved by putting the smartest experts in the world on the topic, and funding them until they figured it out, and that, because investment and possible benefits would be high, the government should be the source of this funding. NASA is a key example of that. But Dean argues that the CIA was another.

photo by Chuck Cannon

“Because of the secretive nature of the CIA, this isn’t widely understood, but the Director of Science and Technology at that time was essentially this ridiculous skunk-works for ambitious engineering,” Dean says. “In less than twenty years, they built the U2, the highest-flying surveillance plane ever made, and they built the SR-71, still the fastest plane ever made. But the stakes of the Cold War were so high the argument was, the survival of the nation and the planet depends on this.”

Like many experimental government programs in the era, much of the boundary-leaping technology developed for the ship ended up having extremely relevant applications. “Dynamic positioning was the big one,” Dean says, referring to the use of thrusters at a ship’s corners, which used special markers on the seafloor to help the ship maintain its position. This technology became important as offshore oil drilling became a standard practice, since it allowed a ship to hover over a specific drill point and insert and reinsert a drill serially into the same hole.

View of the huge HMB-1 barge, companion vessel to the mystery Hughes search ship Glomar Explorer.
Photo by Bettmann / Getty Contributor

“It was also one of the first, if not the first, ships to have satellite positioning, to make sure that it was in the right place on the map,” Dean says, “this was so state of the art at that time.”

All of this was powered by some of the first computers ever loaded aboard a ship, but more impressive than these early, room-sized machines was the computation involved in designing this behemoth and all of its necessary systems. “This was all done one slide rules and calculators,” Dean says of the engineering team. “There were no computer models, these guys were doing it on paper with pencil basically.”

Closing the circle between fantasy and reality—like Argo meets The Abyss—scientific, industry, and popular interest in the CIA’s invented backstory actually helped jump-start the international practice of seafloor mining. A number of countries began exploring the possibility, including the Russians, who had clearly swallowed the phony tale.

More pointedly, after its top secret mission was complete, the Glomar Explorer actually went into service as an experimental sea-floor mining vehicle in the now-real industry its fake cover helped to invent. The ship, then owned by Lockheed, was sent out for tests off Catalina Island in California, and successfully picked up manganese nodules from the bottom of the ocean. However, there was an issue. “We picked up a lot more nodules that we expected and jammed the system,” says Steve Bailey, a mechanical engineer who operated the tethered mining probe at the time, told The Verge. “And once it jammed, we couldn’t un-jam it.”

There were plans to send the ship back out in this capacity, but new global sea treaties, plummeting mineral and metal prices, and other environmental and economic disincentives conspired to bring the program to an end. However, Bailey believes it still may come to fruition. “Lockheed still owns the rights to the seafloor where we were working,” he says. “There are estimates that at the rate at which nickel is currently being used, we may run out in four years, and some nodules are rich in nickel. There are some places where rare earth minerals are in the nodules as well, and the only place where you can get them now is China. So there may be interest again.”

Newsmen went on a guided tour of the HBM (Hughes Mining Barge) allegedly used in the recovery of a Russian submarine, in conjunction with the ship Glomar Explorer.
Photo by Bettmann / Getty Contributor

Meanwhile, strong entrepreneurial government funding for outrageous, but potentially revolutionary, ideas, seems to be at an all time low, with the Trump administration ignoring or defunding science aimed at alternative energy, combatting climate change, and space exploration, and even of innovative collaborations between government and existing industry. Speaking on research that occurred during the Cold War, Dean says, “It was really a golden era of moonshots, literally and figuratively.”

New trailers: Annihilation, Maze Runner, Spielberg, and more

Last weekend, I burned through Neo Yokio, which is the new love-it-or-hate-it must-watch series on Netflix. It’s a six-episode anime voiced by a ton of big stars, but the most important thing to know is that it comes from Vampire Weekend leader Ezra Koenig. And I suspect that if you like Vampire Weekend’s simultaneous embrace and mockery of high society, you’ll also find something to like in the show.

There’s a lot to unpack, but the thing that I want to focus on really briefly is Neo Yokio‘s world: it takes place in an alternate universe New York City where demons exist, there is exactly one futuristic robot butler in the entire city, and half of Manhattan has been flooded. (In a hilarious though unrealistic fashion, the water washes straight up to 14th Street and then stops.)

What’s really weird is that it’s not clear if this takes place in present day or the future. There are smartphones, but the Soviet Union still exists. French Canada is seemingly its own country. And the Twin Towers are still standing, either because the city flooded early enough or 9/11 didn’t happen. I have no idea why any of these decisions were made or how they’re supposed to color the story, but I love that these strange twists build out a bigger, more curious world than a six-episode series ought to be able to do.

Check out nine trailers from this week below.

Annihilation

Alex Garland went from hit screenwriter to hit screenwriter / director a few years ago with Ex Machina, and this week we finally got a look at his follow-up: a bigger, creepier sci-fi movie that seems to start off kind of like “Arrival in a jungle,” and then gets much, much stranger. I really like the look so far. It comes out February 23rd.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

The hard part about sequels based on really specific premises is that the creators somehow have to figure out how to get their characters into the same exact situation over and over and over again in the sequels (see Prison Break for a truly awful example). Naturally, the third and final Maze Runner involves a maze, but this time, they have to get into the maze instead of getting out of it. The movie comes out January 26th.

Spielberg

HBO has a new documentary coming up that ought to appeal to film geeks: it’s all about Steven Spielberg’s films and career. Naturally, the documentary speaks to a bunch of major actors and directors who know and have worked with him, including Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. It comes out October 7th.

Waco

Couple things here: first, apparently Spike TV is being rebranded as the “Paramount Network,” which sounds kind of pretentious but is definitely better than Spike TV. Second, this TV miniseries suggests Paramount is attempting an early leap into prestige TV, with Michael Shannon and Taylor Kitsch offering some solid star power. The six-part series is about the religious cult at Waco and the subsequent firefight that broke out with law enforcement in 1993. The Paramount Network goes live January 18th, and Waco is supposed to start the same month.

Gotti

John Travolta plays the head of the Gambino crime family in Gotti, a film about how John Gotti took over as a mafia leader and was eventually brought down. The film comes from Lionsgate Premiere, which makes movies that are designed to hit streaming services alongside their theatrical release, so this doesn’t seem like a huge, big-budget ordeal. But at the very least, it seems like a good role for Travolta. It comes out December 15th.

Creep 2

I probably shouldn’t be so surprised to see a sequel to the first Creep. The low-budget, found-footage horror movie seemed like it was too weird to be more than a one-off, but the film came from Blumhouse — the studio behind films like Paranormal Activity and Insidious — which loves to spin cheap but successful films out into ongoing franchises. That seems to be the case here, as there are apparently plans to turn this series into a trilogy. The sequel comes out digitally on October 24th.

Darkest Hour

Early reviews for Darkest Hour seem to put a big focus on just how transformative Gary Oldman’s performance is as Winston Churchill, and it’s easy to see why from the trailer. He’s totally unrecognizable (although, that may be more of a testament to makeup and costume than acting). I’m also really caught by the great visuals here. Joe Wright’s films always have a way of looking brilliant, but not distractedly so, and that seems to be the case here, too. Darkest Hour comes out November 22nd.

Bill Nye: Science Guy

PBS has a documentary coming up about Bill Nye and his work promoting science education. While the documentary covers his famous TV show, it seems to be focused more on what Nye is up to nowadays, which is more about getting adults engaged — and tends to involve going on news shows to argue with misinformed pundits. The film will have a slow expansion in theaters starting from October 27th.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

If you saw The Lobster, you’ll have a hint for just how strange its director’s next film seems like it’s going to be. And to be clear, The Killing of a Sacred Deer looks like it’s going to be really creepy and weird. Creepy things happening in a (seemingly) otherwise normal word are often much creepier than creepy things happening in an already creepy world, and that seems to be a lot of what we’re seeing here. The film comes out October 20th.

Deals on Amazon devices: the new Echo, Fire TV, and more

Earlier this week, Amazon surprised everyone with a press event that revealed a bunch of new Echo hardware. If you missed any of it, we have the biggest announcements right here. The retail giant is selling a few bundles, allowing you to save on the new hardware including the Fire TV and smaller version of the Echo.

There are also several deals ending tonight, so act fast if anything catches your attention!

Last call

  • Samsung Gear S3: Save $50 on various models of the new smartwatch (was $350–$450, now $300–$400) until the end of today, September 30th.
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab S3: Until the end of today (September 30th) get $100 off the tablet, bringing the price down to $499.99.
  • HP Laptop and Desktop sale: Until end of today (11:59PM PST) save 20 percent on select consumer laptops and desktops priced at $799+ with code 20OFF799, and 25 percent off select laptops and desktops priced at $999+ with code 25OFF999.
  • Huckberry exclusive discount: Mentioned last month, the online men’s store that sells cool gear (which also has a small women’s shop) is offering Verge readers a 15 percent discount with code VERGE15 until the end of today. (Note: if you don’t already have an account you’ll need to sign up for a free one.) The code works site-wide with the exception of mainly high-end watches.

This week’s best deals

Looking for more gaming deals? Check out Polygon’s gaming deals roundup here.

Good Deals is a weekly roundup of the best deals on the internet, curated by Vox Media’s commerce editor, Chloe Reznikov, in collaboration with The Verge’s editorial team. You can submit deals to deals@theverge.com and find more Good Deals here.

Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.

For 30 years, Car Talk was the best way to ‘waste a perfectly good hour’ of your weekend

If you listen to your local NPR station, this weekend marks a significant milestone. Saturday is the last day that most will broadcast an episode of the network’s long-running automotive call-in show Car Talk. It’s an end of an era, and one that will be sorely missed.

For thirty years, Car Talk featured Boston mechanics Tom and Ray Magliozzi (affectionately known to listeners as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers) as they took calls from thousands of callers across the world (and even a couplefrom astronaut John Grunsfeld from orbit), answering questions about cars, car repairs, or anything else that came to mind. The show began accidentally in 1977 when Tom went to Boston’s WBUR for a radio interview, and was invited back, this time accompanied by his brother. Their personalities got them the offer of a weekly show, which eventually went national-wide in 1986. Car Talk eventually earned a prestigious Peabody Award in 1992, while the brothers also ended up filming cameos in films like Cars.

Car Talk became NPR’s most popular weekly show, and it ended its run in 2012, and co-host Tom Magliozzi passed away in 2014 due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. NPR has since produced and aired an edited version of the show, The Best of Car Talk, which drew on the 12,000 phone callers that they’ve spoken with since they began.

Even though NPR won’t be updating the show with new or remixed content, devoted listeners will still be able to get their weekly fix: some stations around the country will continue to air re-runs of the episodes, and the episodes will remain online as a podcast. In many instances, stations are adding a new roster of programs to their weekend lineup, such as Hidden Brain or It’s Been A Minute, podcasts that have been adapted for the radio.

While nothing remains eternal, not hearing the show on Saturday mornings will be strange. The show has been a Saturday morning fixture for millions of listeners. For me, Car Talk was a regular fixture when I accompanied my dad on a trash run, or on those early morning trips home from camp. When I got a car of my own, the show became something that I’d regularly listen to, even as I end up outsourcing most of my repairs to the local garage.

What made the show a delight week after week was the brothers’ self-deprecating humor, ridiculous reproductions of car sounds, puns, raucous laughter, and genuine advice on what to do when faced with car trouble, ranging from the mundane, such as diagnosing a bad wheel bearing to helping a caller figure out if she could anonymously pay a bridge toll after running a gate.

While light-hearted and goofy to listen to, the show covered the mechanical side of cars in a way that even the non-mechanically-inclined could understand and make use of. As cars become more complicated and we move past the era of the hobbyist mechanic, figuring out what was wrong was half the fun. Listening to the pair reason out problems and dispense down-to-earth advice about cars, relationships, and everything else was the perfect way to “waste a perfectly good hour” of one’s weekend.

Can SpaceX afford its new Mars rocket — and will there be a market for it?

On Friday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk laid out his vision for SpaceX’s future: the company is going all-in on a next-generation vehicle called the BFR, or Big Fucking Rocket. This rocket, which will be capable of going to the Moon and Mars, will eventually become SpaceX’s primary vehicle for launching satellites and traveling to the International Space Station, too.

It’s a radical move for the company, which has a fairly reliable rocket already. But can SpaceX afford this change? In his presentation, Musk discussed how SpaceX plans to fund the cost of developing the vehicle — though he didn’t mention any dollar figures — as well as what it will be used for when it’s complete. His ideas may be enough to fund the transition and keep the company profitable, but there are some fairly obvious gaps in the plan.

Developing the rocket

Musk made one thing very clear: SpaceX’s future is the BFR. The company is no longer going to put resources into improving its current line of Falcon 9 vehicles or its bigger, next-generation Falcon Heavy. Instead, all of the company’s research and development resources will go into creating the new monster rocket. “He can now use those same now-proven people who have built flight hardware to now redesign the spacecraft,” Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space LLC, a space consulting firm, and a former member of the Trump administration’s NASA transition team, tells The Verge.

The revenue SpaceX currently receives from launching satellites and servicing the International Space Station will also go toward funding the development of the rocket, Musk said. Right now, business does seem to be good: SpaceX has a full manifest of customers, and the company significantly increased its launch frequency to 13 so far this year (up from eight last year). NASA is also paying SpaceX to send cargo, and soon astronauts, to the ISS.

Whether this is enough to fund the $10 billion development of a new rocket is unclear, though. And we’ll likely never know for sure. “The launch business is notoriously secretive in terms of prices,” Brian Weeden, a space expert at the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that specializes in space security, tells The Verge. “Plus, the price of launching a satellite depends on how much you’re willing to pay, where you want to go — it depends on a lot of stuff.”

It’s possible that SpaceX’s satellite business and NASA contracts are enough to fund the BFR’s development. But it’s likelier that the company will need additional funds — especially if Musk hopes to meet his “aspirational” deadline of sending the vehicle to the Red Planet by 2022. Private investment seems like an option. And another good source of money? The government.

Moon Base Alpha

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on Sep 28, 2017 at 7:44pm PDT

Musk is now promoting how the BFR can send people to the Moon, a fairly naked play at piquing NASA’s interest. NASA is already studying how to put a station in the vicinity of the Moon. And a few key space advisors — including Vice President Mike Pence, who runs the National Space Council — have hinted at a return to the lunar surface. It’s possible that NASA may want to partially fund the BFR’s development in order to incorporate the vehicle in any future lunar plans.

However, there’s a major hurdle: NASA is currently developing a giant rocket of its own, called the Space Launch System. That vehicle has many ardent supporters in Congress, mostly from representatives of states where the rocket is being built. And Congress, of course, controls NASA’s funding — so it may be difficult to sway lawmakers who see the BFR as direct competition to the SLS. But the SLS is an incredibly costly vehicle that won’t fly people until as late as 2023. It may be hard for NASA to ignore the BFR if it starts flying people before then.

Once it’s built, then what?

Assuming SpaceX does get the money it needs to develop the BFR, then what? Will there be enough customers to help offset the development costs and make SpaceX profitable?

On Friday, Musk advertised a number of uses for the BFR, beyond just going to the Moon and Mars. He argued that the new system would essentially replace the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, and that SpaceX could use the new vehicle to launch satellites, service the space station, and even clean up space debris in orbit. And the more uses a rocket has, the more potential customers the rocket has, too. “If they can responsibly transition their customers to this new vehicle, then it can cover what they need,” Phil Larson, a former SpaceX spokesperson and assistant dean at the University of Colorado’s college of engineering, tells The Verge.

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on Sep 29, 2017 at 12:46am PDT

But do satellite customers want to launch on the BFR? The vehicle would easily be the most powerful rocket ever built. Launching satellites on the spacecraft would be “overkill,” according to Miller. Plus, the space industry has recently been working on making satellites smaller, not bigger. “That’s a huge, huge rocket to launch satellites,” says Weeden. “And the trend seems to be going toward much smaller satellites.” SpaceX could conceivably pack a whole bunch of satellites into the BFR per flight, but there are a lot of smaller launch vehicles that might make more financial sense for customers.

In fact, the only way customers will want to fly their satellites on such a massive rocket is if it’s cheap. And Musk says it will be. He plans to make the rocket and spaceship combo a fully reusable system (unlike the Falcon 9, which is only partially reusable). Musk claims that this will make the BFR the cheapest rocket SpaceX has ever flown, even cheaper than the Falcon 1 — the very first, small rocket the company flew in 2008.

But there are still limits on just how reusable a rocket can be, says Miller. Rockets experience supersonic speeds, extreme heat differences, and intense vibrations when they travel to and from space. And the strain of this travel puts a lot of wear and tear on a vehicle. Miller says it’s conceivable that reusable rockets may have 100 flights in them, but that’s still not nearly as many as an airplane, which can make more than 10,000 flights in its lifetime. “If it only has 100 flights in the BFR, I don’t think it’s lower cost than the Falcon 1,” says Miller.

In order to fully reap the benefits of reusability, these rockets are going to have fly a lot — perhaps hundreds, or even thousands of times a year — to truly bring the cost of launch down. And there may not be enough satellites to justify so many launches. “How elastic is the launch market?” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard and spaceflight expert, tells The Verge. The average fleet of satellites launched each year could likely fit on just a handful of BFR launches. What else is there left to launch?

There are other options, of course, such as those potential lunar missions for NASA. And the Moon opens a lot of possibilities: a number of national space agencies — including Russia, China, and the European Space Agency — are looking to go there. It’s possible these countries may want to buy flights on the BFR to pull off their lunar plans. And there’s even more that the BFR could do that Musk didn’t advertise. There’s the potential for space tourism or building habitats in lower Earth orbit. And then there’s point-to-point travel here on Earth, though that may have its own logistical problems.

If the cost of the vehicle is low enough, it may eventually create its own demand. But that demand may not materialize for a while. Plus, SpaceX needs to build the BFR first — and given Musk’s lack of specificity in terms of cold, hard cash, it’s possible only SpaceX’s accountants know if the money is really there to do it.

Google plans to upgrade two-factor authentication tool after high-profile hacks

Google plans on upgrading its two-factor authentication tool with an improved, physical security measure aimed at protecting high-profile users from politically motivated cyberattacks, according to a report from Bloomberg. The new service, to be called Advanced Protection Program and potentially slated to launch next month, will trade out the standard authentication process for services like Gmail and Google Drive with physical USB security keys. The service would also restrict the types of third-party apps and services that could connect to a user’s Google account.

The changes are not likely to affect standard Google account owners, as Bloomberg reports that Google “plans to market the product to corporate executives, politicians and others with heightened security concerns.” Following the 2016 hack of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s Gmail account, which was the result of a phishing attack with links to the Russia government, Google began looking into measures that would improve security for users in possession of sensitive material and those in a position of political prominence. The new physical security keys, which will require users keep them plugged in to access the additional security controls, should make it more difficult to remotely gain control of someone’s Gmail or Google Drive account.

Alphabet’s Project Loon may deliver internet to Puerto Rico with Wi-Fi balloons

Project Loon, the initiative of Alphabet’s X lab to deliver internet using hot air balloons, is looking into deploying Wi-Fi balloons to help alleviate the crisis in Puerto Rico, the company confirmed. “The Project Loon team at X is exploring if it’s possible to bring emergency connectivity to Puerto Rico,” the X lab’s official Twitter account wrote this afternoon. X, formerly Google X, is the “moonshot” division of Google-owner Alphabet, responsible for the Wing drone delivery project and the self-driving car unit that became Waymo, among other forward-looking tech-adjacent initiatives.

Puerto Rico, home to nearly 3.5 million people, remains largely devastated by Hurricane Maria, the Category 4 storm that has claimed 24 lives in Puerto Rico alone and has left almost the entirety of the US territory without electricity and almost half of all residents without potable water.

The #ProjectLoon team at X is exploring if it’s possible to bring emergency connectivity to Puerto Rico: https://t.co/atroBWeTGv

— The Team at X (@Theteamatx) September 29, 2017

Because of the damage done to the island’s communications infrastructure, more than 90 percent of Puerto Rico’s cell towers remain offline and residents are unable to contact friends and relatives. And despite the occasional tweet from President Donald Trump claiming Washington is working to provide aid, the administration has not yet said whether it will help repair Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. Facebook announced earlier this week that it was sending a connectivity team to Puerto Rico, as well as a $1.5 million donation, to help get the island back on online.

Providing connectivity to areas affected by natural disasters has been one of the core missions of Loon since its inception in 2011. The unit has run pilot programs in New Zealand and Brazil, and it’s also partnered with a number of countries, including Indonesia and Sri Lanka, to deploy LTE using its signature air balloons. However, it appears that Loon has never attempted to provide emergency connectivity at the scale Puerto Rico requires. It’s unclear to what extent Loon may be able to assist the island, and if its technology is capable of doing so in a way as meaningful as the necessary financial and infrastructural aid the US government could provide.