Blogposting 423 featured the fascinating explanation for why railway lines, almost everywhere in the world, are exactly 4ft 8.5in apart.  Unlikely as it may sound, it’s because the Romans built their chariots and carts with wheels that far apart - because you can fit two horses in a space that wide.

For the whole improbable story, flip back to 423.

The posting concluded...

‘If you ever watched footage of the Space Shuttle, you will have noticed two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are called 'solid rocket boosters', or SRBs.

The SRBs are made in a factory in Utah.

The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.

The railway line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains and the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel.  The tunnel is only slightly wider than the railway track and the railway track, as we now know, is about as wide as two Roman horses’ backsides....'

I’ve repeated all that because, tragically, the story doesn’t even end there.

You may remember the Challenger space shuttle disaster of 1986 - it exploded almost immediately after take-off.  Sadly, it seems that the Romans were indirectly to blame.

Yes - but why?

Because truckshunter Brenda sent a blog link to her brother and sister, who in turn forwarded it to interested parties.  They have been able to shed more light on the consequences imposed on history by those two horses’ backsides.

The first response reads...

'I would add that, as a consequence of the rail tunnel in Utah, not only were the Shuttle's SRBs narrower than was considered ideal, they were also manufactured in two parts, in order to get them around various bends in this tunnel.

The two parts were then connected together at the Cape Canaveral Shuttle assembly facility to make each SRB.

The connection was held together by bolts, but sealed by a single, large rubber O ring.  This needed to be flexible enough to seal the joint until the heat generated by the booster caused the metal tube to expand sufficiently to seal itself.  This meant that there was a very real lowest safe operating temperature (about 4 deg C, I think).

The morning of the last flight of Challenger (in January 1986), a temperature of -14 deg C was recorded early on, and even though the launch was postponed by several hours, the ambient temperature was barely above freezing - videos from the launch tower show vast sheets of ice cascading off the Shuttle at 'lift-off'.

As we know, one of the seals failed and the craft exploded.

Whilst there were some astonishingly bad management issues exposed as a result of the inquiry, the underlying problem was the need for a seal in the first place (subsequent launches featured SRBs with
two seals, one inside and one outside - I'm sure that was most re-assuring).

So, while the Romans clearly have to take some share of the blame for the Shuttle disaster, the question arises as to why the SRBs were built in Utah and not Florida, or somewhere else more sensible.

The answer is what the Americans call 'pork-barrel politics'.  

Basically, in order to get the initial, vast budget for developing the Shuttle through Congress, various Representatives had to be 'bribed' with promises of preferred contracts for the companies based in their states.  One of these was Morton Thiokol, who got the contract to manufacture the SRBs in preference to Union Carbide (who were the clear preference of NASA).

Mortin Thiokol are based in Utah…'

A second response takes the story further...

'If the NASA and Morton Thiokol senior managers had listened to, and acted on, the frequently voiced concerns of the engineers who actually worked on the Shuttle assembly and flight line about seal performance, then the disaster would almost certainly not have occurred.

The Shuttle engineers had voiced concerns about the seals for quite some time before the accident.  They were concerned about seal performance at low temperatures in conditions of high flexing and vibration. They had even gone to the lengths of suggesting redesigning the seal using a different compound and seal profile, and using an inner seal of a different compound and profile as a back up.

Their plans and drawings were dismissed as too expensive and unnecessary.  They were ‘actively discouraged’ (that means bollocked and told to shut up) by NASA/Morton Thiokol senior management and their advice was ignored.  (After all, what the hell do greasy-handed engineers know!)

Some good people died.

We have yet to see any serious action taken against the aforementioned senior managers.  Nothing new there.

We have seen at least one greasy-handed engineer commit suicide and many others are no longer in employment.

Nothing new there either.'


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