A long time ago, we asked our regular contributors through e-mail, What was one of the largest mistakes in history? We got many interesting responses. Here are some of them. We have just copied and pasted their responses, not editing them in any way and most of the respondents have requested to stay anonymous, so no names will be published.

battle of karansebes

1. The Battle of Karansebes where the Austrian army accidentally attacked itself, with over 10,000 casualties that were totally self-inflicted.

2. The decision to launch Challenger on the morning of January 28th, 1986.

The o-rings between the segments of the SRB’s were known from the beginning of the Shuttle program to leak under certain circumstances. This would erode the o-rings, preventing them from sealing properly and potentially allowing combustion gasses to escape, which could lead to a catastrophic burn-through.

Engineers working for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center predicted the problem before the Shuttle fleet had even flown, but their concerns were not taken seriously. After the first few flights, it became obvious that the predicted erosion was in fact happening: hot gasses were melting the o-rings during flight. Engineers for both the Marshal Center and Morton Thiokol (the contractor who built the SRB’s) recognized the severity of the problem and began actively working on a fix, but neither NASA nor Thiokol’s leadership were willing to ground the Shuttle fleet while a solution was developed.

The o-ring problem continued to present itself in the following years (yes, years), but as it never resulted in catastrophic failure, it was largely ignored. In operation, the hot gasses would start to melt the o-rings, causing the o-ring to “extrude” into the gap and create a seal. In the time it took the o-ring to find its new position, gasses could escape from the joint. This was not how the system was designed to operate, but it seemed to work well enough that no one in a leadership position was overly concerned (a process known in engineering as “normalizing deviance”).

This problem was compounded as the ambient temperature decreased. The colder the o-rings got, the longer they took to extrude into position, and the more gas would escape through the gap in the mean time. If the gas was allowed to escape for long enough, it would destroy the o-rings before they had a chance to seal, causing a catastrophic burn through. NASA had asked for and received clearance to launch below the minimum recommended temperature several times. Nothing bad had happened, and the limit became more of a guideline (more normalization of deviance).

Engineers working for Thiokol became increasingly worried that no one was taking the o-ring erosion or temperature problems seriously and became increasingly vocal. An engineer named Bob Ebeling (who had earlier sent a memo about his concerns entitled “Help!”) was approached by Thiokol management after the forecast for January 28th indicated that the temperature at the pad would reach 18°F the night before. His response was:

“We’re only qualified to 40 degrees …what business does anyone even have thinking about 18 degrees, we’re in no man’s land.”

Following his advice and the advice of other engineers (notably Roger Boisjoly), Thiokol hastily whipped up a presentation for NASA suggesting that they should postpone the launch. They were not receptive, with one administrator saying:

“My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch — next April?”

They claimed the presentation was poorly put together and argued that should the primary o-ring fail, the secondary o-ring would still seal (a statement with no supporting data, and which violated NASA policy forbidding relying on a backup to a critical system). Under intense pressure from NASA, the Thiokol management overruled the engineers and caved, recommending the launch continue as scheduled.

Roger Boisjoly went home after the meeting and remarked to his wife that he was convinced the Shuttle was going to explode in the morning, but that there was nothing he could do.

He later recalled the relief he felt upon seeing the Shuttle clear the tower, as he had expected it to explode on the pad. When the Challenger broke apart 73 seconds later, he immediately knew exactly what had happened.

When the SRBs ignited, the o-rings were too cold to flow into the gap, allowing 5000°F gasses to blow past them. The primary and secondary o-rings in the right booster were almost immediately vaporized. Aluminum oxide from the combustion flowed into the gap, preventing an immediate burn through, but this temporary “seal” was brittle and vulnerable to damage.

The burn continued normally until around a minute into the flight, when aerodynamic forces shattered the impromptu seal. Within a second, the white-hot jet had lanced through the SRB casing like a cutting torch. The plume now impinged directly onto the external tank. A few seconds later, it had burned a hole through the hydrogen tank, which dumped additional fuel into the growing fireball. At this point, the loss of thrust in the right SRB was pronounced enough to force the main engines to automatically rotate to compensate. The flight controllers and crew were still unaware.

Seconds later, the joint holding the right SRB in place failed. Almost immediately, the bottom of the external fuel tank ruptured and blasted the hydrogen tank up into the bottom of the oxygen tank. As the fuel and oxidizer mixed inside the failing tank, the right SRB (which was still attached at the top) rotated around and collided with the external tank structure. The tank disintegrated and ignited, violently throwing the Shuttle sideways relative to the air flow, where the resulting aerodynamic forces tore it to pieces. All seven crew members were killed.

3. Yahoo rejecting the acquisitions of BOTH Facebook and Google.

4. The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi. The government therefore offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising people began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased ending with a cobra population larger than what they started with.

5. Because i really like irony and snipers:

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”


6. Very late to the party as always, but I consider the murder of Tiberius Gracchus (and that of his brother Gaius) as one of the biggest mistakes of the Roman Republic.

As background, the rich guys in the Senate would wait for the soldiers to go to war, then when the soldier’s neglected farms went bankrupt the Senators would buy the foreclosures and kick out the families. When the brothers Gracchi tried to implement land reforms to help the poor the oligarchs in the Senate had them killed.

This introduced violence as a legitimate means of resolving political issues, a method which would be employed immediately after on an ever greater scale by Marius, Sulla and Caesar, ending with the end of the Republic and the rise of the Principate.

7. NASA accidentally taping over the moonlanding. In fact, there are no known original recordings of the event. Let’s say that again, they TAPED OVER THE MOON LANDING.

8. The Darian Scheme: Scotland’s attempt to colonize their own chunk of North America.

The entire country pooled together what meager wealth they had, somewhere between 25% and 50% of the country’s total wealth, and used it to finance a bid to create a colony on modern-day Panama’s Mosquito Coast

Suffice it to say – between the natural conditions (it was called the Mosquito Coast for a reason), and Spanish and English blockades – the endeavor was an unmitigated failure, and what few settlers didn’t die of starvation, disease, or exhaustion – tried to evacuate by a somewhat sympathetic English colony of Port Royal in Jamaica, only to be refused to go ashore, where more of them promptly died from being stuck on a disease-ridden ship.

Suffice it to say, Scotland’s bid at colonizing the new world fell a little bit flat.

9. Napolеons Invasion of Russia in 1812. He marchеd the Grand Army 680,000 soldiеrs strong into Russia in June and thеy rеtrеatеd in Dеcеmbеr with only 120,000 survivors. Imagine losing 560,000 mеn in five months.

10. Killing cats to prevent the spread of the black plague. They killed the cats, so the rats had less of them to worry about… you get the picture.

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Last Update: February 9, 2017