We like to think we live in a secure world, and we do. Thanks to technology, we're safer than we've ever been. Of course, sometimes, somebody forgets to tighten a lugnut, or figures you can use just any type of glue, and suddenly things get unsafe, really fast.
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By Dan Seitz
7. The O-Ring That Blew Up The Challenger
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Everybody remembers the Challenger disaster. It suspended the space program for nearly three years, triggered innumerable tributes, and also led to a lot of jerks making jokes about women driving. So what took out an expensive shuttle carefully designed for safety?
One O-ring failing. Yeah, a fifty-cent piece of rubber, and it failed, which caused the joint it was on to fail, which led the booster it was on to fail, which led to the external fuel tank failing, which led to NASA's biggest disaster at the time.
Of course, NASA immediately realized this and took full responsibility by pretending they hadn't known about the whole problem for nine years and that a bunch of their engineers hadn't warned them that this thing was eventually going to blow up right in their faces. Heckuva job, guys.
6. Missile Tech Fails Alegbra, Kills 28 People
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You may have wondered, in math class, why you were learning all this boring stuff about alegbra and fractions and logic. The answer is, someday, you might be in charge of blowing the other guy's missiles out of the sky, and if you screw up, your friends get some explosives for breakfast.
Which is pretty much what happened in the Gulf War because somebody forgot to round an integer properly, leading a Patriot missile to miss hitting a Scud, which landed about the only thing resembling a victory for Iraq in the first Gulf War. Yes, by screwing up math, you can kill people. Still feel good about that C+?
5. Wrong-Sized Bolts Ruin a Pilot's Day
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Tim Lancaster was looking forward to a normal flight in 1990, going from England to Spain. After all, the plane had passed all its pre-flight checks and everything seemed normal, so what could possibly go wrong?
Well, the ground crew, realizing they didn't have the right bolts to install a windshield, just put it in using slightly smaller bolts, also wondering what could possibly go wrong. This question was promptly answered by Lancaster, who was in front of the windshield when it popped off at about 10,000 feet and he was nearly sucked out of the plane.
The only thing that rescued him was the quick thinking of the crew, who saved him by the complex method of grabbing onto his belt and holding on for dear life. The tower could literally see Lancaster sticking out of the window as they were landing the plane. After such a terrible, traumatic experience, Lancaster took stock of his life...and said screw it, I'm going to keep flying. He's still in the air flying for EasyJet.
4. Explosive Bolts Are Both a Good Idea and a Bad Idea
Space travel is, of course, about as dangerous a thing you can do without being a complete moron (covering your crotch with pastrami and walking into a grizzly bear preserve is the most dangerous thing if you're a complete moron, for the record). This is because everything's touchier than your girlfriend after she realized she gained a couple of pounds, and, also like your girlfriend, will explode and kill you at any minute with even the most gentle touch.
For example the crew of Soyuz 11 got the dubious distinction of being the only humans to die in space when a breathing ventilation valve failed. Basically, two explosive bolts blew simultaneously instead of in sequence, and it emptied the whole capsule of air in seconds. Yes, they were literally killed by bad timing.
Meanwhile, on the U.S. side, you've got the less-fatal but no less dramatic Liberty Bell 7 disaster. Once again, it's all about timing: some explosive bolts went off at the wrong time and nearly drowned Virgil Grissom, who was left bobbing in the ocean waiting for a pickup after a successful mission.
This made NASA conclude that explosive bolts were a bad idea, so they didn't put them into Apollo 1, and made the door inward-facing. Which is why when a massive fire broke out on Apollo 1, it actually increased the pressure on the door, meaning the astronauts couldn't open it. Did we mention that half of the capsule was flammable? Including what the astronauts were wearing? And that one of those astronauts was Virgil Grissom? This is what we called "Screwed coming and going."
3. Locked Doors on Airplanes: A Good Idea
So, if we told you an airplane had the hold depressurized, part of the floor of the passenger cabin collapse, and a bunch of people nearly lose their lives, all because of a door latch failing, you'd fix it, right? Especially if there was a huge media firestorm over the fact that a door latch screwing up nearly killed a whole bunch of people?
Well, that exact thing happened to a DC-10, and Douglas claimed to have repaired it. You see, unlike the doors in the actual cabin, which are hard to open because cabin pressure works hard to keep them closed, the cargo doors weren't pressurized, and were basically held together with an eyehook. Oddly, this was not a secure system, as a Turkish flight found out, and over 300 people were killed as a result.
Maybe it was installed by the same mechanics who put on the magic exploding windshield.
2. Remember, Always Clean Your Nuclear Reactor
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Three Mile Island was, of course, a pretty memorable nuclear disaster. It was the most dangerous accident on U.S. soil, pumping out millions of curies in radioactive gases and generally just reinforcing our desire never to go to rural Pennsylvania.
And what, you ask, caused this? Why, a valve that got stuck open! Yes, really. One small valve got stuck, and while they were trying to figure out whether this valve had gotten stuck, the primary system failed because of it, dumping coolant and leading to a partial meltdown of the reactor. Of course, it's not like we'd miss Harrisburg, but that's still kind of stupid.
1. One Nut Makes the Difference Between Living and Dying on Helicopters
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Helicopters are incredibly complex machines entrusted with difficult tasks. They fly our soldiers, fly our ill to hospitals, and are used by insanely rich people to race over deserts. And, naturally, they have plenty of redundant systems to keep from falling from the sky into massive fireballs.
Well, except for one minor thing: namely, the rotor on the top of the helicopter that's attached by one nut. Safe, huh?
Not surprisingly, this nut has the nickname "the Jesus nut" because of one of two stories: the first claims that if the nut fails, all you can do is pray to Jesus. Which is considerably more optimistic than the other version, which is if the nut fails, you'll be meeting Jesus.
Upbeat guys, those helicopter pilots.