Ballistics: What goes up must come down

Is there something about “ballistic” that makes a missile even more dangerous?

Senior Airman Jacob Skovo/U.S. Air Force/AP
An U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber assigned to the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, takes off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam on Sept. 9, 2017.

Remember how just the other week the big crisis was over whether the North Koreans were going to lob a missile or two into the water near Guam? 

The United States has a considerable military presence there, and the North Koreans seemed to be keen just to show that they could do it. (“Nice little forward base you have here in the northwest Pacific. It would be too bad if anything happened to it.”) 

But then came the huge controversy over the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, and the North Korean threat seemingly fell off the radar screen, at least for the time being. It was as if a mugger set out to attack a couple but then found they were in the midst of such a huge fight with each other that he couldn’t get their attention, and so just slunk off into the darkness.

I don’t mean to be flip. This is serious stuff. Indeed, since the Guam provocation the North Koreans have launched a missile through Japanese airspace. It flew 1,700 miles and then crashed into the ocean, near Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.

This may be a good moment to consider just what ballistic really means. After all, “to go ballistic” (an expression that goes back to 1981) is to become irrationally angry. As the explainer site How Stuff Works frames the question: “What exactly is a ballistic missile, anyway? Is there something about the ballistic part that makes a missile even more dangerous?” 

Ballistic comes from the Greek word ballein, meaning to throw. Lexicographers’ first sighting of ballistics was in 1753, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It meant the “art of throwing large missiles” or the “science of the motion of projectiles.” The term is also used in reference to smaller projectiles, too: bullets and the like. 

The English ball turns out to be a word cousin of ballein – not the round kind of ball that you throw, that is, but the kind of ball that is a dancing party. The Online Etymology Dictionary traces it back to a Greek word, ballizein, “to dance, jump about,” or literally “to throw one’s body” (“ancient Greek dancing being highly athletic”).

But back to missiles: A ballistic missile is one that has a ballistic trajectory over most of its flight path, according to How Stuff Works. That is, it’s fired way up into the sky, and then gravity takes it the rest of the way. Once the missile burns up the fuel that propels it, its direction can’t be altered.

A cruise missile, on the other hand, is self-propelled for most of its trajectory. It flies in a relatively straight line most of the way to its target, and at a lower altitude.  Ballistic missiles, which came into use during World War II, follow the great sweeping curves of mathematical equations.

To my utterly inexpert mind, the cruise missile seems more “advanced,” more dangerous precisely because it is more maneuverable, but what do I know? Ballistic missiles were a great advance in their day, if that’s the term for something meant to bring death and destruction. It may be that they sound especially scary because of the metaphorical sense of “going ballistic.” 

Let’s hope that Kim Jong-un doesn’t personally do this anytime soon.

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