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It’s Friday 13th and if you a superstitious kind of person then you’re probably caressing that lucky rabbits foot like there’s no tomorrow.
We all encounter mishaps and ‘bad luck’, it’s part and parcel of life but what about engineers? Bad luck on an engineering project can be the difference between the design working and the design falling apart once it has been built.
Here we’re going to take a look at some of engineering’s biggest slices of bad luck (coupled with some poor engineering) that has led to disasters of unprecedented scale. Whilst the tragic outcomes of these incidents will have no doubt affected the lives of those involved, we can take respite in the knowledge that some of these disasters have led to improved designs and increased safety for future generations.
1. The Titanic.
Arguably one of the most famous ships to have ever set sail in the history of our seafaring civilisation. The RMS Titanic was touted as the unsinkable ship yet, on her maiden voyage from Southampton in the UK to New York City in April 1912, she sank after hitting an iceberg. At the time, the Titanic was the largest ship ever built and over 1,500 people perished as a result of the sinking ship.
Whilst this bit of bad luck was no doubt the main contributor to the Titanic’s demise, several engineering flaws also helped contribute to it’s sinking as well as the major loss of life.
The first failure of the engineers was the removal of half of the original number of lifeboats planned for the ship. Because she was deemed ‘unsinkable’ the decision to free up deck space with their removal seemed like a good idea. As James Cameron showed in his Oscar winning movie of the same name, the result was that over 1,500 people were unable to board a lifeboat and subsequently perished as the ship sank to its watery grave.
Another issue was that the 16 watertight compartments that kept the boat afloat, were not individually sealed, but rather connected near the ceiling. This enabled the water to spill from one compartment to another and sink the boat.
2. The Hindenburg
On May 6, 1937, the LZ 129 Hindenberg airship brought 30 years of passenger travel on zeppelins to a grinding halt. After leaving Frankfurt airfield on May 3rd, the airship, laden with 36 passengers and 61 officers, crew members, and trainees headed over Europe and onto Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Despite less than favourable landing conditions, the Hindenberg managed to find a window of opportunity to make its landing. At a height of about 180 feet above the ground, the forward landing ropes were dropped. What happened next resulted in the Hindenberg being engulfed by flames as it came crashing to the ground.
The agreed cause for this incident is that when the landing ropes were deployed, they grounded the metal framework of the airship. The difference in electric potential likely caused a spark to jump from the ship’s fabric covering (which had the ability to hold a charge) to the ship’s framework (which was grounded through the landing line). Because the ship was filled with 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen gas, it took only 32 seconds for the airship to be completely consumed by fire.
There was however some good luck to come out of this. 62 of the 97 souls on board actually managed to survive the fire, although this was almost entirely down to where they were located on the airship when it went down.
Sadly, this incident highlighted the dangers of flying around the world in a balloon filled with highly combustible gas and saw a service that had flown thousands of passengers over a million miles on more than 2,000 flights come to an end.
3. Challenger Space Shuttle
January 28, 1986 saw the US space program brought to an abrupt but temporary halt. The space shuttle challenger and her 7 crew onboard, including the first teacher to go into space, came crashing to the ground after just 73 seconds in the air, resulting in the deaths of all those on board.
A common myth is that the ship itself blew up, but this is not correct. Investigations have revealed that the space shuttle's external fuel tank had collapsed, releasing all its liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants. As the chemicals mixed, they ignited to create a giant fireball thousands of feet in the air. The post-flight analysis indicated that the cold temperatures at lift off were certainly a contributing factor, but so was the [SRB] joint's design and [NASA's] decision-making process. It was like a perfect storm of combined circumstances. The shuttle itself, however, was still intact at this point and still rising, but it was quickly becoming unstable.
Sadly, the shuttle could not continue to operate without it’s payload giving it the necessary lift to vacate our atmosphere and so began to come apart in the air. The tail and the main engine section broke off, as did the wings. However, the fuselage remained intact and it appears that the astronauts may have been awake for the entire time the cockpit came crashing down into the sea at more than 321 km/h. A more comforting thought is the possibility that the astronauts lost consciousness during the descent and did not have to see the horrors unfolding in front of them.
In the early hours of 26 April 1986, engineers on the evening shift at Chernobyl's number four reactor began an experiment to see whether the cooling pump system could still function using power generated from the reactor under low power should the auxiliary electricity supply fail. During the process, output dropped too quickly leading to an almost complete shutdown. To compensate, the engineers began to increase output to enable the experiment to continue.
Once output levels were at 12%, the engineers could begin the test. Unfortunately, seconds later, power levels suddenly surged to dangerous levels. The reactor began to overheat, coolant became steam and with power at roughly 100 times the normal levels fuel pellets in the core began to explode, rupturing the fuel channels.
Just after 1am the reactor blew. Two explosions occurred causing the reactors roof to be blown off and radioactive debris scattered into the atmosphere. Because the reactor was now exposed to the air it sucked it in, igniting the flammable carbon monoxide gasses inside causing a fire that burned for 9 days.
The disaster released at least 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and much of the fall out was deposited close to Chernobyl, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. After the accident, traces of radioactive deposits were found in nearly every country in the western hemisphere.
Even today, some farmers are still affected by the Chernobyl disaster and face post-Chernobyl controls. The number of people who have died as a result of Chernobyl is highly controversial. It is known that 2 people died in the initial explosion however the health effects of the radiation could see anywhere from about 5,000 to 200,000 people suffering ill health as a result of the radioactive fallout.
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