Top 10 Catastrophes Caused by Wrong Calculations

Tags: #Math ,   #Hubble ,   #Mistakes

Alex O'Brien

Alex O'Brien

Last updated:  2024-01-15 22:34:35

Simple and complex mathematical calculations can make our life much easier. Moreover, complicated things like space shuttles couldn't function without the scientist's effort to determine everything. So math is everything, as in some cases, our life depends on good calculations. Let's look at what happens when someone's mind is not 100% involved, as this could lead to the loss of lives and enormous damage costing millions of dollars.

10. The Vasa Warship

The Vasa Warship sunk after just 1000 yards due to a lack of correct calculation

This is the oldest miscalculation on our list, so we'll start with it. In the 17th century, the Swedish King, Gustav II Adolf, commissioned a new heavily-armed warship to carry soldiers. This decision needed more space to place the guns, so they made the ship taller. Still, they couldn't predict how the vessel would conduct when the breeze struck.

The Vasa set sails in 1628 from Stockholm's port and cruised only 1000 yards when the first gust of wind made it heeled on one side. Hence, the ship wasn't able to straighten due to its height. Moreover, the water started to fill in the lower decks through the gunports, and the pride of the Swedish navy sunk in no time.

9. MSC Armonia

The captain of the cruise ship MSC Armonia obviously miscalculated something

In the shipping business, striking another vessel (collision) and striking the stationary object (allision) is common. Navigating the large ships is quite hard, so the captain must be good at math besides having a broad experience. That's because he needs to precisely estimate the turning point, the slowing down, and much more. Therefore, it's challenging to maneuver the large cruisers or cargo ships when entering the port.  

One of the allisions happened in 2018 when cruiser ship MSC Armonia captain miscalculated the speed while arriving at Mahogany Bay (Honduras). He entered it faster than he should, which ended up with the vessel hitting the concrete pier. Luckily, nobody got hurt, and the damage was minor.

8. Lotus Riverside Disaster

Misunderstanding of basic physics can cause the building to collapse

Lotus Riverside was to be a residential complex in Shanghai next to the river. However, it all fell apart when one building collapsed. Nevertheless, this whole thing could be avoided if someone calculated the effects of lateral forces. Once the building construction was over, they started to excavate the ground underneath for the underground garage. 

This wouldn't be a problem if they didn't pile up the soil on the other side of the building. Hence this caused the structure to collapse under pressure. Thankfully, this brought up some construction standards to be reviewed and led a shady construction company to bankruptcy.     

7. Spirit of Kansas Crash

If the sensors give the wrong input data, the software can miscalculate the height and speed

In 2008 the US Air Force suffered a significant loss when the $1.4 billion B-2 Spirit stealth bomber crashed. The accident with the "Spirit of Kansas" happened due to the system miscalculating the data. After the crash, the investigation discovered that the moisture was on the air-data sensor causing the software to calculate inaccurate information. 

So the wrong data sent the input of slow speed and the extreme angle of liftoff that combined made the aircraft crash. Luckily the two pilots ejected on time, and the plane burst into the flames. 

6. Crab Leg Catastrophe Red Lobster

A crab on the plate with a lemon on the side
Miscalculations in marketing could end up costing the company a lot of money, like the all-you-can-eat crab legs promotion by Red Lobster (Photo: jeplor/

Red Lobster Catastrophe was a huge miscalculated advertising idea for the all-you-can-eat buffet. So in 2003, the Red Lobster seafood restaurant calculated that they could profit by adding an all-you-can-eat snow-crab menu for just $22.99.

This was an immense calculation based on the prediction that customers would eat two plates of crabs on average so that the restaurant would make a profit. Yet, the customers have been ordering not three but even crab dishes. Hence, this created a business loss of $3.3 million during the seven-week-promotion. Moreover, high demand has increased the crab prices and even made the company's stocks go down.

5. Ariane 5 Explosion

The engineers must always recalculate the old data and adapt it to the new version

A European heavy-lift launch vehicle named Ariane 5 had its first mission in June 1996. This was the first one from the upgraded Ariane rocket family series five to be launched. However, the takeoff didn't go as planned, as the spacecraft exploded just after 37 seconds.

The investigation led to the discovery of an in-simulation calculations problem and a malfunction in the control software. They used software for the previous version - Ariane 4, which had slower performances than Ariane 5. Due to the new rocket's faster execution, the software couldn't perform correctly and initiated self-destruction. Moreover, the software worked perfectly on the previous model without detecting the glitch that occurred on the launch of Ariane 5. 

4. Hubble Mirror Fiasco

A calibration error less than the fifteenth of a human hair's width can cause the $1.5 billion worth of equipment to malfunction

Believe it or not, the space telescope needs glasses as well, or at least this one does! After decades of planning and construction, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, higher than ever to orbit. Therefore the plan for it was to observe far into space. However, after Hubble reached its destination, it was evident that there was an error with the pictures it took, as they were a blur.

As it was discovered, one of two telescope mirrors had a calibration error less than the fifteenth of a human hair's width! So three years later, a new mission took off to add corrective lenses to the Hubble, which was a success.   

3. Lake Peigneur Disaster

Once ten-foot-deep freshwater, Lake Peigneur is now the 200-foot-deep saltwater one

Louisiana's Lake Peigneur was a man-made disaster that swallowed a $5 million Texaco drilling platform and a lot more. The company started drilling right above the Diamond Crystal salt mine, but an engineer mistook diagonal Mercator projection coordinates for UTM coordinates, leading to the accident and drilling right into the mine.

Therefore, the lake's water poured into the mine, dissolving the salt and making the hole bigger. Eventually, the swirling vortex swallowed drilling platforms, trucks, trees, a parking lot, even the part of Jefferson Island. Moreover, it sucked in the water from the canal connected to the Gulf of Mexico, creating the waterfall. In the end, this led to transforming the ten-foot-deep freshwater lake into the 200-foot-deep saltwater monster.

2. The S-81 Isaac Peral

The misplaced decimal point has delayed the construction of the S-81 Isaac Peral submarine for a decade

At the beginning of the 2000s, the Spanish Navy decided to upgrade its fleet by ordering four new diesel-electric submarines. The first one, the S-81 Isaac Peral, was the first in line and should have been delivered in 2011.

The Cartagena Shipyard started constructing the first S-81 in 2007. However, when they were deep in the building process, they discovered that the new sub would be 75 tons overweight. This mass imbalance design flaw was due to a miscalculation — someone put a decimal point in the wrong place! While they extended the vessel's hull, this caused a new problem as the sub become too large to fit the docks. Hence, one misplaced decimal point has increased the cost and prolonged the construction to 2022

1. Mars Climate Orbiter

The crash of Mars Climate Orbiter was caused by a measurement mismatch, and it cost over $328 million

The Orbiter was sent in 1999 to examine the Martian climate, surface, and atmosphere. This 638-kilogram or 1,407lb robotic space probe exploded near its destination after ten months of traveling. The cost of Orbiter was over $328 million.

In this case, the navigation error was due to a measurement mismatch. While the NASA software used the metric system, the Lockheed Martin Space – the spacecraft builder, used imperial units. This human calculation error made the Mars Climate Orbiter miss the intended orbit and disintegrated due to Martian atmospheric pressures.

These top ten examples make it obvious how important are the correct calculations for the world to function perfectly. From all the examples, we like the one with the all-you-can-eat crabs the most, as it's hilarious. 

Have you ever heard about some of them before? Do you have more examples? Please write to us in the comments, as we would like to hear your thoughts.

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