In the following article, NASA scientists David Rubincam and David Rowlands examine the many astronomical aspects of the Titanic disaster. This article has been reproduced with permission of Sky Publishing.
The Night the Titanic Went Down
NO BINOCULARS in the crow's-nest. Not enough lifeboats. Failure to conduct lifeboat drills. A calm sea. Little wind. A tradition of crossing the ocean at full speed. Confidence in compartments that were water-tight -- up to a certain height. And a captain and crew of questionable ability.
Another ingredient in this recipe for disaster was the lack of a Moon.
The mix proved fatal. On the night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg. Its hull breached, the liner rapidly began taking on water. Less than three hours later the biggest, fastest, and grandest ship in the world went to the bottom. It was the most famous sinking in history.
The Titanic left Southampton, England, on its first and only voyage at noon on Wednesday, April 10th, under the command of Capt. E. J. Smith. At dusk that evening the ship docked at Cherbourg, France, where it picked up more passengers. Two hours later the pride of the White Star Line was on its way again, this time to Queenstown, Ireland, where it took on still more passengers the next afternoon. The ship then headed out into the Atlantic bound for New York with 2,200 people (passengers and crew) on board.
The next two days proved uneventful. Around midday the crew would shoot the Sun with sextants, determine local noon, and adjust the ship's clock accordingly to provide ship's time.
On Sunday, April 14th, things picked up: Morse radio signals from other ships warned of ice ahead. (There was no voice communication in those days; radio was still in its infancy.) Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line, used one of the messages to titillate some of the passengers.
Night fell, cold and moonless. As the Titanic forged ahead at 22.5 knots, its fastest speed thus far, Captain Smith told Second Officer Charles Lightoller to keep a sharp eye out for haze, which would require the ship to slow down.
At night lookouts normally watched for waves breaking around the exposed portion of an iceberg; the white surf made a berg easier to spot. But on this night there was virtually no swell or wind; little surf would be generated around any icebergs that might be in the vicinity. And there was no Moon. Moonlight would do nothing for haze, but it might have made what foam there was, or even the berg itself, easier to see. Whether the Moon would have made the crucial difference in averting
disaster is impossible to say.
It was in fact the absence of light from the fateful iceberg that made its presence known. At 11:40 p.m. (ship's time), Lookout Frederick Fleet in the crow's-nest spotted an object looming up darker than the sky. He picked up the telephone and rang the bridge: "Iceberg right ahead." Below on the bridge First Officer William Murdoch ordered the engines reversed and the ship steered hard to port. But the iceberg was already too close; the towering chunk of ice brushed the starboard side, opening gaps in the hull.
Thomas Andrews, one of the ship's builders, and Smith surveyed the flooding decks below. By midnight they knew the worst: water filling the watertight compartments couldn't help but spill over the tops into others. The Titanic would sink. Andrews gave the vessel no more than an hour to 1.5 hours to remain afloat. His estimate proved too pessimistic; the ship actually had more than two hours of life left.
Smith ordered the crew to get passengers into the lifeboats and lower away. Lightoller took charge of the boats on the port side and Murdoch the starboard, and the loading proceeded in a disorderly fashion; the lifeboat drill usually
(continued on page 2)
Copyright © 1997-1998. All rights reserved.