Similarities between the Titanic and Challenger Disasters

Synchronicity: the "timing together" of otherwise "unrelated" events...

Titanic hit the iceberg on April 14, 1912, at roughly 11:40 p.m... around twenty minutes 'til twelve o'clock.  Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, at 11:39 a.m... around twenty minutes 'til twelve o'clock.  But it's only a coincidence...

Titanic slipped beneath the waves approximately two hours and forty minutes after she hit the berg; Challenger's crew cabin hit the surface of the ocean approximately two minutes and forty seconds after the external tank ruptured.  But it's only a coincidence...

The wreck of Titanic was discovered seventy-three-and-a-half years after she sank; Challenger's final flight lasted seventy-three-and-a-half seconds.  But it's only a coincidence...

An Excerpt from Charles Pellegrino's
Her Name, Titanic
(McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., New York: 1988, pp. 134-141)


Research Vessel: Melville
Expedition: Argo-Rise
Date: Thursday, December 20, 1985
Time: 10:00 A.M.
Place: Somewhere over the East Pacific Rise

ROBERT BALLARD:    You're very confident in space technology, aren't you?

CHARLES PELLEGRINO:    Well, space can be risky business, but I do hope to fly on a Space Shuttle one day, and I know the people who build and maintain those machines.  And I know they give it their very best, just like the people who watch after Alvin.  The thing is, after you've touched Argo -- which literally went down and shook hands with the Titanic -- after you've looked at the pictures, you certainly wouldn't climb into a Space Shuttle and say, "Gee, Charlie, you're one hundred percent safe."

BALLARD:    I think there's a parallel with NASA and the people who built the Titanic, and I think you can see it.  It's probably a recurring theme.  When we conquor a new field of technology, we become overconfident.

PELLEGRINO:    I have no illusions.  I watched the Challenger's wings being built at Grumman.  I watched her grow up frame by frame,and two years ago I watched her fly.  It was that night launch.  A mist had come up and they almost cancelled the mission.  And when she went, the mist reflected all the light and noise back at us, magnified it.  It made you feel humble, and yet, at the same time, it made you feel great, because that tornado of light was man-made and so full of potential, and five people were riding on top of it.  And the next morning we had a meeting.  A man named Joel Taft came in and he brought up the same subject you just did.  He knew I intended to go into space one day, and he told me to get my head out of the clouds.  He told me that one of the solid rocket boosters had burned through its casing even as I watched Challenger fly up.  If it had happened a half minute earlier, before the booster was detached, it could have burned through the external fuel tank and blasted the ship to pieces.  And then he warned me that there were people walking around the Kennedy Space Center -- even astronauts -- who seemed to think Space Shuttle launches were like a bus run.  He explained that the shuttle was an experimental vehicle and that it would always be so.  Yes, we can carry cargo up and down... Yes, we can reuse a spaceship... Yes, we can step outside the ship and build things, and repair satellites...but not until the next generation of shuttles, the runway-launched scramjets, would spaceflight become routine.  He said it is only a matter of time before we have an accident.  There're always accidents in test flight.  It's expected.  You have accidents and you find out where you made mistakes.  Then you make it as safe as you can and move ahead.  Joel Taft thinks our record of successes has deluded some people into thinking spaceflight is already routine.

BALLARD:    You see?  Overconfidence.  Arrogance.  Sooner or later it's bound to happen.

PELLEGRINO:    What?  A Titanic in space?

BALLARD:    Exactly.

PELLEGRINO:    Sure, sometime in the next ten or twenty years, it's bound to happen.

BALLARD:    That's precisely the kind of arrogance I'm talking about.  Sooner than you think, Charlie.  A lot sooner than you think.

39 days later...

Date: Tuesday, January 28, 1986

Houston, we have roll program...Roger, roll Challenger...Three engines running normally.  Three good fuel cells.  Three good APUs.  Velocity 2257 feet per second.  Altitude 4.3 nautical miles.  Downrange distance three nautical miles...Challenger, go with throttle up...Roger, go with throttle up...uh-oh -- crackle -- One minute fifteen seconds.  Velocity 2900 feet per second.  Altitude 9 nautical miles.  Downrange distance seven nautical miles...Flight controllers are looking very carefully at the situation.  Obviously a major malfunction.  We have no downlink...

Date: Friday, February 14, 1986
Place: Viacom Studios, Long Island, New York

JOEL MARTIN:    Charles Pellegrino loves technology.  Absolutely loves it.  You've got a background as a paleontologist, an astronomer, a marine biologist, a spacecraft designer -- a man for all sciences.  Now, perhaps we look at the space program a little differently because of what happened two weeks ago -- January 28, 1986: the Challenger explodes, it disintegrates.  The way it hit you, Charles, emotionally, must have been devastating.

CHARLES PELLEGRINO:    Well, first off, the disaster has not changed my mind about space.  In fact, I'd accept an assignment on the shuttle tomorrow if the offer were given.  I guess I felt what everyone else felt.  I can't say that I've ever felt more helpless in my life about anything, just seeing something that was spectacular and yet, at the same time, horrifying and unbelieveable.  And you wanted to deny it and you couldn't do anything about what was happening before your eyes.  For the first time, I think I could understand what people must have felt sitting in those lifeboats and watching the Titanic go down.

She disappeared into the sea at 2:20 a.m. on Monday, April 15, 1912.

        To those who are old enough to have witnessed, from its beginning, this most incredible century the world has ever known, the Titanic was, more than any other event, a portent of things to come.  She was not the cause of what followed.  She was a symbol...a lesson in uncertainty...a lesson the world must never forget.

        No one -- at least no one in charge -- had anticipated anything worse than penetration by another ship at the junction of two watertight compartments.  She would easily have floated with two compartments full, so they labeled her unsinkable, and the unsinkable ship went down the first time it sailed.

        When he last saw her, on that cold April night, wireless operator Harold Bride pondered the sixth ice warning that had come some three-and-a-half hours earlier.

        "Shut up," Phillips had told the caller.  "We're busy here."

        Smugly confident in the greatest engineering achievement of their day, Phillips and Bride never forwarded that final warning to Captain Smith.  Bride would never be so confident in anything again.  Before the Titanic disappeared, people truly believed that technology could conquer all.  After the Titanic disappeared, there followed the technological nightmares of two world wars.

        By the time she reappeared, seventy-three years later, the belief that great machines could not die had set in again.  Within five months of her discovery, an engineer would protest that ice storms in southern Florida -- as strange as the bitter cold that had swept into the Gulf Stream and doomed the Titanic -- made the Space Shuttle unsafe.

        "What do you want us to do?" he was told.  "Delay the launch till April?"

        And so, on January 28, 1986, ice warnings were once again ignored.  No one -- at least no one in charge -- imagined that it could all go so clearly wrong.

        So clearly wrong... clear as all of history's surprises are, when viewed with 20/20 hindsight.  On that cold January morning, a machine Harold Bride could never have imagined hurled itself against the far sky.  Inside, the most highly evolved electronic brains in the world -- five of them -- sensed the flow of air over the wings, determined direction and speed, and knew their exact height from the ground.  They could predict the consequences of any action, and decided the appropriate actions at lightning speed, by committee voting.  Even without a human crew, Challenger was capable of coming down from space and making a perfect runway landing.

        Fifty-eight seconds into flight, the computers sensed a loss of thrust on one side -- a loss that, left unaccounted for, would have caused Challenger to pinwheel broadside into supersonic wind.  The computers responded so fast that the right wing flap had already moved and the main engines had already swiveled to compensate for the differential thrust before pilots Michael Smith and Francis Scobee could even begin to notice that a problem existed.  But the maneuver had put the ship slightly off course, and the computers turned next to correcting the problem, to pointing the Challenger in precisely the right direction as a bright spot appeared below her and expanded with terrifying speed from a place the computers had no control over.  Even in that expanding hell, she swiveled her left engine, trying to get the trajectory right.  There is something almost humorous in that final, useless gesture -- but don't laugh.  She was only doing her best.

        Twice in one century, Man's proudest machines had crumbled under his feet and disappeared into the Atlantic -- quenching all illusions of safety.

        In retrospect, we know what went wrong, and it is easy to point accusing fingers.  But cruise ships might still be plying the oceans today, with mathematical discrepancies between passengers and seats on lifeboats, if not for the Titanic disaster.

        Strange, how events can come unstuck in time and wrap around themselves.  And strange, too, to think that Bob Ballard might have drowned on the Orca if not for the Coast Guard, and all-night radio vigils, and other safety measures instigated by the loss of the Titanic.  By dying, the Titanic saved him, so he could one day go to the Titanic.

        Titanic...Challenger..."It's part of our vocabulary," Bob had said...a titanic undertaking...a titanic disaster...

        Within minutes of the Challenger explosion, even as an observer at the Kennedy Space Center cried out, "Oh, God!  Don't let happen what I think just happened!" the Pentagon was on the phone to Woods Hole.

        Tom Dettweiler remembers: "The Argo-Rise expedition had ended on December 28, and we had scheduled the robot to be moved off the Melville when we docked in Mexico. Argo was supposed to sit in the storage yard for a week and then be put on a cargo ship and sent to Los Angeles.  But like everything that happens in Mexico, it didn't happen.  And Argo sat there, and sat there, and then the Challenger accident occurred.

        "We were called by the Pentagon and put on alert.  They wanted Argo made ready for the Challenger search, and we immediately got on the phone to find out where our equipment was.  It was in fact still sitting in Mexico, so we got our agents in California working on it.  Within hours Argo was on a ship headed for Los Angeles.  Trucks were waiting when the ship arrived, and our containers were the first to be unloaded.  They put two drivers in each truck and they immediately took off and drove nonstop all the way across the country.

        "Normally, bringing truckloads in from Mexico is a major customs problem.  This time, the customs people put the cargo under bond and placed seals on the trucks.  A customs agent met us at the Woods Hole parking lot when the trucks arrived.  Essentially all he did was open the doors -- which we were doing anyway -- poked his head inside and said, 'You guys got work to do.  Go do it.'

        "And within days of being put on alert, we were ready to go -- yet when we got the first call we didn't even know where our equipment was.  The thing was, after it got here, we didn't quite know where it was going.  The Navy wanted Argo's cameras -- the ones that filmed the Titanic and the East Pacific Rise.  They have an ASA of two hundred thousand, which means they can practically see in the dark.  They didn't want Argo, they just wanted her eyes, to be grafted onto their mini nuclear sub, the NR-1.  I told the commander of the NR-1 that I couldn't give him Argo's cameras because I had a commitment to get Argo ready for the search.  He told me I had to do it, and I said, 'Well, you can't tell me I have to do it unless you can also tell me that I don't have to be ready to respond with Argo.'

        "He made a few quick phone calls around Washington and came back and said, 'No, I can't tell you that.'"

        As it turned out, the cameras went to NR-1, whose crew quickly learned that, sooner or later, Argo must be called to Challenger's grave.  The entire area had to be mapped, because old rocket parts that had been lying on the bottom for twenty years were hard to distinguish from Challenger debris.  The NR-1 searchers wasted a great deal of time investigating false targets.  It was a bone-chilling thought, but maps had to be made, by Argo, so that when it happened in the future, searchers could tell Challenger wreckage from new wreckage.

        And it would happen again.  No bridge was ever built that did not cost lives.  What was unbelievable was that a shuttle accident had seemed unbelievable.  Even after you'd seen it, lying in pieces on the bottom, it was still unbelievable.  The loss of Titanic could not have been very different.

        Titanic...Challenger...Tom Dettweiler pondered the similarities as he waited on call for the Challenger he learned everything he could about the Space Shuttle, as he read about NASA's reemergence from the Apollo 1 disaster.  What troubled him most was the ifs that had piled up against Titanic and Challenger...if they'd seen the berg sooner...if they'd seen the flame sooner...if the watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher...if the insulation had been one-inch thicker...if there had been enough lifeboats...if the escape boosters had not been eliminated to save money...if they'd heeded the warning of ice...if ice conditions had been normal (none at all).  And he considered ten thousand missiles, tucked away in underground chambers, waiting to fly out against the world.  Ten thousand artificial suns igniting in the biosphere.  And it became too painfully clear that, to cause all of them to fly out, the ifs need only pile up against one of them.

        Tom thought these things as he read an epitaph to Apollo 1:

        How do you predict which ifs will get you in the end?  You don't, because you can't see them.  They're hiding down there, in the circuitry, in oxygen tanks, in an overlooked comma that should have gone into the bit error comparator, in innumerable flaws of design and logic that would squeak through undetected.

        They could draw some comfort from the "fact" that they'd dredged up every possibility and subjected it to their engineers' intuition, to the scrutiny of computer simulation, even to physical tests.  But none of these tools could provide a guarantee against questions unasked--and the nightmares that lurked beneath them, waiting to hatch out.

        waiting to hatch out.

        waiting to hatch out.

        waiting to --

        In addition to these similarities between the Titanic and Challenger disasters, there is one further example of "synchronicity" between them that Mr. Pellegrino did not touch upon in his book:

        Comets historically have been regarded as portents of doom, signifying cosmic judgment upon humanity.  They were called "dis-asters"; literally, "bad stars."  Of course, we know that comets are merely dirty chunks of ice and rock orbiting the sun at fantastic distances, occasionally, with the help of a gravitational nudge from a passing star, falling into the inner solar system to bedazzle the eyes of the inhabitants of Earth.  We understand them as relics of creation, carrying within them the primordial elements of the origin of the solar system.  That they could signify disaster and doom is merely a relic of an age of superstition and ignorance.

        But consider this: in the spring of 1910, as the iron skeleton that would ultimately become the Titanic rested in its cradle at the Belfast shipyards of Harland and Wolff in preparation for its first and only voyage, the interplanetary iceberg Halley hung brightly in Earth's skies, raining cometary ice into the atmosphere as Earth passed through its tail.  But it's only a coincidence....

        Then in early 1986, Halley's comet again arced through Earth's skies even as NASA made its final preparations to launch a probe to study the famous comet's structure and composition.  The probe was indeed launched...only to fall to earth minutes later along with the rest of the space shuttle Challenger.  But it's only a coincidence....

Or is it?

A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible
Almost imperceptible
Something inexpressible
Science insusceptible
Logic so inflexible
Causally connectible
Yet nothing is invincible

Effect without a cause
Sub-atomic laws
Scientific pause

The Police

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