The Sky May Not Be Falling, But Things In It Are

Watching the evening news lately is enough to convince more than just Chicken Little that the sky is falling. In reality, though, it’s not the sky itself that’s falling but things in it–hypersonic missiles, commercial airplanes, and even a teenager on a towering amusement park ride. Let’s take a closer look at what is coming down from above.

Hypersonic Missiles. While the war in Ukraine continues with innocent civilians in the crosshairs, Ukrainians have a well-founded fear of things falling from the sky to kill them, not to mention destroying any building standing. What a better time than a war not going your way to try out a new destructive weapon, right? Well, President Putin thought so. Russia now has the dubious distinction of having been the first country to use a hypersonic missile in combat. How proud Vladimir must be that his weapon has destroyed lives and landmarks alike.

So, what’s a hypersonic missile anyway? This type of missile travels at least five times faster than the speed of sound, or Mach 5, meaning it can travel a mile per second. Such ultra high speed makes these missiles, which can also change direction midflight, almost impossible to intercept. Exactly what humans need. A way to kill each other faster without a viable defense. What progress we’ve made, eh?

Russia’s defense minister stated his country had deployed a “Kinzhal” (Russian for “dagger”) hypersonic aeroballistic missile to destroy a Ukrainian ammunition depot and to destroy a Ukrainian fuel base. On the bright side, in these instances no people or civilian buildings were targeted. But use of a new and highly advanced weapon is unsettling. This air to surface missile in the Russian army’s arsenal, which is carried by a MiG fighter, is claimed to have a range of 1,200 miles and can achieve a speed of Mach 10.

With these speeds and great manuevering capability, the Russians’ “dagger” can strike before people on the ground are even able to spot it in the sky. So missiles may be falling from the sky in Ukraine, but only the survivors will know what hit them.

Commercial Airplanes. Reports indicate there’s never been a safer time to fly on a commercial airplane. Be that as it may, a China East Boeing 737-800 plowed into the side of a mountain on March 21st. The 132 lives lost–123 passengers and 9 crew–can take little comfort in the aviation industry’s generally good safety record.

No matter how technologically advanced we become, accidents still happen. And what an accident this recent one was. The plane plummeted from 29,000 feet, nosediving into a remote area in southern China. The impact of the crash created a 65 foot pit in the side of a mountain. Its flight data recorder (FDR, but not to be confused with America’s 32nd president) was found 130 feet from the point of impact and 5 feet underground. While a search was conducted for survivors, to no one’s surprise no one survived this massive impact.

What caused this horrendous crash? Only the black box knows for sure. What’s a black box? It’s a device in an airplane that records flight audio and data and is compulsory on all commercial flights.

Usually a black box is placed in the plane’s tail where it is more likely to survive a crash. [NOTE TO SELF: Be sure to book a seat at the back of the plane next time you fly.] These boxes are encased in strong, corrosion-resistant titanium or stainless steel and wrapped in insulation which can withstand high temperatures. They are equipped with an underwater locator beacon that emits an ultrasonic ping to aid in its location. Although called a BLACK box, the box is actually painted a bright color called international orange which makes the device easier to spot.

An investigation into the recent crash will require a review of the two black boxes that were on board the now smashed Chinese plane. The FDR kept detailed track of flight information such as speed, altitude, and position, and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) memorialized cockpit conversation. This information will help investigators piece together what went awry with the plane, whose scattered pieces can never be put together again.

Lesson to be learned? It doesn’t matter how many flights DON’T crash if the one you’re on does. Be aware that a crash is always a possibility; the plane and all those aboard it, including you, could fall out of the sky before reaching the desired destination. And watch out below if you have planes flying above you; sometimes they don’t stay up.

Amusement Ride Passengers.

The “happiest place on earth,” Orlando, wasn’t so happy after the events of the evening of March 24th. The sky was certainly lit up that night by the lights from Icon Park on International Drive. Unfortunately, looking up at it may have allowed those on the ground at the attraction see a teen fall to his death from an amusement park ride.

Rising up into the night sky at Icon Park was the towering Orlando FreeFall drop ride. Its height of 430′ makes it taller than the Statue of Liberty; in fact, it is the tallest drop tower in the world. Unfortunately, the liberty experienced on the ride that night was an unwanted one. A fourteen year old honor student slipped loose from his safety harness and fell to the ground as the ride plummeted downward at a speed over 75 mph. Although he initially survived the impact, he later died at the hospital.

How could such a fun experience at an amusement park turn into such a tragedy? An investigation is underway to determine exactly what happened, but in the meantime, the ride is closed until further notice. That’s, of course, just as well as I doubt there are people brave (or perhaps stupid) enough to get on it now.

Initial suspicion has focused on failure to adhere to the safety guidelines for the ride’s use. The deceased teen was in town from St. Louis for a football program. Unsurprisingly, he was a big boy. Although only 14, he weighed in at around 340 pounds and stood 6’5′ tall. BUT, the operations manual stated that the maximum weight for a rider was about 286 pounds. Oops! Methinks a scale should have been placed nearby to ascertain weight of would be riders much as a height measurement is often required for young riders. It’ll all be hashed out in detail though, as attorneys have been hired and negligence has been alleged.

No one expects to see a body falling from a high ride. Along with the tragic loss of a young life, there are certainly tourists who have been traumatized from witnessing this accident. My advice is to stay away from these types of rides and “don’t look up!”

WONDER-ing Woman:

Do you consider it a technological “advance” when humans can kill each other faster and with less defensive capability? Do you worry about crashing when you take a commercial flight? Have you ever ridden a drop ride at an amusement park? If so, did you feel safe?

Russian-U.S. Tensions So High They’ve Reached The International Space Station

Physical combat is ongoing in Eastern Europe due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With the U.S. backing Ukraine financially and materially, tensions between the superpowers have skyrocketed. How high are these tensions? They are so high they reach all the way to the International Space Station (“ISS”) in low earth orbit and offer a potential battlefield in the heavens.

The International Space Station is just what its name implies; it’s a multinational collaborative project and the joint effort of five space agencies: NASA (U.S.); JAXA (Japan); ESA (Europe); CSA (Canada); and Roscosmos (Russia). The space station itself is modular and consists of two sections–the Russian Orbital Segment operated by the Russians (obviously) and the U.S. Orbital Segment operated by the U.S. These two segments are mutually dependent upon each other; the Russian module provides orbital control while power comes from the U.S. segment. The two modules must work together to achieve a successful operation.

In November 2000, one American and two Russians became the first full-time crew aboard ISS. Their cooperation was viewed as the beginning of a new post-Cold War era. But the current agreement for the joint operation of ISIS ends in 2024. Given current events, serious concerns exist as to whether Russia will abandon ISS because of them. Russia might decide to take its red marbles and go home; so much for playing nice in space.

The drama spiked with the recent arrival of three Russian cosmonauts, Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, and Sergey Korsakov, at ISS. Their appearance caused a stir due to the color of their flight suits. These suits were flashier than the typical pale blue flight suits cosmonauts wore in the past. In fact, they were–gasp!–yellow with blue trim. Why, yes–they colors of the Ukrainian flag. Coincidence or political statement?

Observant reporters noticed the color scheme and jumped on it during a press conference with the cosmonauts. Artemyev told them, “A color is simply a color.” Yeah, well, maybe, but when Russian cosmonauts diverge from the usual flight suit color and are wearing the colors of the Ukrainian flag during a high-profile war, people conclude a subtle (or not) political statement is being made.

Artemyev attempted to provide reasonable explanations for the color selection. A lot of yellow material sat in storage, so they had to use yellow. OK, but WHY did Roscosmos purchase a bunch of yellow material when flight suits are typically blue? Not buying that one. Oh wait, the crew picked out the material six months in advance (translate before the war began) because the flight suits had to be individually sewn. Six months to sew a suit? Were they using Russian sloths transferred from the DMV to Roscosmos to do the sewing? And while we are asking questions, aren’t these explanations contradictory? Did they “HAVE” to use yellow because a bunch was in storage or did they “CHOOSE” yellow for a reason?

The buzz from the cosmonauts’ attire resulted in a statement by Artemyev being disseminated on Roscosmos’ Telegram channel. He noted, “There is no need to look for any signs or symbols in our uniforms.” And to make things crystal clear, he then said that, although the cosmonauts were in space, they were “together with our president and our people.” No confirmation yet on whether that statement was followed by a recorded message saying, “This is Vladimir Putin and I approved this message.”

But Russians, as well as Americans, can talk out of both sides of their mouths. The color scheme of the flight suits, so Artemyev indicated, was not a statement. However, the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, then Tweeted a picture of the blue and gold coat of arms of the prestigious university which all three cosmonauts attended–Bauman Moscow State Technical University, Russia’s oldest and largest technical university The cosmonauts were giving their alma mater a shout out . (Couldn’t find what the school’s mascot is–perhaps they are the Moscow Mules?) So the color IS a sign supporting higher education at BMSTU but not of support of Ukraine.

While speculating as to why the Russians wore blue and yellow flight suits seems pretty tame, the situation plummets precipitously from there. Rogozin and retired U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly have engaged in a war of words on Twitter. During their exchanges, the Russian hinted an end to his country’s participation in the space venture if Americans continue “to be hostile.”

Kelly felt so strongly about the Russian invasion of Ukraine that he wrote: “I am returning to you the Russian medal for ‘Merit in Space Exploration’ which you presented to me. Please give it to a Russian mother whose son died in this unjust war.” American condemnation didn’t sit well with Rogozin who issued a thinly veiled threat on Twitter: “If you block cooperation with us, who will save ISS from an unguided impact on the territory of the U.S. or Europe?…The ISS doesn’t fly over Russia, so all the risk is yours. Are you ready for it?” Sounds like Rogozin is ready for a rumble.

Space X CEO Elon Musk has also gotten into it with Rogozin. (NOTE: Shouldn’t the Roscosmos chief be checking his agency’s yellow material inventory rather than playing on Twitter?) Musk angered Rogozin by providing Ukrainians Starlink equipment so they could access the internet via Space X’s Starlink system of internet satellites. Accordingly, Rogozin said Russia would stop selling Americans rocket engines. In fact, while appearing on Russian TV he remarked, “Let them fly on something else like their broomsticks.” Think Rogozin is getting swept up in negative emotions?

Isn’t it bad enough thousands have been killed in the invasion of Ukraine, millions of Ukrainians are displaced, and billions of dollars are going to weapons and military expenses? Must we now lose the ability to work together as inhabitants of Earth to explore space and develop technology? If Twitter is any indication, space isn’t “the final frontier,” it’s merely the next frontier to conduct squabbles and wars.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Was it genius for the ISS designers to make the station’s operation depend on mutual cooperation? Should what’s going on down on Earth affect what’s going on above Earth? What do you make of the attire worn by the cosmonauts–coincidence of color or conscious choice based on convictions?

A Hello To Arms — Mercenaries Flock to Fight in Ukraine

People around the globe watch in concern and horror as the war in Ukraine continues. Some fear it will become a World War. But, in actuality, the world is already involved in the conflict. Various countries are sending arms, financial aid, and/or humanitarian relief. And, mercy, a stream of volunteers is traveling to the hot spot to join in the fray one one side or the other. Who’s willfully heading TO a war zone? Can you say “mercenaries?”

Most have a general idea of what a “mercenary” is. But the definition of the term depends on the resource. Since my go to resource for word meanings is the dictionary, I started there. It defines a mercenary as someone hired for service in a foreign country’s military. Mercenaries are also commonly known as soldiers of fortune or hired guns. The key here is the military service is offered for pay, i.e., I’ll shoot bullets for you if you shoot compensation to me.

Think mercenaries are a new concept devised by our modern world? Think again. They’ve been around pretty much as long as wars have been fought. If you paid attention in your world history class, you’d have learned mercenaries were used in B.C. times. For example, King Xerxes I, a Persian king, hired mercenaries to assist with his invasion of Greece in 484 B.C. Only back then, bullets weren’t shot and electronic pay deposits weren’t available.

What has changed in the modern world is how mercenaries are viewed and treated. For one, they are seen more negatively and with less concern. The Geneva Conventions (that’s conventions with an “s” on the end) have embraced the idea that mercenaries aren’t entitled to protection by the rules of war in the way non-mercenaries are. Of course, that requires differentiating between the two categories. So, Protocol Additional Geneva Conventions 1977 (PPGC77) expressly defines a mercenary in Article 47.

Those deemed mercenaries per the GC (using the acronym for Geneva Conventions since the military is obsessed with acronyms), aren’t recognized as legitimate combatants and don’t have to be granted the same legal protections as captured military members of a regular army. Yes, and prisoners of war (POW, yet another acronym!) are always treated so humanely–not!

With the recent invasion of Ukraine, mercenaries are high profile and in demand. Both Russia and Ukraine are utilizing them.

When they aren’t figuring out how to get gas to their tanks whose tanks are on empty in Ukraine, the Russians are hiring Middle Eastern mercenaries. In particular, Putin has launched a recruiting operation in Syria. The Russian Defense Minister, recently announced that as many as 16,000 recruits will enter the war in Ukraine on Russia’s side. Each “recruit” will be paid around $3,000/month. So, let’s just call the “recruits” what they are–MERCENARIES.

Concerned about unemployment in Syria (NOTE: Sarcasm font in use), Russia reportedly has opened fourteen “recruitment centers” in Syria in areas controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The men targeted for hire have plenty of experience from fighting in their own country’s lengthy civil war. These “recruits” are trained and then provided transportation to Russia for deployment to Ukraine. According to military experts (of which I am certainly not one), Russian intends to use mercenaries there to do the dirty work of storming the cities which the Russian Army has surrounded.

While Putin has no issue with using mercenaries for his purposes, he’s trying to discourage Ukraine from doing likewise. (The old “do as I say and not as I do” situation.) The Russian Defense Ministry has stated mercenaries fighting on Ukraine’s behalf will not be treated as POW’s and will be prosecuted as criminals. And we all know from the movies how well those in Russian jails are treated. (Anyone heard from Brittney Griner there lately? But I digress.) Further, the Russian military has stated its intention to target attacks on mercenaries who will not be shown “pity” or “forgiveness.”

So, what is Ukrainian President Zelensky doing to supplement his fighting forces? Things are a tad different than what the Russians are doing. Those wanting to join the war effort to defend Ukraine have to sign a contract BUT THEY ARE NOT PAID. The eager volunteers must find their own way to Poland and provide their own gear with the exception of a weapon which is issued to them upon arrival at a specified point.

While Ukraine has not opened designated “recruitment centers,” it’s utilized its embassy in Washington, D.C., a townhouse in the Georgetown area, to process offers from Americans wanting to join the fight. Thousands of offers have poured in for those desiring to fight for Ukraine because they feel the war is unfair and unprovoked. Their aim is NOT to be paid for their services but to fight against aggression. So, are they really properly classified as mercenaries?

Since February 24th when the invasion began, over 6,000 offers to volunteer have been received by the Ukrainian Embassy in the U.S.. A desire to serve alone isn’t enough to be allowed to do so though. A vetting process is undertaken; volunteers may be rejected for lack of military service, for a history of criminal behavior, or for lack of being a suitable age. Half of the volunteers were rejected prior to the interview stage, including a 16 year old and a 73 year old. Of the 100+ Americans who’ve been approved so far, most are veterans with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The disturbing events in Ukraine show how connected the world is today. No country is an island, and conflicts between two countries are bound to come to involve citizens of other countries and perhaps other nations as well. How the Ukrainian situation will end, I have no idea. But I’m praying for world peace rather than another world war–a world where there is no need to employ mercenaries.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Does the term “mercenary” have a negative connotation to you? Is someone who volunteers to fight based on principles and not for money a “mercenary?” Will other countries join in the war in addition to the mercenaries/recruits/volunteers who have stepped up?

Pain From The Ukraine

It’s the biggest and the poorest country in Europe. Right now it’s causing both political parties in the U.S. a bunch of pain. If you have heard any news report in the last two weeks, you should be able to guess that this country is Ukraine (formerly “the Ukraine”) even if you aren’t a geography whiz. How and why is this Eastern European country causing such an uproar here in the U.S.?

First, for all those geographically challenged citizens, let’s take a minute to get up to speed on Ukraine. The country came into existence in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union. It’s capital and largest city is Kiev. Whether Ukraine can lay claim to creating Chicken Kiev is a controversy for another blog post. Ukraine produces and processes its own natural gas and petroleum an industry which sets the stage for the present goings on with Americans.

Ukraine has some disputes, land and otherwise, with Russia. The enemy of your enemy being your friend and all, Uncle Sam is Ukraine’s friend. And as any good friend would do, Uncle Sam is providing hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. aid to Ukraine to fight Russian-aligned forces.

Just like the United States, Ukraine has a president. The current Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected back in April 2019. Like President Trump, Zelensky was not an experienced politician when elected; he was an actor and comedian. President Trump appeared on the TV screen in “The Apprentice” before his election to the nation’s highest political office. President Zelensky starred in the TV series “Servant Of The People” where he played the Ukrainian president before being elected to fill that office in real life.

With that background, let’s look at THE biggest news story receiving air time right now. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced on September 24th that six committees would undertake formal impeachment inquiries against President Trump following reports of controversial interactions between Trump and Ukraine. Apparently six committees instead of just one are required to undertake these proceedings because the government cannot do anything without duplication and repetition.

Although the word “impeachment” does not have a “U” in it, you can’t talk about the current impeachment goings on without Ukraine being smack dab in the middle of it. The apparent last straw to fuel the impeachment fire was President Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president. This conversation has been characterized as Trump’s solicitation of foreign interference in the 2020 election. Hey, what’s an American election without foreign interference, right Russia?

As verified by transcripts of the phone call, Trump suggested an investigation by Ukraine was in order of some fishy business involving Americans in that country. So far, that sounds reasonable. The catch is that the individual in the crosshair was none other than potential 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

How is Joe involved with the Ukraine? Wasn’t he busy being President Obama’s VP and now running to unseat President Trump? Why yes, but Biden is not just a politician, he’s a family man. Surely he is a proud papa of son Hunter, a Yale Law School grad. And not only does Hunter have a law degree, but he is savvy too. In 2014, he managed to land a position the board of directors for Burisma Holdings, Ukraine’s largest private gas producer. This scandal-plagued Ukrainian natural gas company took Hunter on despite his having no background or experience whatsoever in oil and gas. And for that lack of background and experience he was paid up to $50,000 A MONTH to so serve. (Where do I sign up for this kind of work with my law degree?)

Why on earth would Hunter Biden of all people have obtained this clearly lucrative position in a Ukrainian business? COINCI-DENTALLY (or not), Hunter’s dear old dad was serving as U.S Vice President at the time and was personally involved in U.S. Ukrainian policy; in particular, Joe was pressuring Ukraine to do better at rooting out corruption. At best, taking such a job was poor judgment on Hunter’s part; at worst, it represented a conflict of interest.

But, hey, that’s simply Hunter’s bad, right? Well, there’s more to the story. In March 2016, VP Joe Biden threatened then Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko that $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees would be pulled if Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin was not fired immediately. The Prosecutor General had been generally denounced by Western leaders as corrupt. Ukraine sacked Shokin as a result. So, if he was corrupt, what’s the big deal? COINCIDENTALLY, Shokin was leading a wide-ranging corruption probe into Burisma Holdings at the time he was fired. Getting Shokin removed could be seen as an attempt to keep Sonny Boy’s business from getting in trouble and him thus losing his enviable ~$50,000/month board position.

Fast forward to July 2019, Trump is chatting with Zelensky president to president and mentions that some bad things might have been done in Ukraine. Shouldn’t a leader want to get to the root of corruption and bad dealings in his country? Sure. But, as with Hunter Biden, this request, which put a Trump political rival under a microscope, might be seen as a lapse in judgment or self-dealing.

A transcript of the July 25th Trump-Zelensky conversation was released. To absolutely no one’s surprise, readers reached various conclusions. Trump supporters found nothing horrible while Trump foes were aghast at such egregious behavior. Additional accusations were levied that Trump used military aid as leverage; specifically, it was said that he was blocking millions of dollars the U.S Congress had approved for aid to Ukraine. (This move would be a no no as opposed to Biden threatening to withdraw a BILLION dollars in U.S. loan guarantees to obtain leverage.)

Was Zelensky pressured by Trump? Why not get the answer staight from the proverbial horse’s mouth? In a September 25th press conference at the U.N., Zelensky addressed this very issue. He stated, “It is impossible to put pressure on me.” The Ukrainian president went on to stress that “nobody pressured me” to investigate Biden. But, he’s a president (not to mention a former TV star), so can we believe what he says? Trump supporters say “yes,” while Trump detractors say “no.”

It remains to be seen where the impeachment inquiry will lead. But the story to date provides some takeaways. It’s politics as usual for both political parties. Those involved, regardless of their party affiliation, often make poor judgment calls (pun intended as it applies to Trump and his phone conversation with Zelensky). Monetary assistance, or the lack thereof, is a frequent political weapon of choice. Whether or not a politician’s particular actions are outrageous or acceptable lies in the eye of the beholder and his political affiliation. In any event, the Ukraine’s involvement has taught people some geography and provided a solid news story as opposed to reports about Justin Bieber’s second wedding to Hailey Baldwin.

JUSTĀ WONDER-ing:

Have you read the transcript of President Trump’s phone conversation with President Zelensky? Does the fact Zelensky claims nobody pressured him to probe Biden resolve the matter? Should alleged instances of corruption be investigated no matter who brings them to the attention of the authorities? Why do successful, well educated people make poor judgment calls?