You may not remember the name Alexander Litvinenko, but you probably remember his very weird story, because it seemed to have come from the pre-credits scene in a James Bond movie.
This is the photo you're probably most familiar with.
He was a former member of the Soviet FSB (successor to the KGB) who defected to the United Kingdom. In 2006, he drank tea that, unbeknownst to him, was laced with the radioactive metal polonium-210. He died a few months later, and the entire world gave Vladimir Putin an indiscreet nod, because who else could have done it? The man looks more like a Bond villain than any actual Bond villain. And besides, who the hell else would even think to murder someone with freaking radioactive material?
The Story You Didn't Know:
It helps to back up a bit and learn the rest of Litvinenko's story.
Starting with this picture.
The man had enemies. Lots of them. Litvinenko bragged that he was going to use his KGB knowledge to blackmail corrupt Russian higher-ups and mafia, some of whom were known for being goddamned Russian mafia. And P.S.: Soviet defectors were almost never killed, but the same can't be said about folks who screw with corrupt Russian businessmen.
In fact, Litvinenko told a Russian academic that he had a whole dossier on how a Russian oil company was taken over by the Russian state and other information on plenty of other entities who had run afoul of the Kremlin over the years, not to mention the Kremlin itself.
After all, he wrote Blowing Up Russia for Dummies.
But not everyone can get a hold of a radioactive substance like polonium, right? That's what made the whole thing so weird, that the assassin would make such a brazen "only someone with access to nukes could have done this" statement.
Well, not so fast. Polonium is actually used in some consumer products, specifically stuff to eliminate static electricity. Here's an anti-static bar full of polonium that you can order today. You could presumably poison yourself if you ate it. Don't. Obviously. But you could if you wanted to.
Now you can poison whoever you want, and Putin will take the blame!
On Halloween, 1999, an EgyptAir flight crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all passengers and crew on board. In the subsequent investigation, the black box indicated that there was nothing mechanically wrong with the plane, and that relief pilot Gameel al-Batouti was recorded saying "I rely on God" before disabling the autopilot and throwing the plane into a dive. The plane crashed 60 miles from Massachusetts.
Man, God really dropped the ball.
So, it had to be a suicide attack, right? September 11 was still a few years away, but everyone knew what an intentional suicide mission looked like. And even though Egypt's investigation concluded that there had to be a mechanical failure on the plane, Egypt was being run by a guy who sent his one and only political rival to jail for forgery, so it's not like we're talking about a transparent investigation. Sure enough, the official report on the American side recorded zero mechanical failures and ruled that al-Batouti had intentionally crashed the plane.
And even in 1999, when Americans heard "Gameel al-Batouti intentionally crashed the plane," they immediately thought, "Jihad."
The Story You Didn't Know:
Relief pilot al-Batouti could have been named Jim Bob Nutsflinger and he still would have had the incentive to crash EgyptAir 990. He didn't snap because he wanted to get 72 virgins in heaven, but because he'd just been reprimanded over sexual misconduct and demoted from his U.S.-to-Egypt route. In fact, he was told hours before the flight that this particular flight was to be his last. Oh, and the guy who was responsible for the demotion was on the flight, along with a shit-ton of other EgyptAir crew.
"So I'm just going to hand you this loaded gun so I can make insulting gestures about the size of your penis."
None of this information actually made it onto the official National Transportation Safety Board report, because the NTSB is not in the business of writing a soap opera script. Nor did the revenge theory make it into Egypt's official investigation, because according to them, al-Batouti was a martyr, and "America's goal is to hide the truth by blaming the EgyptAir pilot." The only reason why we know about the possible motive is because another EgyptAir pilot passed on the information to the FBI when he tried to defect from his country.
All we know for sure is that a guy with a history of flashing his privates at college students had a really bad day and apparently decided to take it out on 216 other people.
Even if you don't remember the date, you probably remember where you were and what you were doing on February 1, 2003, the day the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed while trying to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.
The cause of the accident was eventually traced back to a simple piece of foam insulation, about the size of a briefcase and weighing less than 5 pounds, which had broken off from the main fuel tank during launch. This had happened on several other prior launches, but that day the foam hit Columbia where it counted, right in the reinforced carbon-carbon tiling on the left wing.
Of course, NASA took steps to keep this from happening again, so when Discovery was launched on the program's return to flight two years after that shitty February day, it was assumed that the foam issue was solved. Obviously.
The Story You Didn't Know:
"Well, that doesn't look good."
In the final briefing before Discovery's 2005 launch, flight director Wayne Hale recalls getting news that after two years of rigorous testing, no one was sure how Columbia's foam got loose during launch. But they were going to launch Discovery anyway, because ... space? No one knows why NASA went ahead with the launch -- especially when the exact same foam insulation accident happened again. Foam got liberated during Discovery's launch and hit the wing. Just like Columbia. Boom. SPACE.
The good news was that the Discovery crew knew about the hit and could do a heat shield inspection when they got to the International Space Station. And that it appeared that the damage wasn't enough that the shuttle would meet with disaster upon reentry, which was great news for both the crew, the Smithsonian, where it was eventually housed, and the billions who avoided the terror of watching that happen again.
NASA eventually figured out that the foam was cracking because of an internal thermal cycle happening in the fuel tanks. They found this out five months after the Discovery crew had landed safely back on Earth. Yay?
"We have zero gravity on tap! It's a miracle we get anything done!"
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For more details you may have missed, check out 6 Famous Unsolved Mysteries (With Really Obvious Solutions) and 7 Hotly Debated Movie Questions That Totally Have Answers.
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