The moments preceding a disaster can tick by in slow motion. Flying down a highway in a runaway truck, cars fading in reverse, trees in a snapshot, doom can seem a foregone conclusion.
But the path to disaster or salvation can be decided by the flick of a wrist -- or, in the case of nuclear reactors badly damaged by the 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan in March 2011, the decision to flood the cores with seawater in a last-ditch attempt to cool the rods, then the rush to remove that water lest the casings corrode.
It all comes down to the wisdom of those final, Hail Mary schemes -- and probably some luck as well. Whether it's the threat of meltdown, a collapsing ecosystem, a cave-in, an unstoppable oil spill, a mass suicide or a spaceship headed for oblivion, when there's time to think, there's time to try anything and everything to save the day.
Sometimes those efforts prevail. Sometimes they don't.
In this article, we'll take a look at five attempts to avoid a terrible end, some of which succeeded in doing the impossible. We'll begin in 1970, with a spaceship stranded about 200,000 miles (321,868 kilometers) from Earth …
Apollo 13, 1970
On April 11, 1970, the goal was to land on the moon. By April 13, the goal was to get astronauts Lovell, Swigert and Haise back to Earth in one piece. Or at all.
Crippled by oxygen-tank explosions and the loss of all but one fuel cell, Apollo 13 found itself stranded in space without full power and water reserves and quickly running out of air and other life-support systems.
Mission Control and the crew had four days to completely rework the processes for navigating and powering up a spaceship. At their disposal were the few working systems onboard and what would turn out to be unmatched ingenuity and resourcefulness.
The crew shut down power in the Command Module, then moved into the undamaged Lunar Landing Module (LM) and sealed it off. What followed was a desperate flurry of brainstorming, action and life-threatening measures implemented over the course of about four days.
To conserve power, they let the temperature inside the spaceship drop to 38 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius). To conserve water, astronauts drank 6 ounces (0.177 liters) each per day (normal consumption is more like 60 ounces or 1.7 liters). To get the Command Module's CO2-removal canisters to fit the LM slots and keep the air breathable, they devised adapters using plastic bags, cardboard and tape.
To get them back onto an Earth-bound course (they had been headed to the moon when the explosion occurred), Mission Control calculated a series of burns that would consume the least amount of power while getting the craft into a homeward trajectory. And with the navigation system down and debris from the explosions making the usual navigation stars invisible, they reworked the entire navigation procedure using the sun.
Freezing, dehydrated, sleep-deprived and with everything, hopefully, in place, the astronauts jettisoned the Service Module, moved into the Command Module and headed home. They splashed down in the Pacific on April 17, 1970, safe and sound.
Next: a stand-off with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas …
The Branch Davidian Raid, 1993
Few people knew anything was happening until after the fact. The U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the FBI hostage-rescue team were positioned outside the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The ATF believed David Koresh and his followers, labeled a "cult," were in possession of an illegal arsenal of weapons.
The reasons for the 1993 raid and its legitimacy are still a subject of debate. It was a highly charged situation, and during the final days of a nearly two-month standoff, with armed federal agents surrounding the building, dozens of people, including children, barricaded inside, and cult leaders reputedly hinting at mass suicide, the U.S. government made a decision.
The raid began with tear gas on April 19, 1993. The plan was to clear the building by tossing canisters of CS gas inside, causing immediate burning of the eyes, nose and throat. Once people fled the building, federal agents would take them into custody, and the stand-off would be over.
That's not how it turned out. The last-ditch attempt to end the conflict without bloodshed was a massive failure. The gas didn't work -- it may be that high winds caused it to disperse and be ineffective -- and shots were fired. Who shot first is unclear, with federal agents and Davidians alike claiming to have fired only in response.
No matter who started it, it ended in disaster when a fire began in the compound. (Again, it's unclear who was responsible, although most of the evidence points to Koresh's followers igniting the blaze using accelerants in three different places simultaneously [source: PBS].) The building went up in flames with everyone inside. More than 80 people died in the botched operation.
Up next: With oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico …
The Deepwater Horizon Gusher, 2010
The controversy surrounding deep-water drilling, exemplified by BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, quickly validated the naysayers when, on April 20, 2010, it exploded and sank, killing 11 of the workers on the platform.
And that was just the beginning. With the sinking of the platform, the pipe carrying oil up from the sea floor failed, and oil began gushing into the Gulf at an alarming rate. The flow was captured by live video feed, and people all over the world watched in horror as an eventual 5 million barrels of oil rushed out in the largest oil spill ever.
As it turns out, there is no easy way to fix a faulty pipe about a mile below the surface.
What followed was a series of failed attempts to stop the stunning flow of oil that threatened the ecology of the Gulf and the livelihoods revolving around it. There were multiple "last-ditch" attempts: the "Top Kill," which pumped drilling mud into the pipe to try to clog it; the "Junk Shot," which sent trash into the pipe with the same goal; and the "Top Hat," which tried to cap the pipe using underwater robots.
It was the last of these Top Hats that finally worked. This one had a tighter fit, and on July 15, oil stopped flowing into Gulf waters for the first time in more than three months. According to BP, those operations ran the company about $3.5 billion -- with more clean-up costs to come.
Up next: 33 miners, two days of food, 2,296 feet (700 meters) of rock …
Trapped Miners in Chile, 2010
When a mine collapsed near Copiapo, Chili, in August 2010, it could have turned into one of those tragedies the outside world notes, mourns and then forgets about. Instead, it was a 24/7 news story that had people tuning in for months: The 33 miners trapped beneath a half-mile of rock with two days of food were still alive.
What followed the cave-in was one of the most impressive rescue efforts in recent memory. More than a hundred rescuers, not only Chilean engineers and authorities but also NASA engineers and experts in submarine psychology, worked nonstop for more than two months to do what many feared was impossible.
Seven hundred meters beneath the surface, food and water rationing began as soon as the mine collapsed. Above ground, the rescue involved at least three drills, one of which was hauled 300 miles (482.8 kilometers) to the scene, and almost nonstop drilling for nearly two months. At two weeks in, the first drill reached the men, completing a small tunnel to send food and water down. In the following weeks the heavier work bore a rescue hole to haul the miners up through half a mile of solid rock. (Meanwhile, some of the miners trained to lose dozens of pounds to make sure they could fit in the rescue shaft.)
Past the midway mark, an earthquake struck less than 200 miles (321.9 kilometers) from the damaged mine, and drilling was halted while everyone held their breath.
In all, it took 68 days, international support and some determined individuals, both above and below the surface, to get every one of the 33 miners out -- relatively unscathed, considering their ordeal.
Up next: an ecosystem on the verge of collapse …
Climate Change, Now
It's no secret that global warming, or, more accurately, climate change, is a threat to the future of Earth and all who live here. Nonprofits, governments, think tanks, scientists and individual, concerned citizens have been advocating solutions for years, with new, renewable energy sources being the most common and potentially effective.
But as time runs out to make the incremental changes necessary to avert ecological disaster (see How Global Warming Works), some drastic measures have appeared on the table. One of these last-ditch plans to avoid complete climate disaster is what can basically be described as a sunhat. For Earth.
A chemical sunhat, to be more specific. In lessons learned from volcanic eruptions, we know that when mass amounts of sulfur are ejected into the atmosphere, the Earth is cooled, because sulfur reflects sunlight. The big idea is to induce that sulfur "sunshade" artificially by sending tons of sulfur particles into the stratosphere, perhaps using planes, balloons or rocket launchers.
Grand as it is, this scheme is one of the cheapest and simplest of the ideas on table, which also include space-based mirrors, artificial trees and dissolving mountains [source: Kunzig].
They're Hail Marys, no doubt. And if CO2 levels don't come down soon, we just might find ourselves building a planetary sunshade to save the world.
For more information on averting disaster, including measures being taken in Japan, look over the links on the next page.
The fire under the tiny town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, has been burning since at least 1962 and, to this day, nobody knows how to put it out.
- How Japan's Nuclear Crisis Works
- Name the Price: Natural Disasters Quiz
- What is the worst environmental disaster in history?
- How Disaster Recovery Plans Work
More Great Links
- "Apollo Mission 13." NASA. (March 21, 2011)http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/history/apollo/apollo-13/apollo-13.html
- Biello, David. "BP prepares for "top kill" of Deepwater Horizon oil spill." Scientific American. March 25, 2010. (March 21, 2011)http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=bp-prepares-for-top-kill-of-deepwat-2010-05-25
- Cleveland, Cutler. "Deepwater Horizon oil spill." Encyclopedia of Earth. Dec. 5, 2010. (March 21, 2011)http://www.eoearth.org/article/Deepwater_Horizon_oil_spill?topic=50364
- "Frequently Asked Questions About Waco." Waco: The Inside Story. PBS Frontline. (March 21, 2011)http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/waco/topten.html
- Inman, Mason. "5 Last-Ditch Schemes to Avert Warming Catastrophe." National Geographic News. Sept. 4, 2009. (March 28, 2011)http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/09/090904-global-warming-fixes-geoengineering.html
- "Japan struggles to prevent additional nuclear disaster." Catholic Online. March 16, 2011. (March 21, 2011)http://www.catholic.org/international/international_story.php?id=40679
- Kunzig, Robert. "Shading the Earth." National Geographic Magazine. July 15, 2009. (March 28, 2011)http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/big-idea/01/shading-earth
- Maugh, Thomas H. II. "Japan quake: 2nd reactor cooled with seawater to avert meltdown." L.A. Times. March 13, 2011. (March 21, 2011)http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/13/science/la-sci--japan-quake-reactor-20110313
- McLaughlin, Elliot C. "Days 1 through 69: How best of man, machine saved Chile's Miners." CNN. Oct. 16, 2010. (March 21, 2011)http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/americas/10/15/chile.mine.rescue.recap/index.html
- Oberman, Mira. "BP Caps Oil Spill." Discovery News. July 12, 2010. (March 21, 2011)http://news.discovery.com/earth/oil-spill-containment-cap-replacement.html