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Why Things Fail

A Mars probe slams into the planet instead of landing because the instructions were given in meters per second while the program was designed for feet per second.

A probe returns with samples of “stardust” and slams into the desert because backward switches doomed probe:

The 231-page document prepared by independent investigators found that gravity switches on the Genesis probe designed to trigger the deployment of its parachutes were installed backward.


Investigators found that the probe’s builder, Lockheed Martin, skipped a critical pre-launch test that would have uncovered the fatal flaw because of time constraints. Instead, engineers decided to do a simpler test by comparing Genesis’ design to drawings of another spacecraft, Stardust, which was built earlier and had passed rigorous testing.

Occasionally while “trimming fat” you sever an artery.


1 The CultureGhost { 06.15.06 at 12:10 am }

What has happened to us? We never used to be like this.

2 Steve Bates { 06.15.06 at 12:38 am }

If I recall correctly, they were able to recover some “stardust” from the crashed Genesis probe. The Mars probe, on the other hand, was a total loss.

Remember how close they came to having a useless Hubble telescope, because they saved about a million bucks by skipping a final end-to-end test of the optics? I don’t remember the final cost of the Space Shuttle mission that fitted the Hubble with “glasses,” but it was a lot more than any mere million bucks.

We can’t go on like this. I don’t doubt there are some wasteful government programs, most probably instigated by this wayward administration, but some things, including space programs, really cannot be cut any more without disastrous consequences.

An observation: the first several Moon missions, before Apollo 13, were successes. They worked. How likely is it that our return to the Moon will go that well? And Mars? I don’t even want to think about it.

3 Bryan { 06.15.06 at 12:59 am }

CG, everything had to have a “return of investment”. Government was “wasteful” and private enterprise “can be more efficient”. We closed in on ourselves and stopped taking a “long view”. We shortened our horizon to the next quarter, from the next decade. No one seems to remember all that we received from the space program, including the electronics that make cheap computers possible.

There were some uncontaminated plates inside the remains of the vehicle, but much was lost to being penny-wise. It costs about a billion dollars for a mission to the Hubble because we haven’t designed or built the next generation of the Shuttle.

We should already have a vehicle that is designed to be maintained in space and not returned to Earth at the conclusion of every mission. The overwhelming majority of the fuel is used to leave the Earth’s gravity.

If we don’t start the project fairly quickly we won’t have the engineers to do it.