Saturday, November 13, 2010

How I Would Have Died--If I Lived 100 Years Ago

[The following post is on the blog Periodic Tabloid. I will be writing weekly about how I would have died if I lived 100 years ago.]

In honor of Veteran’s Day, which was yesterday, let me explain how I could have died at 9:30 a.m. on November 9, 1973 had it been 1873 instead:

I enlisted in the Air Force in January 1972. After eight months of school I was assigned to Hill Air Force Base in Utah. My job was live-fire testing of missiles. We were 8,000 miles from the war in Vietnam, but several days a week we bolted rockets into test -firing rigs and set them off.

Our job was officially aging and surveillance testing. We froze missiles, heated them, shook them in 750,000-watt machines, put them in altitude chambers and humidity chambers, then fired them.

Most of the missiles burned just as they are supposed to. Occasionally, the mistreatment we gave them caused the propellant to crack. The air gap could make the missile explode rather than burn. We hated that. When a missile blew up a test pad we would get behind schedule and be out on the range longer. Some actually worried about the concrete and steel raining on the bunker we waited in—mostly the older guys. The single airmen, most under the age of 20, only worried about their weekend plans.

On Friday, November 9, 1973, we were testing inter-stage detonators on a Minuteman 3-stage missile—the kind that carry several warheads across the poles to the other side of the world. Back then they were aimed at Russia and China.

In a multi-stage missile, detonator cord separates the stages. When the first stage burns out, the detonator cord burns through the skin allowing the spent stage to fall away before the next stage fires. I was connecting test wires to the detonators when I saw a blue-white flash and flew back against the wall of the test bay.

I stood up and saw my crew chief lying on the floor. I could see, but I could not blink and my vision was tinted red. A wire was sticking out of my right eye, holding it open. The first two fingers of my right hand were hanging at a strange angle. Bits of wire, screws, and aluminum from the test clamp peppered my body from my waist up.

After six eye operations and surgery to reattach my fingers, I recovered months later. If the same accident happened 100 years ago, infection would have left me blind, or dead. And without the high-tech eye surgeons who cleared their schedule to operate on me, I would have been blind just from the injuries.

Modern medicine depends on chemistry. Not just drug development, but the materials that make high-tech surgery possible and the instruments that make labs so accurate and efficient.