The young officers at F.E. Warren Air Force Base have an enormous job: to keep 150 nuclear-tipped missiles ready to launch at a moment's notice.
Understandably, they're expected to know exactly what they're doing.
Three times a month, they're tested on the weapons and the codes used to launch them. Anything less than 90 percent is a fail.
But until recently, even 90 percent wasn't really good enough. "I was told that if I got a 90 on a test, I was a D student — and I would be treated that way," says Lt. Daniel Sharp of his first year with the Air Force's 90th Missile Wing.
Now, in the wake of a major cheating scandal among missile officers, the Air Force is changing the way it grades. From here on out, all tests are pass-fail, and individual scores are not recorded.
It marks huge a shift from the ethos that's driven the missile forces. "There was a tag line that's been with missiles for forty years that perfection is the standard," says Lt. Col. Barry Little, who heads up training. "That idea that you have to be perfect no longer applies."
The change comes because behind the perfection standard was another, unspoken rule: Be perfect, even if you have to cheat to do it. The cheating culture became public in January, when an investigation turned up evidence that officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana were texting each other answers on tests. Nine officers were eventually relieved of duty and dozens of others were reprimanded.
The Air Force does not publicly acknowledge that the cheating went on outside Malmstrom, but NPR has interviewed former Air Force officers who claim there was cheating at F.E. Warren. It came down to a choice, former missile officer Edward Warren told NPR in March: "Take your lumps and not have much of a career, or join in with your fellow launch officers and help each other out. And that is what most people did."
The new regime shifts the weight away from paper tests, and toward practical skills. Inside a full mock-up of a nuclear launch control center, lieutenants Andrew Beckner and Patrick Romenafski practice the launch of nuclear weapons with the turn of a key. How these two perform in this simulator will play a greater role in their future promotions, Lt. Col. Little says. "Your crew proficiency, your reputation among your peers, and your credibility ... all weigh in," he says.
The Air Force is trying to improve morale in other ways as well. They are giving more responsibility to officers in the field, replacing aging equipment and refurbishing old facilities.
Not everyone thinks these fixes will resolve the missile force's problems. Fundamentally, the mission is a holdover from Cold War days, says Bruce Blair, a former missile officer and head of Global Zero, a campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons. Missile crews often feel like "orphans of the Air Force," Blair says. "Out of the very accurate sense that their mission is no longer the priority it once was, [they] are just trying to do whatever it takes to get by."
Lt. Col. Little acknowledges more changes are needed to reinvigorate a sense of importance in the job, but he says that changing the perfection culture is an important first step. The pass-fail testing sends a message, he says: "As a team, they need to make the right decisions, but as individuals they're not required to be perfect."
In 2010, there were headlines around the world that a South Korean couple had let their 3-month-old daughter starve to death while they spent up to 12 hours a day playing “Prius Online” at a local internet cafe.
Ironically, in “Prius,” players take care of an “anima,” a child-like character, so the couple was neglecting their real life child to care for a virtual one.
But the courts found that the couple suffered from an addiction to the Internet and gave them minimal jail time.
- Valerie Veatch, producer and director of the HBO documentary “Love Child.” She tweets @VALERIEVEATCH.
Basic biology has it that girls are girls because they have two X chromosomes — the things inside cells that carry our genes. Boys are boys because they have one X and one Y. Recently, though, there's been a lot of debate in scientific circles about the fate of that Y chromosome — the genetic basis of maleness.
Very early in the evolution of the Y chromosome, explains Dr. David Page, a geneticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, something pretty dramatic happened: The ancestral Y lost most of its genes. And scientists basically ignored the little that was left.
"The Y chromosome was essentially written off as the runt of the human genome," Page says, "as a sort of genetic wasteland that didn't really merit anyone's serious attention."
When the Y did get any attention, it wasn' t good news. Some scientists, like geneticist Jennifer Graves at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, speculated that the Y might be destined to just keep, sort of ... rotting away.
"As soon as it becomes a male-determining chromosome, then the rot sets in," La Trobe says. "That's kind of the kiss of death for that chromosome" — meaning the Y chromosome could be headed toward oblivion, completely disappear.
But other scientists, including Page say: Not so fast. Step away from my Y chromosome.
"I've really spent the better part of my career defending the honor of the Y chromosome in the face of insults of this sort," Page says.
For the Y, size really doesn't matter, he says. Page has done a detailed analysis of the chromosome's evolution and says the string of genes has been solidly stable now for millions of years.
"The idea that the Y chromosome might disappear altogether, possibly taking men with it — I think that idea has now been firmly dismissed," he says.
In fact, the relatively few precious genes that are left on the Y look like they're special — very special.
"There are genes on the Y chromosome that are active throughout every nook and cranny of the body," Page says, "the skin, the blood, the brain, the lungs — you name it. They look to be sort of global entrepreneurs within the human genome. They are sort of master regulators."
Still, Jennifer Graves remains skeptical.
"I don't think that one can assume just because they're there and they do something useful they'll be there forever and ever," she says. "A small accident could tip it over the edge, or the evolution of a new sex-determining system that works better."
Graves says she is always surprised by the ferocious reaction she gets to any suggestion that the male chromosome might be vulnerable.
"I've been accused in print of being, you know, a ball-breaking feminist," she says. "Well, no — not really. I'm just pointing out that things change and evolution is wonderful, and it can do thing lots of different ways."
Graves has a theory about why the reaction is so intense, especially among men.
"There's some deep-seated insecurity that men have about their Y chromosomes," she says, half-joking. "When I give lectures about the demise of the Y chromosome, I see men sort of hunching up into this protective stance as though I'm physically attacking them."
And there's a twist in all this. Even if the Y chromosome is here to stay, that may be something of a double-edged sword for men. Even if those master genes on the Y chromosome are important, they may also help explain why men are more prone to certain diseases than women are — and tend to live shorter lives.
Jan Dumanski, of Uppsala University in Sweden, and his colleagues recently reported, for example, a possible link between the Y chromosome and an increased risk for lots of cancers. He sees the human Y chromosome as "the Achilles heel for men."
"It's making us men," Dumanski says, "but also causing us some trouble when we are getting older."
Clearly, our relationship with Y continues to be complicated. And it's not all about size.
Libya’s government is asking for international help to fight a fire that is burning near the airport in the capital city of Tripoli. Several oil tankers are ablaze after rocket strikes.
Rival militias are fighting in Tripoli, and also in Benghazi. The death toll in recent days is more than 90. Because of the violence, the U.S. evacuated its embassy in Tripoli over the weekend.
The BBC’s Libya correspondent Rana Jawad joins Here & Now’s Robin Young from Tripoli with the latest.
- Rana Jawad, Libya correspondent for the BBC, since 2004. She tweets @Rana_J01.
July is the most dangerous time of year for lightning in the United States. Yesterday, a rare, intense lightning storm struck Venice Beach in Southern California. One person was killed and nine others were taken to hospitals, where one was listed in critical condition.
Witnesses say the storm was fierce and came out of nowhere. Earlier in the day, lightening struck a 57-year-old man on a golf course off the coast on Santa Catalina Island. He was listed in stable condition.
Here & Now’s Robin Young talks to John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the National Weather Service.
- John Jensenius, lightning safety specialist with the National Weather Service.