Two accidents have claimed international attention this summer. A Concorde supersonic airliner crashed after takeoff in Paris last month, killing 114 people. Today, the world is riveted by the unfolding disaster involving the Russian submarine Kursk, trapped on the floor of the Barents Sea with 118 sailors aboard. Three rescue attempts have failed, and time is running out.
Both incidents are far from the lives of ordinary people: Few if any of us are ever going to ride in a Concorde or a Russian nuclear sub. But they touch us, nonetheless. Not just because they are tragedies, but because they sharply illustrate our dependence on technology and remind us of a vulnerability in our lives that is usually obscured.
The Concorde has been in service for nearly 25 years. The plane was a high-visibility, prestigious joint project by the French and British governments. Flying on the Concorde — the only supersonic plane in service — was not for everyone, but it was an unmistakable status symbol for those who did.
For a quarter of a century, the plane had an unblemished safety record. Although there were minor mishaps, there were no accidents, no fatalities. Flying the Concorde was the safest form of transportation in the world. That record ended last month, and no one knows why.
Investigators have concluded that the crash was caused by a tire that burst after hitting a piece of metal on the runway. Pieces of the tire flew upward, rupturing a fuel tank. The fuel caught fire. What is troubling about that explanation is that Concorde has had 70 “tire incidents” since it went into service in 1976, and there have been eight modifications of its design to combat the problem. Experts have said that a tire burst should never have caused the plane to crash. So, what happened this time? Regulators in Britain and France have withdrawn the Concorde’s air-worthiness certificate, grounding the plane — perhaps for good — until they get an answer.
Similar questions hang over the Kursk, a 13,000-ton nuclear submarine, the newest and largest such vessel in the Russian fleet. It is stranded 100 meters below the surface of the Barents Sea. No one knows what happened. There are rumors of explosions, but Russian authorities have no idea what drove the vessel to the sea floor; or at least they are refusing to say.
Some confusion is to be expected. There is always some reticence surrounding national-security matters, but that has been compounded by the veil of secrecy that the Soviet government extended over its defense policies; some traditions die hard. Official embarrassment has not helped. Russian President Vladimir Putin played up the strengths of the Russian Navy, and the failings revealed by this accident have undermined the strong-man image he wants to project.
After three failed attempts to effect a rescue, Russian authorities have reportedly asked for help. Britain is sending a rescue vessel, but it may not arrive in time. The accident and the rescue have raised serious questions about the Russian military, its training and preparations on board the submarine. Reportedly, the Russian defense budget now totals about $5 billion a year; in contrast, the United States spends $300 billion a year. An accident, some would say, was inevitable.
Maybe. But this was also the newest and most advanced submarine in the Russian fleet — just as the Concorde was one of the most advanced airplanes in service, and certainly one of the most scrutinized. Others might say that any piece of equipment that operates on the edge of tolerance levels is bound to fail, which is another way of saying an accident was inevitable.
Four years ago, TWA flight 800 exploded after taking off from New York. Despite an intensive investigation, the cause of the disaster remains unsolved. Japan has witnessed a series of incidents at nuclear facilities. Either facility operators are criminally negligent for not having learned to pay more attention to safety, or the complexity of the technologies involved means that risks are a constant and accidents will happen.
We demand efficiency and expect convenience. For both, we depend on our tools. Our reliance will only increase as we proceed deeper into the information revolution. Yet as technology becomes ever more embedded in our lives, it is becoming less visible. The risks are just as great, however, and the price of a breakdown or failure will only increase. Who worried about the prospect of automobile-tire failure a few months ago? The spectacular incidents that we deem “newsworthy” are the most exceptional, but they are not unique. Technology will continue to thrill and delight us — ask anyone who has ridden on a Concorde to describe the experience — but we must never forget the risk involved, ever present, riding in tandem.
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