Valerie worked at Bryan Metal Systems, making suspensions for Chrysler. She made good money there, but that company was taken over in 2005 by Global Automotive Systems. In 2010, Global shut down the Bryan plant and sent the work to Michigan as part of a “global optimization strategy.” Valerie traveled to Michigan to help train her replacements. After that, she bounced around, sometimes working temp factory jobs, until she landed at the Sauder furniture plant.
By 2019, unemployment was below 4% in Williams County, but higher-paying jobs had been replaced by work with low wages and “temporary” status that employers maintained—in name only—so they wouldn’t have to pay benefits. Menards, a big Midwestern home-improvement retailer, became the largest employer in the county. Menards wrangled a rich package of tax incentives and infrastructure out of local and state government in return for putting a distribution center about 15 minutes northeast of Bryan. By late 2019 people were starting at about $14 an hour, or about $28,000 per year, for full-time work. In the last 20 years, the median household income in Williams County (in constant dollars) has gone from $62,000 to $49,500. Defined-benefits pensions have given way to less-generous retirement savings accounts. Health insurance premiums have gone up. So have deductibles.
As the employment landscape changed, so did the county’s demographics. Young people, especially college-educated young people, left and didn’t come back. I asked Les McCaslin, the retiring chief of the Four County Board of Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Services and a native of the area, how he thought they might be persuaded to return. He remembered a recent economic development meeting: “We were talking about the town. And I simply said, ‘Why would you come here? Why would I bring my two kids?’ And there was silence in the room. You had commissioners there and they couldn’t come up with one reason.”
The Menards effect
Bryan’s hospital, Community Hospitals and Wellness Centers (CHWC), caught the fallout from these changes. As was true in many such communities, CHWC, an independent community hospital, became the largest employer in town. But it struggled to stay open and independent. Because the county’s population was getting poorer and older, many patients qualified for either Medicaid or Medicare, both of which pay lower reimbursement rates than private insurance. (The two government programs account for two-thirds of CHWC’s revenue.) So although, say, an MRI machine costs CHWC just as much as it would another hospital in a richer area, CHWC gets paid at a lower rate when it is used.
Former hospital CEO Phil Ennen calls this “the Menards effect.” The company was “a real problem for us,” he says. “Seventy-five percent of Menards [employee] accounts with us are Medicaid, charity, or some sort of self-pay. From a health-care perspective, they are a horrible employer.”
Many people were like Valerie: they just didn’t go to doctors. The spring after we sat in the basement of the church, Valerie was back there, this time counting Girl Scout cookie money with her daughter and a friend. She still worked three jobs. Her back ached from an old injury during her days at Bryan Metal Systems. And she was coughing from a bug she thought she’d caught from a coworker at Sauder. Valerie wound up with bronchitis, an inner ear infection, and a sinus infection, but she didn’t miss any work, because she had no paid sick leave. “No! I went to work every day,” she said, laughing, which called forth a brief coughing fit.
SpaceX has successfully landed Starship after flight for the first time
On March 3, SpaceX’s Starship pulled off a successful high-altitude flight—its third in a row. Unlike in the first two missions, the spacecraft stuck the landing. Then, as in the last two, the spacecraft blew up.
What happened: At around 5:14 p.m. US Central Time, the 10th Starship prototype (SN10) was launched from SpaceX’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, flying about 10 kilometers into the air before falling back down and descending safely to Earth.
About 10 minutes later, the spacecraft blew up, from what appears to have been a methane leak. Still, the actual objectives of the mission were met.
Rocket Lab could be SpaceX’s biggest rival
In the private space industry, it can seem that there’s SpaceX and then there’s everyone else. Only Blue Origin, backed by its own billionaire founder in the person of Jeff Bezos, seems able to command the same degree of attention. And Blue Origin hasn’t even gone beyond suborbital space yet.
Rocket Lab might soon have something to say about that duopoly. The company, founded in New Zealand and headquartered in Long Beach, California, is second only to SpaceX when it comes to launch frequency—the two are ostensibly the only American companies that regularly go to orbit. Its small flagship Electron rocket has flown 18 times in just under four years and delivered almost 100 satellites into space, with only two failed launches.
On March 1, the company made its ambitions even clearer when it unveiled plans for a new rocket called Neutron. At 40 meters tall and able to carry 20 times the weight that Electron can, Neutron is being touted by Rocket Lab as its entry into markets for large satellite and mega-constellation launches, as well as future robotics missions to the moon and Mars. Even more tantalizing, Rocket Lab says Neutron will be designed for human spaceflight as well. The company calls it a “direct alternative” to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
“Rocket Lab is one of the success stories among the small launch companies,” says Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida. “They are edging into the territory of the larger, more established launch companies now—especially SpaceX.”
That ambition was helped by another bit of news announced on March 1: Rocket Lab’s merger with Vector Acquisition Corporation. Joining forces with a special-purpose acquisition company, a type of company that ostensibly enables another business to go public without an IPO, will allow Rocket Lab to benefit from a massive influx of money that gives it a new valuation of $4.1 billion. Much of that money is going toward development and testing of Neutron, which the company wants to start flying in 2024.
It’s a bit of an about-face for Rocket Lab. CEO Peter Beck had previously been lukewarm about the idea of building a larger rocket that could launch bigger payloads and potentially offer launches for multiple customers at once.
But the satellite market has embraced ride-share missions into orbit, especially given the rise of satellite mega-constellations, which will probably make up most satellites launched into orbit over the next decade. Neutron is capable of taking 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit, which means it could deliver potentially dozens of payloads to orbit at once. As a lighthearted mea culpa, the introductory video for Neutron showed Beck eating his own hat.
Recovering from the SolarWinds hack could take 18 months
SolarWinds Orion, the network management product that was targeted, is used in tens of thousands of corporations and government agencies. Over 17,000 organizations downloaded the infected back door. The hackers were extraordinarily stealthy and specific in targeting, which is why it took so long to catch them—and why it’s taking so long to understand their full impact.
The difficulty of uncovering the extent of the damage was summarized by Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, in a congressional hearing last week.
“Who knows the entirety of what happened here?” he said. “Right now, the attacker is the only one who knows the entirety of what they did.”
Kevin Mandia, CEO of the security company FireEye, which raised the first alerts about the attack, told Congress that the hackers prioritized stealth above all else.
“Disruption would have been easier than what they did,” he said. “They had focused, disciplined data theft. It’s easier to just delete everything in blunt-force trauma and see what happens. They actually did more work than what it would have taken to go destructive.”
“This has a silver lining”
CISA first heard about a problem when FireEye discovered that it had been hacked and notified the agency. The company regularly works closely with the US government, and although it wasn’t legally obligated to tell anyone about the hack, it quickly shared news of the compromise with sensitive corporate networks.
It was Microsoft that told the US government federal networks had been compromised. The company shared that information with Wales on December 11, he said in an interview. Microsoft observed the hackers breaking into the Microsoft 365 cloud that is used by many government agencies. A day later, FireEye informed CISA of the back door in SolarWinds, a little-known but extremely widespread and powerful tool.
This signaled that the scale of the hack could be enormous. CISA’s investigators ended up working straight through the holidays to help agencies hunt for the hackers in their networks.
These efforts were made even more complicated because Wales had only just taken over at the agency: days earlier, former director Chris Krebs had been fired by Donald Trump for repeatedly debunking White House disinformation about a stolen election.