Today, we uncover some secret disasters. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A recent book by space
engineer James Oberg titled Uncovering Soviet
Disasters deals with what first might seem a
well-worn theme -- that technological disasters are
hushed up in the Soviet Union. But by relentless
documentation, he paints a startling picture that
exceeds anything we might imagine.
And an important message comes through. It is that
by hushing up failure, you create a technology
that's ill-equipped to respond to failure.
Consider, for example, his story of a young girl
who left Karaganda on a plane to Moscow. She never
got there. Her father, in desperation, flew to
Moscow to look for her. His search led him to the
airport police station, where, now a week later, he
was, and I quote, "sternly instructed to keep the
information confidential -- that she was dead,
killed with all the other passengers on her
The Russians are normally more efficient in the way
they report airline deaths. The victim's family is
paid an indemnity equal to about a month's salary,
given an urn with what might be the victim's ashes
in it, and made to understand that they're to keep
their mouths shut about the accident. A
Pravda editor being interviewed by a
Western author told him:
The reader must know something new and good --
what's the point of writing about every [plane
The result of all this is predictable.
Russian pilots have been notorious for failing to
stay on flight paths, plan fuel reserves, or even
equip themselves with proper maps.
Oberg goes on heaping case upon case -- the
Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak, Chernobyl, dead
cosmonauts, the reactor-bearing satellite that
crashed over Canada, and a hundred less-known
disasters. The saddest and most telling of these
are several that involve a loss of Russian life
within reach of American rescue teams they didn't
dare call upon.
Perhaps these things will change with glasnost. I
hope so. The Russians -- along with many Americans
-- scold the American media for making theater of
so much horror. And we do that. But by doing it, we
subject our machines to far more stringent
scrutiny, and they're better machines for it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds