TIME China

As China Blast Toll Hits 50, Fears Mount Over Chemical Contamination

Rescue operations have been suspended while teams scan the area for harmful chemicals

An environmental expert says evacuation of the area around Wednesday’s mammoth warehouse blast in the Chinese port city of Tianjin is the “main priority,” and warned of the explosion’s long term consequences.

His words came as the death toll continued to rise, with at least 50 people dead and over 500 hospitalized, of which 71 are in critical condition, officials said Thursday. Several of the dead are reportedly firefighters.

“With a blast like this, normally you would expect the transport [of particulate matter] to be along the wind gradient or contours, but a blast this big must push it beyond that in the opposite direction,” Ravi Naidu, Director of the Global Centre for Environmental Remediation at the University of Newcastle Australia, told TIME. “Not just people but animals and other organisms would be exposed to certain chemicals.”

Rescue operations have been temporarily suspended while chemical teams scan the area for harmful materials as fears of airborne toxins mount.

“We are concerned that certain chemicals will continue to pose a risk to the residents of Tianjin,” Greenpeace Asia’s Beijing office said to TIME in an emailed statement. “According to the Tianjin Tanggu Environmental Monitoring Station, hazardous chemicals [that may have been at the blast site] include sodium cyanide (NaCN), toluene diisocyanate (TDI) and calcium carbide (CaC2), all of which pose direct threats to human health on contact. NaCN in particular is highly toxic. Ca(C2) and TDI react violently with water and reactive chemicals, with risk of explosion. This will present a challenge for firefighting and, with rain forecast for tomorrow, is a major hazard.”

The city in China’s northeast—located 150 km from the capital Beijing—was rocked by two massive explosions late Wednesday night, with videos released soon after the incident showing a massive fireball rising high into the air above a warehouse as well as a person killed by debris when the explosion shattered the glass wall he was approaching.

The blasts took place at around 11.30 p.m. local time at a warehouse belonging to Ruihai International Logistics, a transportation company that, according to its website, is involved in “cargo declaration, cargo transportation and warehouse storage of dangerous cargo.”

What appears to be video shot from a drone camera released Thursday morning showed the charred remains of hundreds of parked cars and several surrounding buildings, completely destroyed by the blasts. TIME was unable to independently verify the video’s original source.

A local resident with last name Xu, who lives in the Haigangcheng locality about a kilometer away from the blast site, told TIME he was watching TV at home when the explosion threw him to the ground in what he assumed was an earthquake. Shortly after, he and his family rushed out into the open and smelled the scorched air, he said, as pieces of glass and other debris began raining from the sky.

Many people cut by the showers of glass went to the Taida Medical Center, the hospital closest to the site and the one to which most of the injured have been taken.

Police, meanwhile, have set up check points three kilometers away from the blast site and are not allowing anyone to enter. Local media reports say hundreds of soldiers are being flown in to assist with evacuation and containment efforts.

Environmental expert Naidu says that the explosions’ long term effects will have to be monitored closely, particularly with regards to the soil in the area and the nearby buildings getting infused with toxic chemicals.

“Such explosions not only affect the environment but also the minds of people, psychologically quite a lot of people will be impacted and this is something that has to be taken into consideration,” he said.

With reporting from Gu Yongqiang/Tianjin

Read next: Here Are 5 of China’s Worst Industrial Disasters

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TIME China

Here Are 5 of China’s Worst Industrial Disasters

A man checks his mobile phone near overturned shipping containers after explosions in Tianjin
Stringer China—Reuters A man checks his mobile phone near overturned shipping containers after explosions hit the Binhai new district, Tianjin, August 13, 2015.

The country has a long, tortuous history of man-made tragedies

The Chinese port city of Tianjin was rocked by two massive blasts Wednesday night, killing at least 44 people, and injuring 520, 66 of them critically. Although the exact cause of the explosion is still unclear, there are strong indications that it was triggered by the accidental ignition of a shipping container filled with explosives.

Accidents of this nature are shockingly common in China, with inadequate safety standards and unstable infrastructure often to blame. Here are some of the country’s worst industrial disasters:

1. Dehui Poultry Factory Fire, 2013

At least 119 people died and 54 others were injured when a huge fire broke out at a poultry plant in the northeastern city of Dehui. The blaze was reported to have been caused by an ammonia leak, and the deaths were attributed to the fact that the factory’s supervisors routinely locked its doors from the outside during working hours to avoid laborers wandering around the plant — thereby cutting off any possible emergency escape routes.

2. Shanxi Mine Collapse, 2008

A total of 281 people died after a mine collapsed following a September 2008 mudslide in Shanxi province. While authorities initially tried to blame the disaster on unusually heavy rain, it soon emerged that poor enforcement of mining safety standards was the primary cause.

3. Laobaidong Colliery Blasts, 1960

Many of China’s worst disasters have occurred in its notoriously unsafe mines. Of these, the second deadliest took place in the Laobaidong coal mine in May 1960, when an apparent methane explosion killed 684 people. Said to be the worst accident since the People’s Republic of China was formed in 1949, all news of the blast was suppressed by Chinese authorities until it finally emerged in 1992.

4. Benxihu Colliery Disaster, 1942

A mixture of gas and coal dust caused this massive explosion at the Honkeiko coal mine near Benxi in China’s Liaoning province, killing 1,549 people in an undoubtedly undesirable world record for “worst coal mining disaster” that stands to this day. The worst part? It isn’t even China’s worst industrial disaster.

5. Banqiao Dam Tragedy, 1975

On Aug. 8, 1975, the Banqiao dam — located about 750 km west of Shanghai — burst due to unusually heavy rains caused by a massive typhoon, in what remains the worst-ever disaster not just in China, but globally. Although reports of the exact number of people killed vary, most say at least 100,000 people perished from the immediate flooding, while fatalities from the resultant famines and diseases pushed the total death toll to more than 220,000.

TIME Aviation

Here’s What That Piece of Debris Tells Us (And Doesn’t) About the Fate of MH370

Further analysis could provide valuable clues, but there's still a long way to go

Nearly 17 months after it seemingly vanished off the face of the earth, the first tangible piece of evidence on the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has finally emerged.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced just after midnight on Thursday that the debris found last week on a beach in Réunion, a small island and French territory in the Indian Ocean, does indeed belong to MH370.

A French prosecutor in Toulouse, where the debris (a part of the aircraft wing known as a flaperon) is currently being analyzed was slightly more cautious, saying there were “strong indications” that this was true but further tests are required before it can be confirmed.

The deputy prime minister of Australia, the country spearheading the extensive yearlong search for the Beijing-bound aircraft that went missing on March 8, 2014, was equally noncommittal.

“The French-led investigation team is continuing to finalize its considerations of the wreckage and we will await further detail from them,” Warren Truss said in a statement, but added that there was a “high probability” that the flaperon comes from MH370.

Malaysia Airlines released a statement of its own, calling the finding a “major breakthrough” in determining the aircraft’s fate. “We expect and hope that there would be more objects to be found which would be able to help resolve this mystery,” the national carrier said.

The news did little to pacify the relatives of those who allegedly perished in the accident, however, with many continuing to express skepticism and a lack of trust in the investigators.

Here is what we can (and cannot) ascertain from Thursday’s developments:

  1. What we know now that we didn’t know before.

The fact that the debris was found in the Indian Ocean, where authorities have been trying to narrow the search for months, shows that the current investigation is focusing in the right area — albeit still a very large one. “It’s a very small needle in a very big haystack,” David Newbery, a Hong Kong-based flight captain and accredited aircraft investigator, tells TIME. However, Newbery says closer examination of the flaperon could reveal details like the speed and angle of impact with the water, as well as whether the airplane remained intact.

“If they examine the failure points of the structure they may be able to get some idea of the force of the impact which broke it off,” he says, “It depends on how quickly the airplane hit the sea and at what speed, whether or not the aircraft broke up completely on hitting the sea or whether it was mainly intact when it sank.”

He does add that the fact that only one piece of debris has been found may be an indication that the Boeing 777 remained intact after hitting the water.

John Page, a senior lecturer and aircraft design expert from the University of New South Wales, says the flaperon could confirm what he says is the most plausible theory he’s heard about the aircraft’s disappearance.

“If it is where we think it is, then it appears to have been flying a reciprocal course than the one it should’ve been on — the opposite direction, in other words,” he told TIME in an interview, adding that a possible scenario is that the crew, sensing trouble, plugged in the coordinates to reverse the flight path but then lost all communication. “So one possibility is they tried to turn back, not realizing that before they got to the next waypoint when they had to turn again they wouldn’t be available,” he said.

Another significant outcome of finding the debris, along with clues about what happened to the aircraft, is definitive proof of what didn’t.

“I think what it does do is get rid of all the conspiracy theories about the airplane landing here, there and everywhere,” says Newbery, while Paige adds that “extreme ideas like flying saucers” only serve to “make noise on what’s happening.”

One major indication of MH370’s whereabouts could come from the barnacles found clinging to the piece of debris. The marine animals, which come from the same crustacean family as crabs and lobsters, could tell researchers where the flaperon has been.

“If marine scientists can really get their hands on them and look at the species distribution patterns, then they can possibly figure out roughly where the barnacle got onto that part of the aircraft,” says Qian Pei-Yuan, who heads the Division of Life Sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Qian says the barnacles found on the debris appear to belong to a genus known as “gooseneck barnacles,” the study of which could help pinpoint the aircraft’s location by determining how fast the aquatic creatures grow and where they reside.

“The first thing we need to know is exactly which species [of gooseneck barnacle] they are,” he says. “You can then figure out how fast they can grow, what the temperature of the sea is, when the barnacle actually got on [to the flaperon], and then you can extrapolate how long they have been there.”

  1. What we still don’t know.

Although the barnacles could provide hints as to how an aircraft that supposedly went down near the western coast of Australia ended up on Réunion, just off the coast of Madagascar, the fact that it was found there doesn’t really narrow the search area to a great extent.

“If you’re trying to figure out based on the ocean currents, I don’t believe they can narrow down the area that much because the ocean currents in the Indian Ocean are quite complicated,” Qian says. “There’s a current from the northern part of India to the equator regions, from Malaysia going to the west, then from the equator region going to the east. You can’t tell.”

The duration that the aircraft (and this particular piece of debris) has been in the ocean makes it all the more difficult to pinpoint its location, as does the lack of other debris.

“A year is a long time to be floating, if it was only a couple of weeks they could probably reasonably accurately predict where it came from,” says Newbery, the aircraft accident expert, adding that the developments on Réunion will most likely not refine the search any more than it already has been. “Unfortunately, though I know this piece of debris gives some certainty about the search, I’m not convinced that it’s going to help the investigators terribly much in terms of finding out what happened.”

  1. What comes next.

Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC), cited by the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Truss, said in its statement that authorities will persist with “thorough and methodical search efforts” in the existing search area.

“The indications are that it’s probably not going to increase with any great degree the likelihood of finding the wreckage any earlier than before,” said Ron Bartsch, chairman of international aviation safety consultancy firm AvLaw Consulting.

Malaysian authorities, along with the airline, have said that they will do everything in their power to bring an elusive sense of closure to those affected by the disaster.

Although he says that there are a “myriad of legal issues yet to be resolved” before compensation for the victims’ families can be finalized, Bartsch is of the opinion that the stray flaperon being analyzed in Toulouse gives a much-needed boost to the search efforts.

“I think the significance of the discovery of the wreckage should not be underestimated,” he said. “It is the first positive confirmation of objective evidence that we know that the aircraft did disappear in the search, so I believe that this should give search authorities and governments alike the motivation to not only continue their search efforts but to increase them.”

TIME India

Indian Trainee Pilots Passed After Just 35 Minutes Flight Time, Report Says

“We’d kill not only the passengers, but we might crash in a village and kill even more people”

Multiple airline disasters over the past year have thrust a spotlight on flight safety and pilot training around the world, but a new report on Tuesday revealed that many Indian youths were being given pilots licenses after less than an hour of flying experience.

The report, published by Bloomberg, revealed that dozens of pilots in India were given certificates vastly inflating the number of hours they had supposedly spent learning to fly an aircraft.

“What if I was flying and had an emergency? I wouldn’t even know how or where to land,” 25-year-old Anupam Verma, who only spent 35 minutes in the cockpit but received a certificate saying he had flown for 360 hours, told Bloomberg.

Verma, like many others, was given a $44,000 subsidy by the Indian government to train as a commercial pilot and potentially join one of the country’s ever-expanding budget airlines.

“We’d kill not only the passengers, but we might crash in a village and kill even more people,” he said.

Read more at Bloomberg.

TIME Disasters

Aftermath of a Train Wreck: Photos From the Crash of the Congressional

Ralph Morse photographed the wreck for LIFE

The Congressional Limited was passing through Philadelphia on the way from Washington to New York City, on Sept. 6, 1943, when it happened: an engine man, LIFE reported, “saw smoke and flame shooting from a journal box (housing for the end of an axle) on the seventh coach.” Though he tried to notify a signal man fast enough to get a warning light posted, it was too late. The Congressional broke apart as the wheel tore off the axle, causing a train wreck that led to dozens of deaths.

On Wednesday, in the wake of another disastrous train wreck in Philadelphia, attention has turned once again to that earlier tragedy, the aftermath of which photographer Ralph Morse covered for LIFE.

Read more about the wreck of the Congressional here

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

TIME Nepal

6 Ways You Can Give to Nepal Earthquake Relief

Nepalese people rest in their makeshift shelter next to a road in Kathmandu on April 27, 2015, two days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal.
Prakash Singh—AFP/Getty Images Nepalese people rest in their makeshift shelter next to a road in Kathmandu on April 27, 2015, two days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal.

An impoverished country is struggling to cope

Massive financial support is going to be needed if impoverished Nepal is to rebuild from the devastating weekend earthquake that claimed more than 3,600 lives and flattened buildings, among them some of the country’s best known landmarks. Here’s how you can donate.

1. Save the Children

Save the Children is an international charity that has been in Nepal since 1976 and is therefore in an exceptional position to help after years of operating within the country, Save the Children spokesman Philip Carroll told TIME.

Carroll said that a response team of 24-emergency specialists, including a medical team, had been dispatched to assess humanitarian needs. He specifically emphasized the importance of distributing clean drinking water to prevent water-borne diseases in a country that already had low sanitation standards. They are also distributing hats and blankets for babies, as many families are living on the streets because of the fear of aftershocks.

Also, 10% of funds are going to preparations for future disasters.

To donate to their Nepal Earthquake Children’s Relief Fund, click here.

2. Red Cross

The Red Cross has committed an initial $300,000 of aid as well as 19,000 non-food relief kits which include clothes, kitchen sets, tarpaulins and mosquito nets.

“We do not yet know the scope of damage … People will need considerable support including food, water, medical care and emergency shelter,” said Jagan Chapagain, the director for the International Federation of Red Cross Asia-Pacific said on Sunday via the organization’s website.

To donate to their Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund click here.

3. Global Giving

Online fund-raising platform Global Giving is running a project to raise $1,000,000 for disaster relief in Nepal and has raised over $570,000 so far.

To make a donation, visit them here. If you have a U.S. cell phone, you can text GIVE NEPAL to 80088 to make a $10 donation.

4. Friends Service Council Nepal

FSCN is a Nepalese NGO with over 20 years of experience in supporting disaster relief efforts for disasters in Nepal. They are based in Kathmandu and have about 50 volunteers. Chairperson Surya Bahadur Thapa tells TIME that since the earthquake they have been rushing money, food and tents to people in need.

If you want to give directly to a local charity, get in contact and Thapa or a volunteer will explain how best to transfer money to them.

5. Oxfam

Oxfam, which works in more than 90 countries, has already dispatched technical experts from the U.K. to Nepal and sent a China-based team to assess humanitarian needs in Tibet, where the quake also struck.

Nepal country director Cecilia Keizer stated that Oxfam was “preparing to help provide clean water and emergency food.”

To make your donation to Oxfam’s relief effort, go here.

6. Goonj

Goonj is an Indian relief agency with 11 offices and more than 300 employees. They have set up Nepal-specific donation centers in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Rishikesh, founding director Anshu Gupta told TIME.

Currently, Goonj is readying two trucks of relief material to transfer to Nepal, with more urgent supplies going by air. Gupta will be leading team to Nepal tomorrow. Find out more about their operations here.

For more information about how to donate, visit their website.

Read next: Kathmandu on Edge After Deadly Quake Ravages Nepal

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Aviation

Malaysia Airlines Struggles to Salvage Its Image a Year After Flight 370 Disappearance

MANAN VATSYAYANA—AFP/Getty Images Airport groundstaff walk past Malaysia Airlines planes parked on the tarmac at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on June 17, 2014.

With a new CEO and an evolving marketing strategy, the beleaguered airline is trying to rebrand and reinvent

The past year has been a terrible one for Malaysia Airlines. On March 8, 2014, Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur bound for the Chinese capital, Beijing, lost contact with air-traffic controllers less than an hour after takeoff, and vanished from radar screens shortly thereafter.

What followed was an unprecedented multinational search across over a million square miles that cost tens of millions of dollars in what has turned out to be one of the biggest aviation mysteries of all time.

Then in mid-July, disaster hit Malaysia Airlines again when MH17 went down over Ukraine. This time, the cause of the aircraft’s disappearance from the sky seemed clearer — a surface-to-air missile allegedly fired by pro-Russian rebels engaged in a battle with Ukrainian forces.

Many would argue that the Malaysian carrier was simply unfortunate to have lost a second plane in just over four months, especially since more than 30 other airlines had continued to fly over eastern Ukraine despite the violent conflict raging there (and a warning from the International Civil Aviation Organization). However, the disaster only exacerbated the loss of goodwill that Malaysia Airlines was already facing, especially given the lack of evidence on the whereabouts of MH370.

One year later, those whereabouts are still just as shrouded in mystery. The embattled airline is doing everything it can — including a $1.7 billion overhaul that involves laying off 30% of its staff — to salvage revenues as well as reputation. The Malaysian government assumed total ownership last year and aims to make the firm profitable by 2017.

“Before some of these accidents, airline safety was not top of the minds of most passengers, because it’s taken for granted,” Bennett Yim Chi-kin, a marketing professor at the University of Hong Kong, tells TIME, adding that disasters like these tend to impact the entire industry. “The factor of safety is now back to being a high criterion when selecting an airline.”

Yim says salvaging Malaysia Airlines’ brand equity will take some time. Losses of $368 million in the first three quarters of last year, as well as marketing slipups like a marketing tweet asking “Want to go somewhere but don’t know where?” and a promotion quizzing travelers about their “bucket lists” have already made the turnaround an uphill battle.

Enter Christoph Mueller, a man described by industry experts as a “battle-hardened veteran.” Mueller assumed his position as CEO of Malaysia Airlines last Sunday, one week before the anniversary of the MH370 disappearance and one day before the airline’s owners — state-owned investment fund Khazanah Nasional — announced a plan to ax 6,000 of its 20,000 employees. Mueller is an old hand in the airline industry fresh off a successful restructuring of Ireland’s struggling national carrier Aer Lingus. But reviving Malaysia Airlines will be a far bigger challenge, and the 52-year-old’s new job is one that few people in the industry would relish.

“I would say it probably is among the toughest,” John Strickland of JLS Consulting told AP, but added that Mueller’s position as an outsider — the first foreigner at the airline’s helm — could prove advantageous.

Malaysia’s tourism numbers have gone up in spite of (and some even argue owing to the raised national profile generated by) the two disasters, with a 10% bump resulting in some 22.9 million foreign arrivals until October last year. However, the airline also faces increasing competition from several low-cost airlines, including Malaysian private carrier AirAsia.

AirAsia experienced its own disaster on Dec. 28, when Flight QZ8501, run by its Indonesian affiliate, crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board. The aircraft, traveling from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore, was retrieved from the water piece by piece over the next two months. The final remnant of fuselage was recovered last Saturday, Agence France-Presse reported, and 103 bodies have been salvaged so far. F.H. Bambang Soelistyo, the leader of the Indonesian search effort, said in a press conference that family members of the victims would be consulted before setting a final date for the search effort.

AirAsia’s reputation has not taken as much of a hit as that of Malaysia Airlines, largely because of the efforts of its dynamic and savvy CEO Tony Fernandes. Fernandes rushed to the front lines of the disaster almost immediately, and continued providing updates and messages of sympathy to his sizeable social-media following, in what many say has set the benchmark for how industry leaders should respond to a crisis.

By comparison, Malaysia Airlines’ honchos appeared flip-flopping and rudderless, with families callously told their loved ones were lost via SMS, or learning the latest developments via journalists’ questions.

“The No. 1 thing is you have to be fast, you need a very quick response,” Yim says. “Being honest, being sincere about your response also is very important.”

Many say comparing the two airlines is unfair, considering the vastly different natures of their respective disasters. Certainly, though, reputations must be earned, and for Malaysia Airlines and its new CEO, the most effective method of disaster management moving forward will be avoiding them in the first place.

TIME space

What Richard Branson Can Learn From the Virgin Galactic Tragedy

Broken dream: Debris from Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo sits in a desert field on Nov. 2, 2014 north of Mojave, Calif.
Sandy Huffaker—Getty Images Broken dream: Debris from Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo sits in a desert field on Nov. 2, 2014 north of Mojave, Calif.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Every disaster can be equal parts tragedy and travesty. Both are avoidable.

Am I the first person to discover that the ecosystem of Twitter can be a little bit toxic? Those 140 characters, it seems, don’t always lend themselves to nuanced and reasoned discussion, and so the discussion that does take place is often—how best to put this?—discourteous.

All right, maybe that’s not news to anyone. But I’ve discovered that ugly truth anew in the past few days, in the wake of my Oct. 31 piece arguing that that day’s crash of Sir Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo—which took the life of test pilot Michael Alsbury, a 39-year-old married father of two—could be laid directly at the feet of Branson himself. I accused Branson of too much hucksterism and too much hubris. I meant what I said, and I stand by it.

Many of the tweets that opinion elicited are best left in the Twitter muck, particularly this thoughtful take, and this one and this one, which would be so much better if the author had taken the time to spell-check schmuck. There was, too, a response from Chris Sacca, a deservedly well-regarded investor in Uber, Kickstarter, Instagram and more and a man with an impressive 1.49 million Twitter followers: “Brave pioneer died conducting research. Go f*ck yourself, Time.” (Asterisk not provided in original.)

O.K., let’s all take a deep breath and try to collect ourselves. All disasters can be equal parts tragedy and travesty if we don’t keep our heads about us, but that doesn’t mean they have to remain that way. I’m happy to concede that my phrasing was provocative, and I indeed conceded it on CBS This Morning the day after the crash. But that doesn’t mean it was misplaced. Let’s start with that hubris thing.

As I mentioned in my earlier piece, I attended the Mojave Desert jamboree that Virgin Galactic threw last year for a few hundred of its paying passengers and got a look at SpaceShipTwo up close. What struck me the most was a bit of company artwork stenciled on the fuselage of the ship, as well as on all of the press materials distributed that day and even on the very lanyards that held the credentials of all of the attendees.

It was a series of silhouettes that represented a sort of walking tour of the key mile markers of human spaceflight. First was an Icarus-looking figure with large feathered wings; next came the Wright Brothers’ plane, then what appeared to be Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. Those were followed by an X-1 (the first plane to break the sound barrier), a 747, the Apollo lunar module, and then SpaceShipOne (the forerunner of SpaceShipTwo, and the first private craft to achieve suborbital flight). Finally came SpaceShipTwo itself, mated to its larger carrier craft.

So of the eight greatest pivot points in the long history of human aviation, Branson claims a connection to two—one of which (SpaceShipTwo) has never even done the thing that it was built to do, which is to get to space. Yes, logos are just semiotics—but semiotics count, especially when they seem to define the company’s culture.

As recently as Sept. 27, according to Mail Online, Branson was predicting that success for SpaceShipTwo was just months away, despite the fact that the company has been in operation since 2004 and has continually missed such self-imposed deadlines; had just switched from a rubber-based to a plastic-based fuel that had not even been tested in flight until last week; and still holds only an experimental—not operational—permit from the FAA. But never mind.

“I would very much hope that before Christmas, Virgin Galactic has visited space,” Branson told Mail Online. “And then we’ll move the whole program to New Mexico where myself and my son will be the first people to go up from the Spaceport in the spring of next year.”

These are less the words of a pioneer than those of an entrepreneur who has to keep the enthusiasm around his enterprise high, partly because he’s answerable to a lot of other people with a lot of money on the line: There is, for example, the $218.5 million the taxpayers of New Mexico have ponied up to build that spaceport near the appropriately named town of Truth or Consequences. There’s the estimated $300 million that’s been poured into Virgin Galactic by the Abu Dhabi–based firm Aabar Investments. And most troubling of all, there are the $20,000 deposits Virgin’s estimated 800 customers have put down to hold their reservations for their eventual flight.

This is where Branson dramatically parts company with all of the legends his acolytes in the Twitterverse and elsewhere like to invoke—especially the Wright brothers. Orville and Wilbur, it’s worth remembering, risked only their own hides on their first flights—and they never, ever presumed to take their highly experimental plane commercial no matter how confident they were in its reliability.

What’s more, they were genuinely attempting to accomplish something that had never been done before—powered flight—as opposed to simply coming up with a new way to fly a manned suborbital mission that was first checked off humanity’s bucket list on May 5, 1961, when Alan Shepard pulled it off. And if you’re going to make the argument that Branson is trying to democratize (the go-to word) spaceflight, making it available to everyone as opposed to just the elite, I would argue that you have to be pretty darned elite to be able to plunk down $250,000 for a 15-minute vacation—which factors out to a cool $16,666 per minute.

Second to the Wrights when it comes to easy and inapt comparisons are the heroes of NASA’s early days, who—argue the enthusiasts—lost plenty of pilots themselves and never would have gotten anywhere if they hadn’t taken bold risks. “You’ve read The Right Stuff, right?”@Kazanjy challenged me in a tweet. Yes, @Kazanjy, I have. And more relevant to our conversation, I wrote Apollo 13. I’ve also reported and written extensively about multiple space disasters over the years, including the loss of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia and the Mir space station accident in 1997.

The Challenger explosion in particular, as history has shown, was the direct result of the same get-it-done, fly-it-now, meet-the-deadline urgency the Virgin Galactic brass are applying to the SpaceShipTwo engineers. This doesn’t mean Branson has been cavalier with the lives of his pilots any more than NASA was, or that he isn’t genuinely heartbroken at the loss of one of them. It does mean that both he and the space agency of the Challenger era were pushing their staffs to keep unrealistic promises they themselves had made: a workable vehicle that could go commercial as soon as spring, in Branson’s case; and a shuttle that could fly payloads cheaply with a quick turnaround time, in NASA’s case. Something similar was true of the Apollo 1 launchpad fire that cost the lives of three astronauts in 1967, as NASA raced to meet the deadline President Kennedy set of having Americans on the moon by 1970.

What Apollo 13 showed was that even when the pressure is off—when the moon race is won and the hardware has been proven and you can finally begin flying missions that are less about just getting home in one piece and more about doing some actual science—you still can’t take anything for granted.

The reason the Apollo 13 astronauts, who had exhaustively prepared for every conceivable thing that could go wrong with their spacecraft, never rehearsed for the one that did, was that no one ever conceived of a quadruple failure of multiply redundant hardware. And if anyone did conceive of it, there was no point in preparing for it, because it would be like preparing for what to do if you drive your car over a cliff. You do nothing; you just die.

The Apollo 13 crew survived, but in the case of Virgin Galactic, a man has indeed been lost. It’s a hard and tragic truth that that death, unlike the Apollo 13 breakdown, was foreseeable. So too is the risk of a ship full of paying tourists suffering the same fate if Branson’s enterprise ever gets off the ground. It shouldn’t.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

The Absurd Cost of Overreaction

ORLANDO SIERRA—AFP/Getty Images Honduras' Health personnel screen arriving passengers for the deadly Ebola virus at Tegucigalpa's Toncontin international airport on October 20, 2014.

Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology from UC Berkeley and is a career and personal coach.

Whether it's Ebola, Malaysia Flight 370 or the shoe bomber, our post-disaster spending efforts may not be the wisest

A guy puts a plastic explosive in his shoes and now millions of us must take off our shoes at the airport. Terrorists know that, so the chance of shoe-bombing a plane is infinitesimal. With 100% certitude, we’re wasting millions of minutes of people’s time. We don’t think probabilistically.

One person in the U.S. has died of Ebola and we’re now spending a fortune on special training for every hospital worker in the country, screening passengers additionally at major airports, and talking of a worldwide travel ban. Congress, the Executive Branch, the CDC and related federal agencies, not to mention the news media, have reallocated much of their time and effort to Ebola. What is the probability that all that will save lives? Minuscule. Think of how many more lives could be saved if we directed all that money and effort, for example, to reducing the number of bicyclist deaths because car drivers aren’t conditioned to look for them? But we don’t think probabilistically. We overreact to the disaster du jour.

We spent a fortune trying to find Malaysia Flight 370 in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which covers 28.4 million square miles, 20% of Earth’s water surface, in hopes of finding information that could prevent future crashes. What are the odds of finding it, let alone providing information that ends up saving lives? Near zero. If you wanted to improve airline safety (not particularly necessary—it’s much safer to fly than to drive a car), you’d more likely do it, infinitely less expensively, by reviewing pre-flight inspection procedures to see if they might be improved. But we don’t think probabilistically. We overreact.

Even when respected leaders err, we overreact. For example, David Petraeus, a highly decorated four-star general, went on to be Director of the CIA, where he was respected by both Republicans and Democrats. Yet, when it was uncovered that he was having an extramarital affair with his biographer, he was forced to resign.

Some governmental overreaction isn’t unwillingness to think probabilistically. It’s politics. The administration feels the need to show that government is doing something—even if the cost is absurd. Alas, somehow, the media rarely discusses the cost-benefit ratio, let alone the opportunity costs of such efforts.

We are not immune

Of course, we, in our private lives, aren’t immune to overreaction:

You get dumped by a romantic partner or three and so fear you’re doomed to a life of celibacy. Overreaction.

You’re searching for a career. Someone tells you that one is bad. You then cross it off your list, failing to recognize that a sample size of one has little validity. Overreaction.

You apply for four jobs and don’t even get an interview. You assume you’re doomed to a McJob or less. Overreaction.

In 1982, when seven people died of Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide, the value of Tylenol’s manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson’s stock price lost 17.5% of its value in the first five trading days following the Tylenol incident, but in a little more than two months, it had gained it all back.

The takeaway

It’s not easy, but we should replace visceral reactions to a single experience or three with probabilistic thinking: What is the probability of such an event occurring in the future? What’s the cost-benefit of accepting that possibility? Of trying to prevent it? What could that effort otherwise be spent on? What action would yield the most good for you, your family, workplace, the larger society? Few exhortations could do more good for humankind than: Replace overreaction with probabilistic thinking.

Marty Nemko is an award-winning career coach, writer, speaker and public radio host specializing in career/workplace issues and education reform. His writings and radio programs are archived on www.martynemko.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Natural Disasters

20 Million Set to Take Part in ‘Great ShakeOut’ Earthquake Drill

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate speaks during an event on earthquake preparedness Oct. 14, 2014 at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong—Getty Images Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate speaks during an event on earthquake preparedness Oct. 14, 2014 at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC.

At 10:16 a.m on Thursday, millions of people around the world will practice the "drop, cover and hold on" moves

More than 20 million people around the world on Thursday are expected to take part in the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills, an annual event that promotes earthquake readiness.

At 10:16 a.m. on Oct. 16, participants will practice the government-recommended “drop, cover and hold on” protocol, which involves getting on the ground, taking cover under a table or desk and holding on until the earthquake is over.

With 10.32 million people registered, California has the highest participation of any U.S. state or nation taking part. ShakeOut events are also happening inNew Zealand, Japan, Southern Italy and parts of Canada as well. More than 25 million people in total are participating in a ShakeOut event of some kind during 2014, according to the Great ShakeOut organization.

ShakeOuts started in California, where earthquakes are common, but soon spread to other states, and the drills are usually coordinated with local emergency services.

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