Lost in space: NASA’s dumbest (and most expensive) mistake

Mauricio Saldivar 7 minutes
duck on mars
This October 22, NASA presented an image captured by the cameras of the Mars Curiosity rover: a rock formation that resembles a duck.

Mars has exerted a great fascination on humanity for at least four millennia. That reddish dot that shines in the night sky has aroused curiosity and concern about us.

Since being recognized by science as the most habitable and suitable planet to colonize by humans, even books like Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, movies like Mission Rescue (The Martian) or musical themes like David Bowie’s Life on Mars, Mars is part of our imaginary.

Exploring the Red Planet: Missions to Mars

The space exploration of Mars began around 1960, in the context of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War. With more successes than failures, today there are several nations or consortiums of nations that have met their objectives in missions on the red planetbut there is one that stands out for its resounding failure, caused by a costly and childish miscalculation.

The Martian
Mars has been represented in different ways, many of them tragic or violent. In the movie “The Martian”, the ingenuity and survival instinct of human beings are highlighted.

In the mid-1990s, NASA (United States Space Agency), establishes an ambitious Martian exploration program under a new dogma to reduce costs: at each favorable conjunction of Mars and Earth (approximately every two years), two spaceships will be sent released separately: Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander. The first would orbit the planet to obtain high-resolution images of the surface, while the second would land on the surface to perform experiments and take samples.

The two missions were intended to study Martian weather and climate, as well as the water vapor, dust, and carbon dioxide content of its atmosphere. In this way it was intended to understand the behavior of the atmosphere of Mars and look for evidence of episodic and long-term climate change.

If something can happen, it will happen

The company that won the contract to build the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) was Lockheed Martin, a key company in the US military-industrial complex. Complying in a timely manner with the planned schedule, On December 11, 1998, the Delta II rocket that carried this Martian orbiter took off from Cape Canaveral.

The MCO, similar in size to a compact car, it took 9 and a half months to travel alone the 665 million kilometers that separate Mars from our planet. On the scheduled day, September 23, 1999, everything was tense at NASA, as with any critical phase of a space mission.

Mars Climate Orbiter
Artist’s rendering of the Mars Climate Orbiter, the first weather satellite on Mars.

Edward Murphy Jr. was an American military engineer who worked on aerospace projects for the Air Force. In 1949 and faced with an unprecedented error by his assistant, Murphy complained saying that “If there is more than one way to do the job and one of them leads to disaster, someone else will do it that way.” Time simplified the phrase into “If something can happen, it will happen” and it was baptized with the name “Murphy’s Law”.

Those who controlled the spacecraft, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), began to notice strange deviations in the trajectory of the probe in its interplanetary journey.which were corrected with more corrections than usual in this type of operation.

But the biggest deviation was seen at the crucial moment: instead of establishing its insertion in the Martian orbit at an altitude of about 150 kilometers as scheduled, it did so at about 60 kilometers. Everyone knew that the closest MRO could stand to Mars was 85 kilometers, so they expected the worst. After less than 5 minutes of uncertainty, contact was lost with the MRO, who first caught fire and then it destroyed by friction with the atmosphere, to end up scattered on the martian surface.

Different units, many problems

Subsequent investigation determined that the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who was the organism responsible for programming the navigation systems of the probe, used the metric system (centimeter, meter, kilo, degree Celsius, etc.), while the manufacturer Lockheed Martin and its Astronautics Laboratory in Denver, like the entire industry in that country, used the imperial system of measurements (inches, feet, pounds, degree Fahrenheit, etc.), and this was clearly stated in the manuals that had been provided to NASA.

Official MCO documentation
In the official documents of the MCO the Metric System and the Imperial System were used. But NASA “forgot” to convert navigation data from one system to the other.

But NASA’s JPLin the clearest example of application of Murphy’s Law, did not convert navigation data from one system to another before launch of what would have been the first meteorological satellite of a planet that is not Earth.

This “stupid” mistake cost US taxpayers about $125 millionand motivated the review of the work and communication procedures of the NASA: During all the time that your scientists were involved in the design and preparation of the probe, no one realized that they were working with different units.

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