Comprehending catastrophe

POSTED 11 SEP 2003

1. 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

Accidents at nuclear plants, chemical factories and the electric grid can harm millions of people.

An orange sun rises over dark skyscrapers.Analyzing errors
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, traffic 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.

Space shuttle erupts into the night sky
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
Debris arranged on warehouse floor.

Big technology accidents, in other words, beg for big answers, and that's our goal in this edition of The Why Files.

What caused the Columbia crash?

Can any big technology be failsafe?

What else is going wrong at the Ohio electric utility that starred in the blackout of 2003?

On Feb. 1, luck ran out for space shuttle Columbia. Why?


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Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2003, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.