10, 9, 8, 7, 6……Never Mind! SpaceX Liftoff is X’d

History was made at Cape Canaveral yesterday. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the history everyone was expecting to be made. On the agenda was the first launch in the history of human spaceflight with a private company in charge of the mission. Only it was the mission that wasn’t. The launch was scrubbed mere moments before the scheduled liftoff due to weather concerns.

Were you oblivious to this historic event? Have you been living under a rock and erroneously thinking the only thing going on in the world is the pandemic? Not to worry. You have time before the rescheduled launch Saturday afternoon to get up to speed on the new face of America’s space program. Or is it America’s space program?

In years past, space programs have been run by countries. Only three of them so far, the United States, Russia, and China, have achieved launching humans into space. Countries are so last year though. Commercial entities are the future of space programs.

It wasn’t Uncle Sam running the show for the scrubbed launch. No, Elon Musk’s California-based company, SpaceX, was in charge. The transportation system being used to lift the astronauts up into Earth’s orbit, the Dragon capsule atop the Falcon 9 rocket, was designed and built by SpaceX. Elon sure does like X’s in names whether it is his latest baby crazily named X Æ A-Xii or his business baby, SpaceX.

Where is NASA in this you might wonder as I did. NASA is bankrolling SpaceX’s efforts. The company was awarded approximately $3.1 billion (that billion with a B) under the Commercial Crew Program to develop spacecraft to replace the shuttle. SpaceX owns and operates the spacecraft which will be seen lifting off when it ultimately does liftoff.

Despite SpaceX being three years behind on the goals outlined for the program, NASA believes the Commercial Crew Program should save the agency between $20 billion to $30 billion. Even so, it is still pretty pricey to book an astronaut a ride on a SpaceX flight. NASA’s Inspector General estimates the per seat cost is $55 million. That’s one expensive ticket to ride that astronaut’s got!

Not only was the scrubbed launch the first attempt by a private company to fly astronauts in space for NASA, but it was also to be the first astronaut launch from Florida in nine years. The space shuttle program ended back in 2011 with the final flight of the shuttle Atlantis.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. It may be SpaceX running the show instead of NASA, but there are some familiar features to the current mission. First, there’s a new vehicle, but the same astronaut. Doug Hurley was the pilot of the last shuttle flight back in 2011. Hurley, a 53 year old retired Marine colonel, is also one of the two astronauts forming the SpaceX crew for this flight.

The capsule, called the Dragon Crew (What? No X in the name?), in which the astronaut crew is riding has a familiar look; it is cone-shaped like the capsules used pre-shuttle program. And Elon is into recycling; this capsule is recoverable. It will not land on a runway like a space shuttle but will splash down in the Atlantic. Such a return from space has not been seen for about 50 years when it occurred in the early years of the U.S. space program.

The space crew is not boldly going where no man has gone before. In fact, people have been there and done that for some time. What’s that? The destination is the International Space Station (ISS), a $100 billion orbiting lab, where the astronauts will spend 1-4 months.

But there are some big differences between this flight and past ones too. In the past throngs of people showed up on Florida’s Space Coast to view a launch. Now, however, the U.S. is in the midst of a pandemic. NASA has urged spectators to stay away due to health concerns. Those people who listened were glad they did since no launch even occurred Wednesday. The poor folks who showed up to see history being made may have noticed some interesting shaped clouds in the sky or perhaps some clever face masks on others in the crowd, but they did not witness a liftoff.

If you thought you could spot the astronauts because they’d be wearing the customary big, bulky orange spacesuits, you’d have missed them. White trimmed with black is the new orange. SpaceX designed and built its own spacesuits for the commercial crew. These outfits are custom-fit, one-piece, two-layer pressure suits. Who says you can’t be fashionable when you are conducting a scientific mission? Not Elon Musk!

And the Astrovan taking the astronauts on the 9-mile ride to Launch Complex 39-A is history. No, an Uber will not be called. Instead, Elon is generously offering a gull-winged Tesla Model X with white and black trim (to match the spacesuits and the rocket) for ground transportation. Coincidentally (NOT!), Elon also is the CEO of Tesla. Busy guy, huh?

Once in the Dragon crew capsule, the astronauts will find a revamped interior. Who needs all those switches and knobs? Touchscreens have replaced them on walls which are now gleaming white instead of drab gray. With white spacesuits and white walls, hopefully the cameras will be able to spot where the astronauts are inside the capsule.

As with prior launches, the astronaut crew is heavy on military experience. Joining retired Marine Hurley is 49 year old Bob Behnken, an Air Force colonel. But these astronauts are modern men with modern spouses. Both are married to astronaut wives, Karen Nyberg and Megan McArthur, who have flown in space. The spouses met when all were members of the astronaut class of 2000. Their romantic as well as astronaut futures were truly written in the stars.

Astronauts Hurley and Behnken, who have trained for four years for this mission, will have to wait a few more days to embark upon it. The next attempted launch is set for Saturday at 3:22:45 p.m. EDT (or so). Unfortunately weather reports indicate a 60% chance of rain, cloud cover, etc. which would be incompatible with a launch. (But, then, we all know how reliable weather reports are….) If it has to be the third time for the launch charm, attempt #3 would occur on Sunday at 3:00:11 p.m. (ish).

The worst thing that will happen this weekend is that launches are postponed giving us news reports which have nothing to do with the pandemic. (Um, that’s not bad.) I’m hoping for the best case scenario where the news reporter covering the launch can say, “Look! Up in the sky. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a flying Dragon crew capsule!”

Just WONDER-ing: 

Did you realize how enormously expensive it is to achieve manned space flight? Are you excited that manned space flights originating here in the U.S. are on tap again? Should manned spaceflights be a commercial as opposed to governmental activity? Do you plan to watch the rescheduled launch? Why or why not?






Coronavirus Consequences — School’s Out But Testing’s In

School is, or shortly will be, out for the summer. Who cares? It’s really been out for some time with pupils stuck at home trying to adapt to distance learning. Even if school is out, testing is very much in. Coronavirus testing that is. Let’s study for this testing, shall we?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”), there are two kinds of tests for COVID-19. These aren’t true/false or essay tests. These tests involve needles and long swabs, not pencils. Ouch! A viral test tells if you have a current coronavirus infection. An antibody test indicates if you have had a previous infection.

Failing the viral test is cause for celebration. A negative result establishes that you weren’t infected at the time your sample was collected. But don’t party too hard. This result doesn’t mean you won’t get sick later. 

Since the coronavirus is a respiratory illness, viral tests check samples from your respiratory system to tell if you are infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. A swab of the inside of your nose may be done. This swab is not a small Q-tip like you may have in your bathroom. Oh, no. The nasopharyngeal swab used is a special SIX-INCH (that’s half a foot!) cotton swab. This torture device–er, swab–is placed up both sides of your nose and moved around for about 15 seconds. WebMD advises that this procedure won’t hurt, but it “might be uncomfortable.” Ya think?

Even when test results are obtained, your status could still be unclear, Test results can be wrong; while a positive is a positive, per CDC, there can be false negatives. If you test positive, the good news is that there is certainty as to your medical status. The bad news is that we are positive you have the dread COVID-19. If you test negative, you may or may not have COVID-19. Early on in the disease there may not be a lot of virus present. The good news is you don’t have much virus in your body–yet anyway. 

The antibody test is used to detect the presence of antibodies and is a serological test. Blood must be drawn meaning a needle is involved. Ouch!

Why look for antibodies? They are the proteins your body uses to help fight off infections. Their presence indicates a past infection. Unfortunately, it is not clear if antibodies provide immunity against getting infected again. Based on a recent news story, I’m guessing the answer is no. A handful of sailors on the coronavirus-ravaged USS Theodore Roosevelt have tested positive for the virus for the second time. Uh oh!

Concerns with the reliability of antibody test results exist as well. Reportedly 40% of rapid antigen tests miss positive patients. That’s 4 out of 10 people getting an inaccurate test result. Oops! While .600 is a great batting average, a 60% medical test accuracy rate is a poor score.

The viral and antibody tests aim for different information. Viral tests indicate what is currently going on in your body. Do you have the infection? Antigen tests indicate what has happened in the past in your body. Have you previously had the infection? It can take 1-3 weeks after an infection for your body to make antibodies, so the antibody test may not be able to show if you have a current infection. 

Tests can be further broken down as to how results are obtained. Point of care tests allow results to be obtained at the testing site in less than an hour. Other tests must be sent to a lab to be analyzed, a process that could take 1-2 days once received by the lab. Regardless of how long it takes to get results, the waiting will be stressful.

Testing does not have to be done at a medical facility. You can be tested from the convenience of your car with drive through testing. I don’t know about you, but if I’m getting “take out” from a drive through, I want to be receiving a burger and fries, not supplying my mucus or saliva.

If being in your car is not convenient enough, another testing site option exists. DIY testing is available from the “comfort” of your home. Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) has been given to home collection kits produced by LabCorp. FDA has approved two types of viral test kits which allow you to collect a nasal swab or a saliva sample at home. Saliva is a common medium for virus transmission–no spit!

If you feel compelled to test yourself at home, make sure you do your homework before taking the test. Find out if the test you are using is an authorized one. All tests which have been given Emergency Use Authorization are listed on the FDA’s website. 

Whether in school or out, all of us face tests. The pandemic has provided ample opportunities for testing. Patience has been tested with drawn out lock downs and shortages of TP and cleaning products, financial situations have been tested by economic adversity, and bodies have been tested for the coronavirus or antibodies produced in reaction to it. While you can’t study for a viral or antigen test, you can learn about them. Being informed is a TESTament to one’s desire to be prepared for whatever life throws at you. Let’s just hope that it isn’t the coronavirus.

Just WONDER-ing:

Have you taken either a viral test or antigen test during the pandemic? Which would bother you more–have a needle stuck in your arm or having a 6-inch swab stuck up your nose? Is a 60% test accuracy rate acceptable? Would you be more likely to rely on a home test or one conducted by a medical professional?



Where’s The Beef, Pork, and Chicken? Pandemic Meat Shortages

Just when toilet paper is slowly beginning to reappear on grocery store shelves, now we have to face a different shortage. Meatless Mondays may by joined by Tacoless Tuesdays, Wienerless Wednesdays, T-boneless Thursdays, Fried Chickenless Fridays, Sausageless Saturdays, and Steakless Sundays. Holy Scarce Cow! There’s a meat shortage! What’s up with that?

Americans aren’t merely asking “Where’s the beef? They also want to know where the pork and chicken are too. All of these meats are in short supply as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. And, in a double whammy, what meat is available is much pricier. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects meat prices to rise in 2020 by as much as 2%.That’s too much!

While the coronavirus has not, at least as yet, infected poultry and livestock, it has taken its toll on the humans who process meat. With workers in this industry testing positive for COVID-19, processing plant closures have disrupted the supply chain in our country. Exacerbating the problem is the reduced productivity in those plants which have managed to remain open; they are only operating at 40-50% capacity. Less work equals less meat.

Plant closures have occurred for a couple of reasons. First, the number of absent workers has made it impossible for plans to operate. Tyson Food’s  largest pork producing plant, located in Waterloo, Iowa, was forced to close for this reason. Was anyone really anticipating a positive result from basing an important meat plant in a town named Waterloo? 

Similarly Smithfield Foods, the country’s larges pork supplier and a meat source for fast food chains like McDonalds, shut down its Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant when 293 or so of its workers were diagnosed with COVID-19. Yeah, they wouldn’t want to shut down with a mere 100 workers infected with a virus locking down the country.

Even plants with enough workers to function have closed or considered closing due to health hazards. What’s hazardous is that these employees work in close quarters. Forget six feet apart; many work shoulder to shoulder. Apparently these employees are packed in like sardines, although there have been no reports of a sardine shortage.

So one meat processing plant closes. Big deal, right? WRONG. The JBS plant in Wisconsin produces enough meet to feed 3.2 million Americans daily.

Restaurant Business reports beef production is down about 25%. As a result, lots of restaurants are finding beef items out of stock. In particular, Wendy’s, which touts its use of fresh beef only, has around 20% of its U.S. restaurants out of beef. 

What’s one to do? Much depends on who you are. Consumers are, to NO ONE’s surprise, attempting to hoard meat. Hoarding a perishable product, though, is  more difficult than hoarding toilet paper because refrigeration is necessary. So consumers have sought to increase their storage capacity. Chest freezers are selling out at Home Depot and are on back order until August 2020. Stores, such as Kroger, have reacted to the attempts to hard meat by placing limits on how much beef and pork customers may purchase.

President Trump has responded to the meat processing plant closures by invoking the 1950 Defense Production Act to avoid further supply chain disruptions. The plants have been declared “critical infrastructure” and have been ordered to remain open during the pandemic. The problem is that for these plants to be safe for workers, lower production will occur. Required social distancing will decrease the number of workers able to be on the plant floor. No longer will workers be able to stand shoulder to shoulder as they shoulder the task of producing pork shoulders.

Meat processing businesses are seeking a liability shield from Congress for their continued operation. Smithfield Foods has been sued by workers in a Missouri plant who allege that the company failed to protect them due to their close quarters and lack of sufficient PPE’s. How much must the employer do to adequately protect the workers? Are plexiglass barriers sufficient? Must Hazmat suits be issued? 

Meat processing plant shutdowns are also affecting the animals from which the meat is taken. With reduced processing capacity, there are more pigs now than can be processed. Thus, pigs are backing up on farms. Ironically, there’s a plethora of pork on the farms but not on the supermarket meat shelves. Sadly, farmers do not have room for this overflow of pigs, and are having to resort to euthanasia for lack of space. Poor pigs!

The current state of affairs is described as an hourglass effect by a professor at Virginia Polytech. Ms. Isengildina-Massa explains that there’s plenty of demand for meat at the top, and a plentiful supply of animals at the bottom. The reduced processing capacity is the bottleneck in the middle constraining the supply from meeting the meat demand.

Also wreaking havoc in the meat processing world is the closure of commercial buyers such as restaurants, cruise lines, and theme parks. Per the National Chicken Council (which is presumably not composed of chickens), about 50% of chicken sales are to food services. A lay person might think the lack of commercial demand for meat would make it easier to have a retail supply, but that’s not necessarily so. It is difficult to shift production set up for food service sales to retail; for example, there is different packaging. I’m assuming the meat packages for theme parks are bigger than the ones consumers buy at Kroger.

Don’t think that you’ll be smart and make a run for the border to find some meat. Even if the borders are opened, shutdowns of meat processing plants have also occurred in Canada.

So, what’s the answer to the question of the hour, “Where’s the beef, pork and chicken?” Not on the shelves or on our plates. But they are definitely on our minds. Until meat production normalizes, Americans have to meet this difficult situation with bravery. We may be forced to try the Impossible Whopper if we want to sink our teeth into a burger.

Just WONDER-ing:

Have you observed shortages of meat where you buy groceries? Has your grocer imposed limits on how much meat a customer may purchase? If real beef isn’t available, would you be tempted to sample an Impossible Whopper? Is becoming a vegetarian an option?



Kim Jong-Un: Now You See Him–Now You Don’t

Hearing daily about the pandemic on the news is getting tiresome. What’s needed is a new, juicy story to capture our attention. Thanks to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un we have just that. The basic plot is now you see him; now you don’t. Well actually, we did just see him. Or did we?

Sadly, one of the pandemic victims was the spring release of the latest James Bond movie, “No Time To Die.” That much anticipated event has now been postponed until November 25th. Stepping in to fill the drama, mystery, and exotic location void is the current tale about the “Supreme Leader of North Korea.” We have a rich, powerful, evil villain–billionaire human rights violator, Kim Jong-Un. We have an exotic location–the Hermit Kingdom. We even have a bevy of beauties (the dictator’s alleged harem) and lots of cool means of transportation (the dictator’s armored train and armored Mercedes.) Time to grab some popcorn and settle in for an entertaining and true news story.

The North Korean leader is a high profile figure. When no one sees him for 20 days, suspicions arise. Can you imagine President Trump being absent from view for almost three weeks? OK, some might desire that situation, but wouldn’t it cause an uproar to have him AWOL? Similarly, all sorts of buzz began when Kim Jong-Un vanished from public view.

When last seen on 4/11, the North Korean dictator was doing what a leader would be expected to do. He was attending a political meeting of the ruling Worker’s Party. Then, “Poof!” He was out of sight for days. Sure, even dictators might need a few days off, so no big deal if he wasn’t making speeches or reviewing troops for a short period. But concern and curiosity arose when the dictator failed to show up at an annual event marking the birthday of his late grandfather and national founder, Kim Il Sung.

Since his grandfather is dead, it doesn’t seem like it would be much of a party. Nevertheless, April 15th, the “Day of the Sun,” is a huge event in North Korea. The Supreme Leader’s not showing up to participate in the commemoration activities was a big deal. People asked about his absence, and speculation was rampant.

On April 20th, the South Korean website, Daily NK, reported Kim was recovering from cardiovascular surgery. And who better to know this information than North Korea’s enemy, South Korea? When the two countries aren’t shooting at each other over the DMZ, they’re probably chatting and sharing information on the health of their leaders. If the intel was correct, concern about Kim’s prognosis was valid. He’s is a heavy smoker and obese, weighing 300 pounds while 5’7″ tall, not to mention that his own father died of a heart attack.

Impoverished North Korean citizens were probably hoping they’d get to sing their county’s version of “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead.” American leaders, on the other hand, were nervous since Kim has never publicly announced his successor. The last thing the U.S. needed to deal with during a pandemic was instability in a poor, nuclear-armed country. What could possible go wrong with that situation?

Before reports of Kim’s demise (or at least imminent demise) could be confirmed, the media engaged in predictions as to Kim’s successor. Kim, around age 36, is only the third Supreme Leader of North Korea, having followed after this grandfather (Kim Il Sung) and father (Kim Jong Il) in this position. Unfortunately, his oldest son is only 10, a tad too young for taking on the job of oppressing citizens and violating human rights.

Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, around age 31, was touted as the top prospect for successor. Nevertheless, it was unknown whether the powers that be would accept a young, unseasoned female as their new supreme leader. My guess is a resounding, “No!” Cue instability in a poor, nuclear-armed country.

Cooler heads suggested Kim  might not be dead, recovering from surgery, or even sick. Perhaps he was laying low to avoid catching COVID-19. Being overweight and a heavy smoker would be two strikes against him if he were to get it. And with 17 luxury palaces around North Korea, Kim had his pick of places to chill out and enjoy himself while being “locked down.” 

As the mystery deepened, news reports revealed Kim Jong-Un’s private train had been spotted by satellite. It was parked at the coastal resort town of Wonsan where Kim has a private compound. Just a thought, but maybe Kim Jong-Un taking a private train to a private compound meant he wanted to be out of view.

Kim’s private train is not just any train. It is armored and is able to carry the dictator’s armored Mercedes. The staff providing service on the train are a bevy of hand-picked beauties. Kim Jong-Un likes the ladies and reportedly spent over $2 million one year on imported lingerie to keep them well-dressed. These garments, of course, would not be appropriate to wear outside the train at Wonsan in the sports stadium the dictator has at his private compound. With a net worth estimated at $5 billion, the Supreme Leader can afford to buy top-notch unmentionables and to construct his own sports site.

All the wild theories were laid to rest when Kim Jong-Un appeared in public for the first time in 20 days on May 2nd. Photographs showed him cutting a red-ribbon for the opening of a fertilizer factory in Sunchon, not too far north of Pyongyang. The Supreme Leader was not wearing a mask nor did he appear to be walking with any difficulty. So much for the coronavirus avoidance and heart surgery theories.

But wait! There’s more. Questions were raised as to whether this man was really Kim. Perhaps it was just a body double. The teeth of the man in the picture did not appear to look exactly like they did in past pictures of Kim. So what? The dictator’s worth $5 billion, right? He could afford cosmetic dental surgery if he wanted it. The Supreme Leader’s buddy, President Trump, seemed convinced his friend was alive and well. The American leader tweeted, “I, for one, am glad that he is back, and well.”

All’s well that ends well. Americans know the devil they are dealing with in North Korea with Kim in power rather than facing the demon they don’t know in an as yet to be determined successor. But is this ending good enough? We are still dealing with a devil. What to do? If you haven’t seen it, be sure to laugh your way through James Franco’s movie “The Interview” for a suggestion.

Just WONDER-ing:

Did you follow the story of Kim Jong-Un being out of the public eye for several days? How do you feel knowing the dictator lives a luxurious life while citizens in his country are starving? What’s worse–dealing with the dictator we know and President Trump has met or facing the prospect of instability from a power struggle in North Korea to succeed him?