Blastoffs, Landings, Moonwalks and You – WIF Space Travel

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Unusual Aspects

of NASA’s

Apollo Missions

In July 1969 – five decades ago, and just eight years after President Kennedy challenged the United States to land a man on the moon – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin accomplished the task to international fanfare. They were of course just the tip of the sword. The lunar landings were a massive accomplishment, supported by an international network of communication stations and strategically located ships. It had required advances in the preparation of food and the disposal of waste; the exact determination of contingencies beyond the ken or caring of most of humanity. It was a scientifically determined exercise which required, at the end, the courage of three men strapped atop what was essentially an enormous bomb. At the time, only a few unmanned vehicles had been dispatched to the moon, and more than a few had failed spectacularly.

Scientists, engineers, mathematicians, cooks, tailors, technicians, administrators, politicians, and virtually every discipline known to humanity had contributed to the effort, striving to consider in advance every potential contingency and have in place the means to deal successfully with whatever event may arise. Fifty years later much of their efforts can be viewed as nearly quaint, particularly when one compares the computing power of one’s smartphone with that of the Lunar Excursion Module, which carried Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface of the moon and returned them to rendezvous with their colleague, Michael Collins, in lunar orbit. As with all of humanity’s great leaps forward, there are many aspects little remembered, but which were a part of the event and the community which accomplished it. Here are just a few.

10. NASA took steps to protect the Earth from moon germs, but they weren’t foolproof

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the only two men of Apollo 11 to walk on the moon, but upon their return to the mission’s Command Module they were reunited with fellow astronaut Michael Collins. Thus it was determined by whomever determined such things that all three astronauts could have been exposed to unknown microorganisms while on their journey, and that it was a wise precaution to isolate the three astronauts from the rest of the human race upon their return to earth, at least for a short time. Accordingly NASA constructed a Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) to house the three upon their return, and it was waiting for them aboard USS Hornet. It was, essentially, an Airstream trailer which had been properly modified. Since they had made contact with other humans as part of exiting the spacecraft floating merrily in the Pacific, those potentially contaminated worthies joined them in the trailer.

Within the confines of the Airstream – which was actually built by Airstream – the three astronauts were seen via television chatting with American president Richard Nixon. What the public did not see was that the astronauts, and those recovery personnel isolated with them, were doing what many vacationers did when temporarily residing in their Airstreams. They were enjoying martinis. Perhaps it was the alcohol which stymied lunar pathogens, or perhaps it was a bit of over-caution on the part of NASA officials, but after three weeks the quarantined men were allowed to return to the life of the living, having exhibited no ill effects caused by moon germs (Not all the time was spent in the Airstream. They were transferred to a larger isolation facility after being flown to Houston). After Apollo 14 (the Apollo 13 astronauts were not quarantined, having never reached the moon) isolating the astronauts upon return was deemed to be unnecessary.

9. A piece from the Wright Brothers’ airplane was carried to the moon by Neil Armstrong

Humanity first achieved powered heavier than air flight in December 1903, when Wilbur and Orville Wright launched their Flyer into the air at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Less than 66 years later the first men walked upon the surface of the moon. Millions of people who were alive when the first flight was accomplished were still alive to see men on the moon. Neil Armstrong, like the Wrights, was an Ohioan, and it was his decision to take to the moon with him a tribute to the men who had not only achieved the first flight, but had developed the principles of control which still determine the ability to fly. To do so he enlisted the help of the Museum of the United States Air Force, also located in Ohio, and obtained pieces of the Wright Flyer, one of muslin fabric from the left wing of the aircraft, the other a piece of wood from the left propeller.

Armstrong took advantage of an authorized piece of equipment carried by the astronauts known as the PPK – NASA speak for the Personal Preference Kit. Basically it was a purse, made of Teflon coated fabric, and roughly the size of a standard lunch box. The space travelers were limited to five pounds or less of personal items, which they were allowed to carry to the moon and back. Although no one knows for certain what else Armstrong took with him to the moon (there has been speculation that personal items which had belonged to his late daughter were carried) the pieces of the Flyer which went to the moon were brought back with him. Both the swatch of fabric and the piece of wood are in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington today, having been, like a man, taken to the moon and returned safely to earth by the end of the decade, as President Kennedy had challenged.

8. The Apollo Program missions were a massive undertaking in terms of workers

It is difficult to accurately estimate the number of people who directly supported the Apollo program and its accomplishment of landing Americans on the moon. Earlier programs, from which some workers had already retired, were essential to the success of Apollo, though they are not usually counted. By the time of the launch of Apollo 11 in July 1969, NASA had already been subjected to cutbacks in other programs. The United States military also provided active duty personnel, particularly the US Navy, whose ships provided the recovery vessels for retrieving returning astronauts and their spacecraft. Other military organizations used the Apollo missions (and other space missions) to hone their missile tracking skills as part of their continuous training towards stymieing the Soviets during the ongoing Cold War. So a true number is somewhat difficult to pin down when counting those who made Apollo a success.

At least 400,000 men and women were directly involved in the successful landing on the moon. Whether this number considers those who were tangentially involved – such as those who prepared the recipe for a space dinner – is debated. Regardless, the effort was truly a national one, involving contractors and subcontractors from virtually every American state. President Kennedy had exhorted “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal” and the nation responded in a manner not seen since the industrial buildup during the Second World War, and unfortunately, not seen since. Each Apollo space mission, including all of the components of the boosters and the Apollo system itself, comprised over 5.5 million individual parts, any of which could have led to a catastrophic failure and the loss of the lives of the three men which rode the system into space.

7. Astronauts returning from the moon signed customs forms asserting items to declare

When Apollo 11 returned from the moon – in the form of the three astronauts and the Command Module, the rest of the equipment remained in space or on the moon – the astronauts were treated to the trappings common to heroes in American tradition. They were visited by the President of the United States. They were interviewed by the press, radio, and television. They were given ticker tape parades and the keys to the city by American towns. Streets were renamed in their honor. Later so were schools, parks, museums, highways, and other sites. But before enjoying any of the perks derived from their mission, they were subjected to the bureaucratic nonsense which is all too often part of modern life (after their period of isolation in the Airstream, that is).

The first men to return from the moon returned to US territory via the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. From there they were flown, ensconced in their Airstream, to Honolulu, then Houston, where they entered the more spacious isolation facility. While in Honolulu they filed forms claiming that they were re-entering the United States with items to declare to customs. The items were dust and rocks collected from the lunar surface. They also had to state, as all international travelers do, their travel itinerary, and they described it as being from Cape Kennedy to Honolulu, with a stopover on the moon. All three astronauts signed the form, declaring it to be “complete, exact, and true” as if they could have possibly deviated, having just completed what was the most closely monitored trip of all time.

6. The Apollo 11 astronauts were among the most closely watched television personnel in history

Apollo 11 provided some of the most dramatic television scenes in history, presented by the astronauts themselves as they continued on their journey, and emphasized by network personnel hosting the broadcasts. Walter Cronkite – an unabashed fan of the American space program – spent hours explaining events as the mission wound on, and his competitors at the other networks did the same. Regularly scheduled television broadcasts were bumped to allow events from space to be viewed by the American public (who were paying for them through their taxes) as well as by the rest of the world. When Neil Armstrong stepped down the ladder of the Lunar Excursion Module, named Eagle by the astronauts, it was seen live on television. So were his early steps on the moon, undoubtedly the most dramatic footage yet created.

It should be no surprise then, to learn that a broadcast prepared by NASA and the astronauts engaged on a space mission should be the recipient of an Emmy award. But it went to the astronauts of an earlier Apollo mission, Apollo 7 in October 1968. Apollo 7 never left earth orbit as the astronauts went on an eleven day mission which tested the components of the program’s Command Module. Astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walter Cunningham were awarded a special Emmy award that year for their nightly broadcasts of what came to be known as the “Wally, Walt, and Donn Show,” during which they demonstrated eating in space and other daily evolutions. Later Schirra revealed that he had wanted to televise astronauts using the relief tube to answer the call of nature while in orbit, but his bosses in Houston demurred.

5. When astronauts needed clothes that moved with them, a bra manufacturer came to the rescue

As early as 1962 NASA was evaluating and testing spacesuits to be worn by the Apollo astronauts, cognizant of the fact that unlike suits to be worn only within the confines of a space capsule, the Apollo astronauts would require better range of motion and comfort. Of particular concern were the suits to be worn by the astronauts on the surface of the moon. Two companies led the bidding process to produce the Apollo suits, International Latex Corporation and Hamilton Standard. Hamilton tried to muscle ILC out of the process, but Hamilton’s spacesuits failed to make the grade required by NASA, with a great deal of the criticism coming from the astronauts themselves (the astronauts were heavily involved in all aspects of crew comfort and safety throughout the manned space program). ILC became the lead developer and manufacturer of space suits, a position it retains in the 21st century.

ILC is better known by its current name, Playtex. In 1962 it was a subsidiary of Playtex, known primarily as a manufacturer of two types of women’s undergarments, brassieres and girdles. Although girdles are all but unknown in current women’s fashions, in 1962 they were still considered a foundation (ahem) of the lingerie industry. The suit produced for the Apollo astronauts weighed just over 100 pounds minus the astronaut, and when the latter and his support pack were included the total was around 500 pounds, depending of course on the weight of the astronaut. It is a little known fact that at the same time the women’s lib movement was beginning to exhort their sisters to burn their bras, a suit designed and made by a bra manufacturer was preventing astronauts from being burned up in space. By the way, as of 2019, Playtex no longer manufactures girdles, preferring to concentrate on something called shaping wear.

4. Some of the astronauts carried contraband to the moon

America’s astronauts had an established history of smuggling unauthorized objects into space with them, to the everlasting frustration of their earthbound bosses. John Young once flew into space (Gemini 3) taking along a corned beef sandwich, mostly as a joke on his traveling companion, Gus Grissom. Both astronauts took bites from the sandwich before concerns over errant crumbs forced Young to return it to his pocket. The incident drew debate in the House of Representatives and other political posturing and drew Young a reprimand, though according to Young it was neither the first nor the last sandwich to be smuggled into space by astronauts less than enthralled with the NASA prepared official cuisine available. Alan Shephard took smuggling contraband a step further. He took along a golf club on his journey to the moon.

Specifically, he took the head of a six iron, specially modified by an accomplice (a Houston golf pro named Jack Harden) to fit an authorized piece of equipment to serve as a shaft. In the manner of golfers everywhere, Shephard also smuggled along golf balls with great secrecy, enabling him to play while his spouse thought him at work. While on the lunar surface, Shephard took out club and balls, and became the only man to hit a golf ball (thus far) while standing on the moon. According to Shephard, he shanked the first shot. On his mulligan he hit the ball “flush and it went at least 200 yards”, nice distance for a one-handed shot while wrapped in an over one-hundred pound Playtex space suit. The United States Golf Association Museum in New Jersey has the modified six iron, donated to it by Shephard at the suggestion of Bing Crosby. The balls still lie on the surface of the moon. Shephard never revealed to the world what brand they are.

3. Communion has been taken, but not served, on the surface of the moon

The second man to set foot on the surface of the moon was Edwin E. Aldrin, known to his fellow astronauts as Buzz. Aldrin was, in addition to being a veteran combat pilot (he flew 66 missions in Korea, shooting down two enemy planes), the first astronaut to hold a PhD (Astronautics, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and a veteran of walking in space, an Elder at Webster Presbyterian Church. While on the surface of the moon and while awaiting his commander’s first steps on the lunar surface, Aldrin took communion, an event witnessed by a respectful Neil Armstrong, who did not participate. Aldrin took communion in the form of both water and wine, with the foreknowledge of mission controllers on the ground. The event was kept from the media at the time, since NASA was already involved in a lawsuit regarding the astronauts having read from the Bible during the mission of Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve, 1968, an event broadcast to the earth on television.

Aldrin used a communion kit which had been presented to him by the pastor of his church. He poured the communion wine into a vessel and reported on the qualities it displayed in the severely lower gravity as a matter of scientific observation. Many years later (in 2009) Aldrin reflected that had he the opportunity to repeat his act, he would not do so, since the rite was a Christian one and thus not reflective of the mission’s self-stated intent to be for “all mankind.” There are other examples of astronauts taking part in religious rites while deployed in space, particularly on the space shuttle missions and while serving aboard the International Space Station, but Aldrin’s communion is the only such act to have been performed on the surface of the moon.

2. Humanity has left tons of trash and refuse on the surface of the moon

For the most part, the moon and Las Vegas have in common that what happens there stays there. There have been six manned moon missions, all completed by the United States. Twelve men, all Americans, have trod upon the lunar source. No man has ever gone back. Nearly all of the equipment taken to the moon by the missions was left behind. In return for the soil samples and rocks which Americans took from the lunar surface, left behind have been cameras, flags, shovels and other small tools, the bases of the six lunar modules, lunar rover excursion vehicles (yes, there are abandoned cars on the moon), and a host of other detritus. At least one bird feather remains there (falcon) and a hammer. The two items were used in an experiment mirroring those of Galileo, and then left to lay.

The Apollo missions aren’t the only source of man-made detritus on the moon, many unmanned space missions which reached the moon are of course still there, some of them Soviet property, making America not the only earthbound nation to litter the moon. Most estimates are that there are upwards of 400,000 tons of earth-made trash lying around,waiting for the next lunar explorer to encounter. In fact there is so much trash on the moon that missions to recover some of it have been proposed, as a means of studying the long term impacts of radiation and the lunar environment on man-made materials. The NASA History Program Office maintains an inventory of items known to have been abandoned or lost on the moon, visible online. Among the items listed is a Gold Olive Branch (sic) and just a bit lower on the same page, a Defecation Collection Device.

1. Armstrong and Aldrin both claimed that they could smell the lunar surface

Beginning with Armstrong and Aldrin, and confirmed by subsequent lunar explorers (unanimously) the surface of the moon had, or has, a unique but readily noticeable smell. First noticed by the Apollo 11 astronauts at the end of their first stroll around Tranquility Base (as they named the landing site in July 1969), it remained a subject of discussion among the small fraternity of men who have seen the earth while standing on the moon. The astronauts all noticed the smell upon re-pressurizing the cabin of the lunar module, allowing them to remove their helmets. Dust and other residue present on their boots, suits, and gloves gave off the smell, which several likened to gunpowder. Spent gunpowder. An interesting phenomena is that the smell is not detected emanating from lunar samples examined back on earth. It was only present in the lunar module, shortly after completion of re-pressurization.

While all of the astronauts who walked on the moon agreed on the existence of the smell and its similarity to the odor of gunpowder, none have ever agreed to explanations of what the smell was, or why it was not replicated when examining samples on earth. But the smell was bothersome at the time, as some scientists believed that lunar dust collected by the astronauts could spontaneously combust when exposed to oxygen, a worry not lost on Armstrong and Aldrin. Armstrong collected a handful of dust while on the moon, depositing it in a pocket rather than a sample bag, and placed it on a flat surface while the LEM was re-pressurized for the first time, ready to act should the sample begin to smolder. It did not, and the two astronauts returned to earth. The strange smell of the moon is a mystery which began, rather than ended, with man’s first trip to the moon.


Blastoffs, Landings, Moonwalks and You –

WIF Space Travel

When Bad Goes Happen – WIF Engineering Boo Boos

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Tragic Engineering

Miscalculations

In Space and Terra Firma

Engineers are one of the most important behind-the-scenes groups of people, and most of us just take them and their work for granted. The truth is that there can only be so many designers, and the vast majority of engineers do the un-glamorous, but no less important work, of building, testing, and improving things for safety to make sure nobody gets hurt and no one has to pay for large amounts of property damages. However, when you don’t hire enough skilled engineers to properly focus on safety, and do that all-important work that they do, you can end up with examples like the 10 tragic events in today’s list.

10. The Deepwater Horizon Disaster Gushed 130 Million Tons Of Oil Into The Ocean

Back in 2010, BP’s Deepwater oil rig, operated by the Switzerland based company Transocean Ltd., suffered a massive blowout, and the world watched in shock and horror. Eleven people died and 17 were injured in the initial blowout, and immediately people wanted to know how it had happened. But soon, something even more important became apparent: Due to the fact that the well was 35,055 feet under water, which was far deeper than any well in existence (and the only one that was in truly deep water), the oil that started leaking out quickly became a huge concern.

For years BP and Transocean had contended to regulators that their oil rig was fine because they were prepared for cleanup, but all they had were the same techniques that worked in shallow water. No company, BP or otherwise, had any real plan for how to stop a gushing oil leak coming out of the ocean floor in actually deep water. BP took 87 days before they managed to plug the leak, and during that time an estimated 130 million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, with the Audubon Society estimating a good one million birds and other marine life were killed by the spill. As for how it all occurred, it turned out there wasn’t a single reason the oil rig suffered a blowout. It was caused by multiple failures that could have been prevented in time if not for lax regulators, and a lax company culture from both BP and Transocean Ltd.

9. Earthquakes May Have Damaged The Fukushima Reactors Long Before The Tsunami

Most people know that that there was a meltdown at the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant after a tsunami several years back, but many don’t know the official story — or at least what some suspect is the true cause. The official story is that an earthquake knocked out the power to the plant, but apart from that it left the plant largely unharmed and functioning just fine. In fact, according to this official story, the plant only failed when the tsunami came along and destroyed their backup generators, after which the plant’s cooling system stopped working and the meltdown occurred.

However, investigative reporters who interviewed workers that had been at the plant when the earthquake occurred offer a version of events that differs a bit from that of the Japanese government. Many of them claim they saw significant damage to pipes, some of which led to cooling systems for the reactors. Others saw serious structural damage or other issues and claim they were already told to evacuate because of oxygen tanks exploding and pipes bursting well before the tsunami hit. Then, as they were leaving, the tsunami warning came and they had to go to the top of the building to wait to be rescued. While the government version of the events calls into question the safety of a reactor near the coast (due to the possibility of a tsunami), the second version of events calls into question any reactor of a similar design that is in any kind of earthquake zone at all.

8. The Challenger Disaster Was Caused By An O-Ring, But Only Because Of Poor Decisions

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger was set to launch and it was going to be a truly epic affair. A schoolteacher had been chosen to join the six astronauts, in order to show that even normal civilians could go into space, and children around the country were watching the launch from their classrooms on that cold Tuesday morning. Unfortunately, the festive atmosphere soon turned tragic as the shuttle exploded before reaching the upper atmosphere, killing all seven people aboard. The Secretary of the State at the time, William P. Rogers, formed a commission to find the root cause.

They quickly found that the technical cause was a faulty o-ring. This small piece of plastic helped form seals in between the parts of the rocket boosters, and doesn’t operate well in cold — it tends to lose its elasticity. In fact, the commission found that despite knowing the o-ring didn’t function well below 53 degrees, they went ahead with the launch despite it being 36 degrees outside that morning. The commission found that there were concerns about the o-ring, but that they never reached the top of the chain of command. This is believed to have been due to incredibly poor communication, and that the top brass was desperate to get the launch done in time for Reagan’s State of the Union, so they weren’t particularly interested in learning about potential last minute problems that would delay the launch.

7. The Columbia Disaster Could Potentially Have Been Avoided As Well

The Columbia was a storied space shuttle that had been flying for decades and was set for its final mission. After many delays, it took off with a crew of seven on January 16, 2003. As the shuttle was launching, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the propellant tank and hit the left wing. Engineers at NASA tried to look at it with every camera angle they could and see how bad the damage was, but it was hard to make out. Now, NASA’s top management was not particularly concerned, as foam insulation had broken off at three launches in the past and hadn’t caused any critical damage. However, some felt that this time it might be critical, and pushed to use satellites to get a closer look.

Unfortunately, no one took that look during the Columbia’s two week mission, partly because some of the top brass felt there would be nothing they could do at that point even if critical damage had occurred. Then, on February 1, 2003, the space shuttle reentered Earth’s atmosphere and broke apart, killing all aboard and scattering debris far into the distance. The damage to the wing allowed the heat from reentry — along with the wind — to basically tear it apart, and after that the rest of the shuttle wasn’t far behind. While those in charge had decided to do nothing while the crew was in space, thinking nothing could be done, they were wrong. Later studies found that rescue, or even a possible repair by spacewalk, could have been done — NASA’s top management just didn’t take the danger that seriously.

6. The Apollo One Fire Almost Put An Early End To US Ambitions To Fly To The Moon

On January 27, 1967, NASA was testing their Apollo One command module, in advance of attempting a potential flight to the moon. There were three astronauts aboard: Roger Chaffee, Ed White, and Gus Grissom, and they were bolted into the pressurized compartment to begin the launch tests. While the tests were not proceeding particularly well and they were having technical issues, things were not anything beyond frustrating until the call of “Flames!” came over the communications equipment from inside the command module. The workers outside did everything they could to get the door open, but by the time they had, it was too late and all three astronauts were dead — the Apollo program was then shelved for 18 months while the situation was investigated.

The United States lost three pioneering astronauts that day, but at least NASA did learn something from the situation. It turns out that a single spark from a faulty piece of equipment had spread like wildfire in the all-oxygen environment of the cabin, and to make matters worse, most of the material they were sitting on and around was highly flammable. On top of that, the highly secured door usually took a good minute and a half to open at the best of times, and with the extra pressure in the air from the fire, they just really didn’t have a chance. While this should have been something NASA accounted for to begin with, they made future doors much quicker to open, replaced the flammable materials, and made the air an oxygen and nitrogen mix that would not so easily spread fire all over the place.

5. The Boeing 737 Max Crashes And Subsequent Scandal Are Harming Boeing’s Reputation

On October 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 went down over the Java Sea carrying a full load of passengers — 181 passengers and eight crew members all perished. Then, on March 10, 2019, Ethiopia Airlines Flight 302 crashed and took 149 passengers and eight crew members with it. While plane crashes are always alarming, experts noticed that there were similarities between the two crashes, and that both involved the new Boeing 737 Max Jet.

The system that allegedly caused all the trouble was called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation Systems, or MCAS for short. The system used two sensors to determine the nose of the planes’ so called “angle of attack” and adjust it if it thinks it is necessary, even if the pilot disagrees. On the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, the black box showed that the plane was dangerously changing the angle of attack, and despite the pilot and copilot’s constant and best efforts, they could not prevent an uncontrollable nosedive.

Boeing has been under fire because regulators around the world allege the system did not have enough redundancy to spot malfunctions, that pilots were not given proper knowledge of it (or proper training for it), and that the limited information they did give on how to deal with a malfunction was used by the pilot and copilot in the Ethiopian Airlines crash and that it did not save them. Due to the loss in reputation, Boeing has had to scale back production to 42 jets from 52 and the 737 Max remains grounded worldwide until Boeing satisfies people’s fears.

4. The Chernobyl Disaster Was Caused By A Poorly Done Safety Test And Inadequate Design

The Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26, 1986, when Soviet engineers were doing a test on the number 4 reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in order to ascertain if the emergency water pumps could be run on inertial power. In order to prepare for their test, they actually disabled the emergency safety systems of the reactor the night before. They also removed quite a few of the control rods for the reactor as well, which are used to control power output. When their experiment didn’t work and they started to worry about meltdown, they reinserted all 200 control rods at once, which turned out to be a fatal mistake. The rods had graphite tips, which when inserted under already volatile circumstances caused a chemical reaction that blew the concrete and steel roof right off the reactor.

The disaster killed two people immediately, and at least 28 workers later succumbed to radiation poisoning. The fallout is said to have poisoned thousands and it led the entire world to put a lot more thought and effort into nuclear safety. The disaster was such a gigantic blow to the Soviet Union that Mikhail Gorbachev later lamented that it may have been Chernobyl that truly led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

3. The Grenfell Tower Fire Highlighted The Possibility Of Future, Similar Tragedies

On June 14, 2017, a fire rapidly spread through Grenfell Tower in West London. By the time the smoke had cleared, upwards of 80 people had died and dozens more were injured. The tragedy became global news and the entire world looked on in horror, as we all watched the building burn before our eyes. It was quickly discovered that the reason the fire was able to spread so rapidly was due to a cladding on the outside of the building, which was there both to spruce up the design and also slightly increase energy efficiency. Now, this cladding is usually aluminium, and has some kind of filler inside, and those fillers can be fire retardant. Unfortunately, the filler in the cladding at Grenfell tower was highly flammable, and the fire quickly raced all around the building.

After the tragedy, authorities in London have now inspected a lot of buildings that have cladding, and found that most of them failed safety tests. This highlights a serious public safety concern, as it means there are many, many more buildings at risk of simple fires raging out of control.

2. The Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkway Collapse Killed 114 People And Injured Another 216

On July 17, 1981, there was a Tea Dance at the Hyatt Regency Hotel In Kansas City, and the ballroom was hosting about 1,600 people. The hotel had four floors, and upper walkways that extended across the main lobby area. The fourth floor walkway was positioned above the second floor walkway, and a couple dozen or so people were watching the dance from the walkways above the lobby. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the fourth floor walkway collapsed on top of the second floor walkway, which then collapsed the whole pile onto the dancing couples below.

The aftermath was utterly appalling and rescue workers likened it to a war zone. 114 people were killed and 216 were injured. Many of them were crushed in half, and others were suffocated or dealt with other awful injuries. Unsurprisingly, an inquest into the matter occurred as people wanted to know why such a catastrophic failure would happen. The issue was the second floor walkway had originally been intended to be suspended from the stronger ceiling supports, but was instead suspended from the fourth floor walkway. As for how such a bad decision could be made, the change was actually approved over the phone.

1. The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 Killed 21 People And Injured 150 More

If you haven’t heard of this tragic story before, it’ll likely sound too bizarre to be true. On January 15, 1919, a tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses ruptured in Boston’s North End. The stories say that its initial speed was 35 miles-per-hour, and that it reached a wave of 25 feet high and 160 feet wide; 21 people were killed and at least 150 more were injured by the time all the molasses had settled. Many who were close to the explosion were simply pulverized, and others drowned in the goop as the kinetic forces dissipated and it turned back into its highly viscous consistency.

Back in the day they were never really sure what happened, but recent investigations have discovered that the tank was almost certainly just not adequate for the job. It was too thin, and while built to hold 2.5 million gallons of liquids, it wasn’t designed for a thicker liquid that might weigh more — like molasses — and had even shown signs of cracks that were ignored by the owners and operators of the tank. Some reports even say it was leaking so badly before it burst that children would come with cups to fill up from the cracks. It just goes to show that sometimes, on rare occasions, molasses actually flows quickly in January.


When Bad Goes Happen –

WIF Engineering Boo Boos

Engineering HOF – WIF Into History

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History’s Greatest

Engineering Achievements

The history of civilization is replete with examples of humanity improving the world in which it lives. Through ingenuity, imagination, and hard work, humanity has spanned rivers, built roads, erected cities, and created the infrastructure to connect them. Some projects took centuries to complete; others were finished with alacrity, driven by immediate needs. Many were treated with derision by contemporaries who considered the vision of their proponents’ to be delusional. Some — the Panama Canal being one example of many — were completed only after a spectacular and expensive failure during earlier attempts. Still others were spurred by the competition between nations and empires

Spectacular feats of engineering preceded the term engineer. The master builders and visionaries evolved over the centuries from mathematicians (spontaneously, it would seem) across the globe. The Great Wall in China, the pyramids of the Maya and Aztec cultures, the cities of the ancient world all were accomplished by engineering, though the builders and designers were unaware that they were engineers. Over the centuries, engineering accomplishments were directed at the worship of gods and heroes, the improvement of societal life, and to simply celebrate the spirit of humanity. Here are 10 of the greatest engineering achievements in history.

10. The Roman Water Distribution System

Three centuries before the beginning of the Common Era the Roman Republic, later the Empire, distributed water throughout its dominions using a system of canals, pipes, reservoirs, standing tanks, and aqueducts. Entirely through the use of gravity the Romans distributed fresh water to cities and towns, as well as to mines and farms. Some of the aqueducts still stand, architectural marvels built by laborers under the supervision of surveyors and master builders. By the end of the third century the city of Rome was serviced by eleven separate water conduits distributing water throughout the city, and in the case of the wealthier citizens directly into their homes. Poorer residents resorted to public wells and baths.

The empire was serviced with water systems as well, operated by both local governments and the state. Natural springs were the preferred sources of water. Easements were established by law on either side of the conduit’s pathway. The waterways were liberally supplied with inspection points – which would today be called manholes – and the water was routinely inspected for purity. Lead pipes were used in some sections, though the use of ceramic piping was preferred, and sections of the aqueducts which were of concrete were lined with brick, to prevent erosion and to help filter the water. The system was so well designed and built that there are sections still in use for the distribution of fresh water nearly 20 centuries after they were built.

9. The Cathedral of Hagia Sophia

Built as a Christian church and later converted to an Islamic mosque, the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia is today a museum, and an iconic image of Turkey. Originally constructed in the sixth century it has survived rioting, looting by conquerors, earthquakes, fires, and the ravages of time. Built chiefly of masonry, it is easily recognized by its corner minarets and its massive dome. Built and rebuilt many times over the years, it remains a symbol of Byzantine architecture, and for over 1,000 years Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world. Its design was revolutionary in its day.

The huge dome is set upon a square base, supported by four triangle shaped pendentives in the square’s corners. The pendentives carry the weight of the dome and direct it downwards, rather than outwards as the shape of the dome would otherwise dictate. Though the dome collapsed on more than one occasion, and was modified during rebuilding to include ribs which help distribute its weight to the supporting walls, each rebuilding strengthened it and improved the overall structure of the building. Hagia Sophia is a museum of both the Christian and Islamic faiths, as well as the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades. It remains one of the largest masonry buildings in the world in the 21st century.

8. The Leshan Buddha

Carved from a single stone and completed in the early ninth century, the Great Buddha of Leshan stands over 230 feet tall, with a breadth across the shoulders of 92 feet. It is the tallest statue of Buddha to be found in the world, carved from the sandstone of a cliff overlooking the junction of the Min and Dadu Rivers in Sichuan. Ordinarily sandstone would be easily eroded by the rainwater which has fallen on the statue over the centuries. That it hasn’t is a tribute to the ingenious engineering which controls the flow of water through and behind the statue, which has served to protect it since its completion circa 803 CE.

The Leshan Buddha includes over 1,000 coiled hair buns, of stone, which are placed on the statue’s head. They were designed to collect rainwater, and to route it to a system of drains and drainpipes which allow the water to flow through the statue’s head and arms, draining out the back, behind the stone clothes and away from the statue, protecting it from the effects of erosion. The system was installed as part of the original carving. Originally protected by a wooden shelter which was destroyed by the Mongols, the statue has stood exposed to the elements for seven centuries, with its drainage system protecting it from erosion. Today the greatest threat to the statue is the heavily polluted air of the region, a factor its designers could not have anticipated.

7. The Erie Canal

Between the Hudson River and Lake Erie land elevation increases by about 600 feet. Canal locks of the day (1800) could raise or lower boats about 12 feet, which meant that at least 50 locks would be required to build a canal which linked the Hudson with the Great Lakes. President Thomas Jefferson called the project “…little short of madness.” New York’s governor, Dewitt Clinton, disagreed and supported the project, which led to its detractors calling the canal “Dewitt’s Ditch” and other, less mild pejoratives. Clinton pursued the project fervently, overseeing the creation of a 360 mile long waterway across upstate New York, which linked the upper Midwest to New York City. The cities of Buffalo, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio, thrived once the canal was completed, in 1825.

The engineering demands of the canal included the removal of earth using animal power, water power (using aqueducts to redirect water flow), and gunpowder to blast through limestone. None of the canal’s planners and builders were professional engineers, instead they were mathematics instructors, judges, and amateur surveyors who learned as they went. Labor was provided by increased immigration, mostly from Ireland and the German provinces. When it was completed in 1825 the canal was considered an engineering masterpiece, one of the longest canals in the world. The Erie Canal’s heyday was relatively short, due to the development of the railroads, but it led to the growth of the port of New York, and spurred the building of competing canals in other Eastern states.

6. The Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge was originally envisioned by John Roebling, who had built suspension bridges of shorter spans across the Ohio River and at other locations. The project in Brooklyn and Manhattan led to an accident which cost Roebling his life, and the engineering challenges passed to his son, Washington Roebling. Washington was stricken with the bends early in the construction, and was forced to supervise the project from his Manhattan apartment. The engineering challenges were difficult; wooden caissons were sunk to the bottom of the East River, with men inside them to excavate the river bottom until the caissons reached bedrock. In the case of the east tower supporting the bridge, they never did. The tower rests on sand to this day.

It took 14 years to complete the project, from 1869 -1883. Often described as a suspension bridge, the structure is in reality a hybrid suspension/cable stayed bridge, with the load of the span transferred by wire cables to the towers, and thence to the bedrock on the Brooklyn side, and the sand over the bedrock on the Manhattan side. In the 21st century it carries six lanes of traffic as well as bicycles and pedestrians, though it no longer accommodates rail traffic, nor commercial vehicles. It was considered the engineering masterpiece of the world at the time of its completion, spanning nearly six thousand feet, and linking the formerly separate cities of Brooklyn and New York.

5. The Eiffel Tower

Gustave Eiffel built the iconic symbol of Paris – indeed of all of France – to serve as the gateway to the 1889 World’s Fair. Contrary to popular belief, Eiffel did not design the tower, instead purchasing the patent rights to the design from engineers within his employ. He then signed a contract for the construction of the tower acting as himself, rather than as his company, and later set up another company to handle the management of the tower and the income derived from it. The design of the tower was controversial from the outset, with artists and engineers complaining of its lack of aesthetic value. It was said that French writer Guy de Maupassant ate at the restaurant in the tower after its completion because it was the only place in Paris from which the tower could not be seen.

The ironwork was delivered to the site with holes for connecting bolts pre-drilled, and as they were installed the tower was brought into proper alignment through the use of hydraulic jacks installed near the four feet of the structure. Creeper cranes climbed the legs of the tower to erect each succeeding level. The tower was declared complete in March 1889, at the time the tallest man-made structure in the world. It reached the height of 1,063 feet and remains the tallest structure in Paris. The tower was to have been dismantled in 1909, under the terms of the original contract, but its usefulness as a radio transmitter gained it a longer lease on life. By the end of the twentieth century the idea of dismantling the tower was unthinkable.

4. The Panama Canal

The 51-mile long cut across the Isthmus of Panama was a dream for many decades prior to the French beginning its construction in 1881. During the building of America’s Transcontinental Railroad, equipment for use in the Sierras was shipped from the east coast of the United States to Panama, transferred across the Isthmus, and then shipped to California. Engineers for years studied the building of a canal before the French attempted to complete one, but the engineering difficulties combined with the climate and politics to thwart their efforts after more than two decades. The United States stepped in where the French failed, and completed the canal in 1914, after another ten years of work.

The canal is actually two canals, connected on either end with an artificial lake, Lake Gatun, located 85 feet above sea level. Locks on the two canals raise or lower ships to or from the level of the lake, allowing them to traverse from Atlantic to Pacific, or vice versa. The canal allows ships to transfer from one ocean to the other in just under twelve hours. It was the engineering decision to abandon the sea level canal design favored by the French and instead create Lake Gatun through the building of Gatun Dam (then the largest dam in the world) and install locks to raise and lower ships which allowed the Americans to succeed in completing the dam, which changed shipping lanes and inter-ocean traffic forever.

3. The Channel Tunnel

For centuries the British Isles remained unconnected to the European continent, a situation which many Britons favored as critical to their national security. Numerous proposals for a tunnel beneath the channel were put forth, but opposition within England and France prevented any serious efforts. Attempts to build tunnels for automobile traffic were started and stopped in the mid-to-late 20th century. Finally, in the late 1980s, after the usual political and professional maneuvering among governments, businesses, and financiers, work on the tunnels for high speed rail trains got underway, already bearing the nickname by which it is best known today, the Chunnel.

The tunnel was built from both sides, using massive tunnel boring machines – TBMS – to approach each other. The machines bore through what is mostly chalk, though the varying geology of the French shore created some difficulties. Both the French and English used the removed spoil for land reclamation projects. The tunnels were lined with both cast iron and reinforced concrete. When completed, the tunnel provided electrical power to the trains running through it via overhead lines. The tunnel opened in 1994, and today allows for a trip from London to Paris in just over two hours. The tunnel also allows for freight traffic delivering goods manufactured throughout Europe to be imported to Britain, and British goods to find markets on the continent.

2. Burj Khalifa

The world’s tallest structure as of 2019, Burj Khalifa is a mixed use skyscraper in Dubai, which was completed in 2009. The building was designed by the same Chicago firm which designed the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in that city, and uses the same engineering principle of bundled tubes at its core to support the building’s weight. The tubular design allowed for substantially less steel to be used in construction, with most of the building being reinforced concrete. Its spire alone, which is mostly decorative, would qualify it as the 11th tallest structure in Europe were it erected on the continent.

The building has an outdoor swimming pool located on the 76th floor, with another on the 43rd floor. A 300 room hotel is located within the building, as well as corporate offices and private apartments. For those of a hardy constitution, 2,909 steps connect the ground floor with the 160th. The observation deck is located on the 124th floor. The surrounding park, known as Burj Khalifa Park, is landscaped with desert plants which are kept hydrated using water collected by the building’s cooling system, which itself relies on the cooler air of the upper portion of the building to decrease the temperatures of the lower portion of the structure.

1. The Apollo Space Program

It remains one of the signature engineering achievements in the history of the human race. No other program has delivered human beings to an environment other than their home planet and returned them safely to earth. Americans not only walked on the surface of the moon, they drove on it, using a battery driven vehicle designed for the purpose, capable of carrying two astronauts and greatly increasing the area which the lunar explorers could cover. It was carried to the moon within the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) and used for the final three moon missions in the early 1970s. In 2003, the National Academy of Engineers called the program the “…greatest engineering team effort in American history.”

The Apollo program led to significant advances in the development of integrated circuitry, contributed to the growing cause of environmentalism, and over 20% of the world’s population watched on television when astronaut Neil Armstrong left the first human footprints on the lunar surface. NASA claimed spin-offs from the space program in the areas of freeze-dried foods, emergency reflective blankets, hand-held portable vacuum cleaners, and more than 2,000 other areas. LASIK surgery is a direct descendant of the technology developed to dock with vehicles in space, first performed as part of the Gemini program, in which astronauts learned the techniques required of Apollo.


Engineering HOF –

WIF Into History