Understanding big accidents
2. NASA's failing grade
3. The blame game
4. Accidents: Normal?
5. Holey-headed reactor
The sun rises over the darkened skyline of Manhattan's
Upper West side on Aug. 15, 2003. An electricity blackout robbed power from
millions of people across a vast swath of the northern United States and
southern Canada.AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma
Big technology has this way of going sour in a big way, and as technology gets bigger, accidents affect larger numbers of people:
When the electrical grid spirals out of control, as it did last month,
millions can lose their juice, and get trapped in elevators, subways, airports,
or simple heat and humidity.
When a space shuttle dies, as happened in 1986 and again in February, multiple
deaths become a television event.
When a nuclear plant
melts down, as happened in the USSR in 1986, millions can be forced from
their homes by radioactive clouds.
When a chemical plant goes haywire, as happened at Bhopal, India in
1984, thousands can die or suffer grievous injury.
Both the blackout and recent virus problems on the Internet demonstrate that
the failure of big technology can makes big problems. As technologies become
ever more tightly linked, problems that come from unrecognized directions can
have unexpected impacts. To name just one example, the blackout silenced many
cell phones, which sometimes function as a lifeline when land lines go bad.
ABOVE: In brighter days, the lift-off of a shuttle was
enough to throb the heart, and deafen the ears. Photo: NASA
BELOW: This was all that remained after shuttle Columbia's
crash. The shards and shreds laid in state in a hanger at Kennedy Space Center,
Florida. Photo: Columbia
Accident Investigation Board
Big technology accidents, in other words, beg for big answers, and that's our goal in this edition of The Why Files.
On Feb. 1, luck ran out for space shuttle Columbia. Why?
There are 1 2 3 4 5 pages in this feature.
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Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah
Goforth, project assistant; S.V. Medaris,
designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature
writer; Amy Toburen, content development
©2003, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.