Rover Roaming The Red Planet–Perseverance On Mars

Events on Earth got you down? Perhaps, then, it’s time to turn our attention upward and off of this planet. Great news is coming to us from the Red Planet. Due to the perseverance of scientists, a rover named Perseverance, or Percy for short, safely landed on Mars on February 18, 2021. Its mission is fueled by scientific accomplishments and offers exciting opportunities to learn more about the fourth planet from our sun.

Let’s start off by reviewing what is known about Mars. The planet is named after Mars, the Roman god of war. Inhabitants of the planet, if any exist, would be called Martians. The 1960’s science fiction sitcom “My Favorite Martian” was based on the popular notion that intelligent life existed there. But to date, no Martians have been located on the planet, and none have appeared here on Earth. Well, that’s at least as far as the government has revealed to us to date. I mean someone has to be flying all those UFO’s we hear about in the tabloids.

But the environment on the Red Planet is not really conducive to life like we Earthlings know it. Mars is a dusty, cold, rocky desert world with a very thin atmosphere. The planet boasts the largest dust storms in the solar system; gigantic storms covering the entire planet occur. During the Martian nights (which are not likely to be anything like the Arabian Nights), temperatures can dip pretty low. How does -130 degrees sound to you?

Mars has some intriguing features. The soil appears a reddish color due to iron minerals in it. These minerals rust (or oxidize for you scientific types) causing the atmosphere and the ground to look red. Mars also has seasons, canyons, extinct volcanoes, and polar ice caps. Volcanoes are believed to have been active on the planet 2 – 4 billion years ago. That’s billion with a “b,” and waaaay before the time of anyone reading this post.

Man-made pieces of equipment known as a rovers are utilized to explore our neighboring planet. In fact, Mars is the only planet to which rovers have been sent, and Percy is the largest of those rovers. Preceding Perseverance’s current mission was Rover Curiosity which dropped in (literally) on the Red Planet back in August 2012. Curiosity and Perseverance missed active volcanoes erupting at their destination by a few billion years. Whew!

Thanks to Curiosity, the Perseverance mission was affordable for NASA–affordable, of course, being a relative term when billions of dollars are involved. Approximately 90% of Perseverance is made up of spare parts from Curiosity.

Percy is car-sized (10′ long by 9′ wide by 7′ tall) and weighs less than a compact car at 2,200 pounds. Unlike a car, however, the rover has six wheels, 19 cameras, and a rock-vaporizing laser. Since no gas stations exist on Mars, Percy runs on nuclear power; solar panels were not viable due to the huge dust storms which occur on the Red Planet.

This man-made rover is putting to rest stereotypes about scientists being socially inept nerds. (Can you say “The Big Bang Theory?”) Percy has its own Twitter account, @NASAPersevere, from which it tweeted “I’m safe on Mars,” after landing. It is an active piece of equipment which boasts hobbies such as collecting rocks, photography, and off-roading on the NASA website. Sounds like Percy was just made for this mission, right?

Getting to Mars from Earth was quite a jaunt for Percy. Liftoff occurred in July 2020 from a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. 293 million miles and 203 days (around 7 months) later, Percy arrived at the intended destination, the Jezero Crater.

News of the rover’s landing on the Martian surface was greeted with glee by scientists back on Earth who had to endure an 11 minute transmission delay to learn they could scream “Touch down!” (No word as to whether Percy was outfitted with a football.) The landing was a dangerous part of the journey as the spacecraft had to decelerate from thousands of miles per hour down to 17 for the landing to occur.

Since landing, the rover has sent back the first color pictures from the surface of Mars. Included among the pictures transmitted was a selfie. Apparently Percy has a bit of an ego along with scientific capabilities.

So what exactly is Percy’s mission? Its primary mission, which will last for two Earth years or one Martian year, is to look for evidence of past life on Mars. Due to the extremely harsh environment on the planet, it is not believed life currently exists there. Evidence of past life may be found in the composition and chemistry of rocks on the Martian surface or the rock record presented. The latter, of course, has nothing to do with music.

Although dusty and dry today, the crater where the rover landed is thought to have once held a massive lake fed by running streams of water. Deposits of sediment in the ancient river delta found a hospitable environment for organic molecules and fossils to be buried and preserved. During its mission, Percy will collect and store sets of soil and rock samples that could be returned to Earth on a future mission. Why doesn’t Percy just bring them home itself? Well, Percy won’t be coming back to Earth. Thus, NASA will need to send another Red Planet rover right over to collect the stored samples.

Although collecting rocks seems enthralling (not!), a more charismatic part of Percy’s mission is to carry out the first ever flight on another planet. Percy itself won’t be going flying, but a four pound mini-helicopter hitched to the rover’s belly, will. Ingenious, huh? Well, that’s why the tiny whirly bird was dubbed “Ingenuity.”

Perseverance’s mission, whether or not it finds evidence of past life on the Red Planet, is already a success. It establishes that human initiative can accomplish amazing things. With that backdrop, perhaps we should turn human initiative back to Earth and accomplish amazing things on our own planet such as kicking COVID’s butt and learning to get along with our fellow man. If unfriendly Martians should appear, wouldn’t we have to band together to fight the aliens? Let’s practice working together for good before that occurs.

Just WONDER-ing:

Are the billions of dollars expended to undertake this mission to Mars justified? Do you think evidence of past life on Mars will be found? Would you watch a video of the mini-helicopter flying over the Martian surface if NASA posts it?

Valentine’s Day 2021–Love Your Sweetie, Hate Your Fellow Man

Did Valentine’s Day 2021 put love, rather than the coronavirus, in the air? Well, yes and no. Retailers made sure we didn’t forget that the only acceptable way to show our love is to buy things, the more expensive the better, for our beloved. But warm and fuzzy feelings for our fellow man are AWOL; even managing civility for him is seemingly a challenge. Beware if you are of a different race from someone else–particularly if you are Asian American. Arrows are aimed at you, and they aren’t from Cupid; they’re a message (and not of love) from your neighbor.

The coronavirus isn’t the only thing spreading in this country. News reports indicate a wave of anti-Asian violence and harassment here in the U.S. Why racism against Asians and why now? Comments by then President Trump earlier in the pandemic referring to the “China flu” or the “Kung Flu” are believed to have spurred this animosity. Whoever said “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” was clearly clueless.

The loveless sentiment directed at Asian Americans affects millions of people. According to 2016 census figures, Asian Americans number approximately 21 million, a majority of whom were foreign born. In fact, Asian Americans constitute one-fourth of all immigrants who have arrived in this country since 1965. The overall population of Asian Americans is highly urbanized and are concentrated in California and the western United States. Their highest populations can be found in the areas of Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco. But in today’s climate, San Francisco’s Chinatown, the nation’s oldest and largest, may not be a safe place for Asian Americans. Their San Francisco treat could be hatred and violence rather than Rice-a-Roni.

Since actions speak louder than words, videos portraying physical assaults on Asian Americans have spoken volumes about the current climate of racial tolerance–or more accurately, the lack thereof. A gut-wrenching clip of a 91 year old man in Oakland’s Chinatown captured him being pushed face down into the sidewalk from behind in an unprovoked attack. Robbery was not the motive–hate and racism were the motivating factors. On the bright side, the attacker did have a mask due to the pandemic. (Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xq4mHOtPQD0 to see the video.)

Sadly, that attack is just one of a growing number of incidents where Asian Americans are the victims. The president of Oakland’s Chamber of Commerce cited more than 20 incidents of small businesses getting robbed and owners and customers assaulted recently. In light of such attacks, neighborhood safety patrols began handing out whistles in San Francisco along with Chinese-language pamphlets titled “How to Report a Hate Crime.” Under these circumstances, whistling while a Chinese small business owner works is not as peppy a thought as when the dwarves whistled while working in “Snow White.”

Where such physical violence occurs, women and people over age 60 are disproportionately targeted. Authorities suggest older Asians are targeted due to the stereotype they don’t report crimes due to language barriers. The physical attacks targeting senior citizens left many older Asian fearful of going out to shop for the Lunar New Year which fell on February 12th. 2021 may be the Year of the Ox, but such shameful behavior against seniors is frankly, bull.

Heartwarmingly, some people not only care about Asian Americans, but they have stepped up to the plate to help their neighbors of a different race. Take Jacob Azevedo, a Latino, for instance. Disturbed by the violence directed at Asian Americans, he put a call out on Instagram offering to accompany anyone in Chinatown going out to the store, running errands, etc. Jacob’s reasoning is likely based on what my dear Mom always said, “Safety in numbers.” In response, hundreds of people on Instagram offered to help. In addition, thousands of dollars were donated to help him buy a personal alarm device to be distributed to older Asians in the community. Now there’s an example of showing love to your fellow man.

Incidents of hate and violence against Asian Americans, sadly, have not been limited to the West Coast. The NYPD has created an Asian Hate Crimes task force to deal with the upsurge in targeting of Asians in the Big Apple. According to that department’s statistics, only one anti-Asian incident was reported in 2019. In contrast, during the first six months of 2020, which saw the initial rise of the pandemic, 20 such incidents were reported. New Yorkers aren’t known for their friendliness, but there’s no excuse for outright hate.

Other organizations are also reporting disturbing incidents. Stop AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander–hopefully not pronounced Ape-y) Hate, an initiative formed in 2020, received over 2,800 reports of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans between March 19, 2020 and December 31 2020. Of these incidents, 71% were verbal abuse while physical assaults accounted for around 9%. Sure those numbers are way lower than the cases of the coronavirus, but even one incident of hate is too many.

The problem of targeting of Asian Americans in our country has received attention at the highest possible level. In response to this sad situation, President Biden signed a memorandum on January 26, 2021 directing federal agencies to explore ways of combating racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. And, of course, everyone knows that xenophobia is a big word meaning dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries, right? Hey, but wait. Aren’t ALL of us Americans ultimately from other countries? My ancestors, for example came from Ireland.

While President Biden is to be applauded for acknowledging the inexcusable behavior directed at Asian Americans and ordering steps to be taken to address it, government directives aren’t going to solve the problem. A change of heart is required because hearts filled with hate produce hate. Recognizing that someone of a different race is our neighbor and a human being deserving of the decent treatment we would ourselves expect helps to soften hearts hardened with hate. Unfortunately, it’s not only love that may be blind, but hate as well.

How ironic it is to see hearts displayed everywhere for Valentine’s Day 2021with all being urged to show their love to that special someone when hate is literally being dished out to certain others. Shouldn’t our behavior be consistent? We need to love our sweeties, certainly, but we also need to at least be civil to our fellow man–including Asian Americans. Even better, let’s aim to follow Jesus’ directive to love one another, and let’s do it not simply on Valentine’s Day but EVERY day.

Just WONDER-ing:

Is there an Asian American population in your community? Have you ever been treated poorly because of your race? How did that make you feel? If you haven’t, do you imagine it would be a pleasant experience? Does an individual’s racial background alone justify physical violence against him?

Super Bowl LV — Super For Social Commentary Not Sports

Sunday evening around 91.6 million people tuned in to Super Bowl LV (that’s 55 for those who are not fluent in Roman numerals). Were they all watching to see the matchup between the old quarterback, Tom Brady (formerly of the New England Patriots), with the almost 20 year younger Patrick Mahomes (soon to be a new daddy)? Probably not since viewership of the event dropped drastically this year. People needed to be doing something while downing all those game day snacks. But regardless of why they tuned in, this Super Bowl wasn’t super for providing exciting entertainment. It was super for touching upon important societal issues. Let’s check them out.

Military Might. The United States may be facing problems with unemployment, the pandemic, and racial tension, but no one can question its formidable armed forces. Demonstrative exhibit #1 appeared as the National Anthem was ending and before the kickoff even occurred. Look! Up in the sky! A trio of bombers roared above the crowd in Raymond James Stadium to roars of wonder, delight, and approval.

In a first of its kind flyover, three Air Force Global Strike Command bombers filled the skies and deafened the ears of the fans assembled for Super Bowl LV. The composition of the aerial team displayed three generations of bombers, a testament to the air superiority of the good old USA. There were no bombs away, although it would be nice if these bombers could take out that pesky virus that keeps taunting not only our country but the entire world.

The oldest of the three bombers was the B-52 Stratofortress. Due to its age, it’s often referred to as a Stratosaurus. The nickname BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fellow) is also attached to the B-52. The U.S. Air Force has 76 of these BUFF’s costing $84 million each and costing $70,000 per hour to fly. Can you imagine what it must cost to fill up one’s tank?

The B-2 Spirit which flew in formation with the BUFF looks like a flying triangle. Only 20 of these bombers are in the USAF inventory at a mere $1.157 billion apiece (that’s billion with a “b.”) The Spirit is a stealth aircraft which is nearly invisible to radar. Thankfully, it can be seen by the human eye or flying over Raymond James Stadium would have been pointless.

The third member of the tri-bomber group was the B-1B Lancer, nicknamed the Bone. This plane, of which the USAF has 62, can do tricks which the other cannot such as hitting supersonic speeds, flying inverted, and changing wing positions during operations. Whether it can roll over and play dead was not disclosed and may be classified information. Hopefully, the ability to do these “tricks” justifies its price tag of $357 million.

As if the cost of these bombers isn’t jaw-dropping enough, the coordination required to pull off this tri-bomber flyover is also astounding. The bombers took off from three separate Air Force bases (Ellsworth, Minot, and Whiteman) in three different states (South Dakota, North Dakota, and Missouri) at three separate times, managing to meet up and fly over the stadium in Tampa, Florida. Oh, and due to the flight distance, mid-air refueling was required.

The Role of Women. Bombers weren’t the only thing that was up for the Super Bowl. The role of women in sports ascended to a new height during Super Bowl LV. Bombers were in the air before the game, and a woman was on the field during the game. She wasn’t a sideline reporter or a physical trainer. She was part of the officiating crew. Yes, for the first time in history a woman officiated at a Super Bowl.

You weren’t seeing things if you thought you saw a blonde ponytail peeking out from one of the officiating crew’s caps. The seven person crew contained Sarah Thomas, a mother of three and pioneer for women in the sports world.

Thomas has broken barriers in her career in officiating. In addition to being the first woman to officiate at the Super Bowl, Thomas was the first woman to work a major college game, to officiate a bowl game, and to be a full-time referee. She has worked in the NFL since 2015, with her stellar efforts at her job landing her the honor of being on the crew for Super Bowl LV.

The appearance of Thomas in the officiating world has also led to some change in terms used. During the Super Bowl she was the “downs judge.” That position was previously called the “head lineman.” With a woman filling that role, the term was altered to become more inclusive. Looks like Thomas was knocking DOWN some barriers with her work.

Made in the USA. U.S. citizens are often encouraged to buy American. The NFL followed that suggestion when it came to the game balls used during Super Bowl LV. All of the footballs were handcrafted with the help of machines right here in the U.S. These pigskins were birthed at the Wilson Football Factory in Ada, Ohio. Yup, those babies were, as Bruce Springsteen would sing, “Born in the USA.”

Wilson isn’t making bacon, but it does produce over 700,000 pigskins each year, including the ones specially crafted for use in the Super Bowl and commemorative ones for fans. Each team playing in the Super Bowl receives 108 Wilson footballs. Fifty-four of these balls are used for practice and the remaining 54 are utilized in the actual game. With 216 balls out there between the two teams, that’s a lot of game balls.

Pandemic Protection. And, of course, nothing that occurs these days is out of the reach of the ongoing pandemic. Super Bowl LV was no exception. Health concerns were front and center of staging the game. The game had to go on, but it had to occur in a socially responsible way.

The number of fans allowed to be in attendance was limited to 22,000, roughly equivalent to 1/3 capacity of the stadium. This restriction allowed for some social distancing. And all fans were required to be wearing masks. Kind of takes the the excitement out of trying to be seen on TV when your face is hidden behind a mask. Hey, but health and safety are more important than publicity.

In a fitting tribute, the NFL provided free tickets to 7,500 health care workers who had been vaccinated for COVID-19. Even though vaccinated, they were still required to wear masks. Better safe than sorry, right? With that many medical professionals in attendance, there was no need to be concerned about finding a doctor in the house if any medical emergency arose.

A sporting event such as the Super Bowl does not occur within a vacuum. It takes place within society and mirrors issues and concerns of the times. Sure, the main focus is sports, but taking the time to take a closer look reveals some interesting commentary on the society which holds the event. The Super Bowl winner received a trophy, but an astute fan received the opportunity to observe things about the context in which we Americans live.

Just WONDER-ing:

Did you watch the Super Bowl? Was the show of our country’s superior air power justified given the cost to exhibit it? Was it reckless to stage such a large public event when the pandemic is still such a health concern? What other societal tidbits did you glean from watching or reading about the game?

Disputed Elections–The U.S. And Myanmar, A Tale Of Two Countries

Did you hear about the disputed election held back in November? No, not that one. Surprise! One occurred in Myanmar, the country previously known as Burma. Weren’t aware of it? I’m not surprised.

Americans are so self-centered; we tend to ignore what is going on in far away places. But it would behoove us to keep up with events in other parts of the world. Why? For one thing, doing so will likely give us a different perspective on our own national situation. For another, what’s happening in Myanmar is forcing newly elected U.S. President Joe Biden to face his first major foreign policy test. Welcome to the job, Joe!

So, let’s begin at the beginning–always a good place to start. I’m betting most of us would be hard pressed to point out Myanmar on a world map. Well, the country’s located in Southeast Asia and shares borders with Bangladesh and China to the northwest, China to the northeast, Laos to the east, and Thailand to the southeast. As of 2017, it’s population was 54 million, 87% of whom are Buddhist. Myanmar is ethnically diverse with 135 different national races identified. Imagine how long their census form must be for race identification….

Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948. A coup in 1962 began a half century of military rule. For approximately the last decade, the country has experienced democracy and was emerging from decades of strict military rule and isolationism. But that progress came to a screeching halt with a military coup on Monday. Tanks appearing outside the gates of the Parliament building tend to interrupt the normal flow of daily (and democratic) activities.

Monday’s a difficult day to begin with, but a pre-dawn raid made things especially dicey for Myanmar citizens. The country’s military detained recently elected (or not depending on which side you believe) President Suu Kyi and seized control of the country. The junta also removed 24 ministers and deputies from the government alleging election fraud. Around 400 members of Parliament are reportedly being detained in a large guest house (well, duh, it would have to be large to accommodate 400 “guests”) in the city of Naypiydaw. House party!!

So what happened in the November election? (In Myanmar that is.) The incumbent president’s National League for Democracy won the election by a landslide, taking 396 out of 476 seats. This result allowed the president to continue in power for 5 more years. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won only 33 seats, and they were none too happy about their poor showing. In fact, they were very sore losers.

The military alleged “voting malpractice” claiming millions of irregularities in voter lists. Nevertheless, the country’s election commission announced on January 29th that there was no evidence to support such claims. The evidence of fraud was deemed, at best, “disputed.”

The commander of Myanmar’s military, Gen. Ming Aung Hlaing, had a letter sent to the president ordering a recount of the election results and a delay in the opening of Parliament “or else.” Oooooh! The “or else” of course was Monday’s coup and the president’s detention.

For President Suu Kyi, this result is déjà vu all over again. She and the military go way back–and not in a good way. Aung San Suu Kyi won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent resistance against the military dictatorship that kept her under house arrest for 15 years. At age 75, she may not make another 15 years of detention.

Gen Hlaing has now assumed (translate “grabbed”) power. The armed forces, so he says, are only assuming control for one year under emergency powers granted under Myanmar’s constitution. (And another emergency is likely to conveniently appear at the end of that one year, I’m thinking.) Myanmar’s military, officially known as the Tatmadew, already has its fingers pretty deep in the country’s political pie. The constitution, ratified back in 2008, guarantees the military 25% of the seats in parliament. Who wants 25% when you can seize power and have 100%?

And what does assuming power look like for Gen. Hlaing and the Tatmadew? It’s repressive. Phones, TV broadcasts, and the internet were cut or hindered by the military to counter dissent. Needless to say, Gen Hlaing doesn’t see eye to eye with the U.N. which considers the internet to be an essential mechanism for people to exercise their right to free information.

Back in the U.S., news of the coup has been met with concern and disapproval. In years past, the U.S. showed its disapproval of military rule of Myanmar with economic sanctions. Since the Southeast Asian country is heavily dependent on overseas aid, money speaks louder than words to Myanmar.

U.S. sanctions were lifted in 2016 after elections were held and a civilian government was established. Moves towards democracy meant more U.S. aid. President Biden has called on Myanmar’s military to relinquish power. To back up this request, he has threatened the imposition of sanctions. Moves away from democracy mean economic backlash for Myanmar. But perhaps General Hlaing is in it for personal power and not the financial stability of his country….

The tale of the disputed November election in Myanmar is a sad one. It also played out quite differently than the tale of the disputed November election here in the U.S. Both situations involved claims of election fraud, calls for an investigation of voting irregularities, segments of the country being unhappy campers at the results, and concerning incidents at the seat of government.

But unlike Myanmar, it was rioters, not tanks, showing up at the legislative seat of the U.S. Our government did not undergo a fundamental transition. Our democratic process remains intact; the change we experienced was the in name of the president and the political party in power.

Both countries are facing difficult times and have citizens with vastly different views as to how things should be run. As bad as Americans believe things are in our country right now, I’d still rather be in the U.S. than in Myanmar. And I have free access to the internet to tell you that.

Just WONDER-ing:

Had you heard there had been a coup in Myanmar? Does democracy have a chance of succeeding when the military is entrenched in the legislative process? Does the U.S. have a right to voice an opinion as to how another country should be governed? If there’s going to be an election dispute, would you rather be in Myanmar or the U.S.?