The first time I learned about “it” was sometime in elementary school. I think it was Ms. Bryant who taught us about the Columbia space shuttle disaster. She dumbed it down for us fourth graders to explain how unforeseen circumstances caused a failure in the shuttle’s insulation system.
I didn’t quite understand how air could be so dangerous, but she explained the situation well and became a little sentimental, presumably from having watched the tragedy live on TV. Our class rebuilt the space shuttle with plastic two-liter bottles — a lesson in science and recycling.
A few years later I learned about “it” again. This time I was a pimple-faced teenager who enjoyed space flight and knew a thing or two about friction and mechanics, even though I’d eventually go into software.
I watched a documentary on the Hindenburg disaster. The LZ 129 Hindenburg was an early 20th century blimp (well, technically a Zeppelin, but colloquially a blimp) that serviced commercial flights.
On her 63rd flight, hydrogen somehow leaked and mixed with the outside oxygen. A spark likely set off the explosive ratio. The fiery ordeal was caught on an ancient camera and an audio recording from an American radio journalist became a recognizable classic: “Oh, the humanity!”
That’s what “it” is. “It” is this genre of current events which — as far as I know — does not have a name to describe it.
How do you describe “it”? How do you describe something that is so deeply tragic, but can also be seen as partially heroic?
The latest iteration of “it” happened recently in a commercial underwater expedition to see the Titanic wreckage.
Exactly one Thursday ago, the five passengers on the Titan submersible were officially presumed dead by the U.S. Coast Guard. Not only would their oxygen have run out by then, but the rescue party discovered some debris that matched that of the submersible.
The U.S. Navy later confirmed that there was an implosion caught by its hydrophones near the vicinity, saying the accident could have been caused by the submersible collapsing under the water pressure.
“It” happened again. Another engineering accident causing a tragic loss of life.
The morbidity of these events is what keeps our eyes glued to televisions, which I think has something to do with how our minds process confined spaces. Not only are you stuck somewhere, but you’re stuck in a human-made capsule in some inhospitable place like space or the deep sea.
This is why most people, including myself, are claustrophobic and acrophobic to a certain extent. It’s evolution yelling at us through our reptilian brains: “Get out of there! Get down from there! You need to move to survive.”
But the humanistic parts of these events are what brings tears to our eyes. It’s witnessing the courage of the passengers to board those capsules despite the risks. It’s the ingenuity of overcoming our primitive brains to conquer the Earth and the universe. It’s testament to what we’re truly capable of.
Every time “it” occurs, however, some questions arise.
How could the best minds of NASA not have predicted that? Why did a blimp explode after over 60 successful flights? Why was a submersible being operated with a video game controller?
These are the fair technical questions. Engineering is a tool, not a crystal ball. Sometimes it fails.
But to those fundamentally questioning why anyone would attempt such a thing: It’s a simple human drive.
Our insatiable lust to expand, to conquer, explore and innovate — that drive is what inspires us to climb mountains, swim the ocean depths and walk on the moon. We keep on moving forward, constantly pushing our limits.
We see “it” everywhere, such as in the private sector and in government projects.
I see “it” as an engineer in the automotive industry. Some people think we need more regulation. Some people think we need less regulation. We’ve all seen catastrophic recalls and huge safety concerns throughout the decades.
However, we’ve also seen the transportation revolution that brought the automobile to the common man. Seatbelts weren’t there from the start — it was a lesson we learned because of “it,” this process of pushing our limits to accomplish greater things.
President Reagan, the great communicator, eloquently expressed “it” after the explosion of another space shuttle 17 years earlier, the Challenger:
“And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”
In a twist of irony, the remains of that submersible sunk next to the remains of the Titanic. Both were unfortunate tragedies, but neither were failures. They are part of a process we call life.
They are part of it.