Rollercoaster Ride in 1990

December 31, 1990

Some might view 1990 as the Year of the Bad Guys. Manuel Noriega, a U.S. client ruling Panama in an unruly way, dominated last January's news after a frustrated George Bush sent the cavalry to arrest him for drug-dealing and betraying the faith. At midyear, the Good Guys had their day: Nelson Mandela was freed, Germany fully reunited and Eastern Europe confronted the perils of democracy. Mikhail Gorbachev, who started it all, won the Nobel Prize but couldn't stop Soviet society's tumble toward chaos at year's end.

Iraq's Saddam Hussein threw desert sand into Western eyes. His bloody annexation of Kuwait sent new oil shocks racing around the world and the U.S.-led military response tested the boundaries of superpower cooperation. Now, U.S. troops stand poised for yet another foray into international police work, with voices of unreadiness and unwillingness rising at home.

This could also be called the Year of the Environment, however. Earth Day's 20th anniversary did not pass unnoticed. The Environmental Protection Agency reached cabinet status and the Clean Air Act deadlock ended, tightening the flue on industrial exhausts. "Non-point sources" -- cars and trucks -- were placed under tighter controls despite vigorous lobbying by auto makers. Abroad, Europeans confronted the damage caused by factory commissars of an East Bloc that knew nothing of Western-style ecology.

In the background, meanwhile, new revelations about the severity of the growing hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica reminded everyone just how fragile life is on this planet.

In Maryland, people cheered when the rockfish rebounded in a Chesapeake Bay growing cleaner after sewage-treatment plants were improved and a state phosphate ban took hold. A new study showed the bay's fish and wildlife have their own roles in flushing pollutants, unwilling to surrender to the toxic future predicted.

In science, results were mixed. Sleuths tracked down the cystic fibrosis gene, but misfired on a hereditary basis for alcoholism. Planetary explorers fired off the Magellan and Ulysses probes. Space shuttle Columbia rescued the Long Duration Exposure satellite and the Hubble Space Telescope finally got off the ground.

Then Hubble turned up near-sighted and gas leaks idled shuttles. The Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope flew, too, rescuing careers put on hold, but computer foul-ups curtailed the Astro-1 observatory's investigations, even if astronomers did squeeze out some good science. The country's direction in space came under renewed scrutiny.

In metropolitan counties, the "ins" were rudely tossed aside by voters angered over high taxes. The city's main casualty turned out to be its school superintendent, whose replacement may bring children improved chances of reading well, figuring better and learning the meaning of their elders' doings in the last half of the 20th century.

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