09/25/2012 03:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

If Airplane Windows Opened, 'Everybody Would Die:' Science Site Responds To Mitt Romney Gaffe

Why don't airplane windows open?

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney revealed his seemingly dubious grasp of aviation science this weekend when he asked this very question, asserting that airliners' perpetually closed windows are "a real problem."

Writers for Life's Little Mysteries responded to Romney, explaining to the former Massachusetts governor that plane windows do not open because "everybody would die" if they did:

Gravity tends to keep air molecules concentrated near the ground, so the atmosphere thins out as you go up. The air becomes so thin at 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) or so that airplane cabins must be pressurized above that altitude to prevent occupants from suffering from hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. Because temperature and pressure go hand-in-hand (i.e. low-pressure air feels cold), pressurization is also necessary to keep cabins sufficiently warm.

At 35,000 feet (11,000 m), the typical altitude of a commercial jet, the air pressure drops to less than a quarter of its value at sea level, and the outside temperature drops below negative 60 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 51 degrees Celsius), according to The Engineering Toolbox. Exposed to such conditions, you would quickly die.

Pressurization can only work in an "airtight fuselage," the article continues. Thus, if a plane window were opened, the compressed air inside would rush out and the temperature and oxygen level in the cabin would drop dramatically.

Before long, everyone would be dead.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Romney had made his bizarre comments about plane windows over the weekend after his wife's plane was forced to make an emergency landing.

“I appreciate the fact that she is on the ground, safe and sound. And I don’t think she knows just how worried some of us were,” Romney told the paper. “When you have a fire in an aircraft, there’s no place to go, exactly."

"[T]he windows don’t open. I don’t know why they don’t do that. It’s a real problem. So it’s very dangerous," he continued.

It is unclear as to whether or not Romney was joking when he made these comments.

Ashley Parker, a New York Times reporter, said that "it was clear from the context that he was not being serious."

But MSNBC's Rachel Maddow is not convinced that the presidential candidate didn't mean what he said.

"I don't think he was joking because he couldn't possibly be joking about his wife almost being in a plane crash. You can't joke about that, especially with her standing right there," Maddow said on her show Monday.

For more information about air cabin pressurization, watch this video posted by the Federal Aviation Administration: