In a move that John Logsdon, director of George Washington University’s space policy institute, called “so dumb,” engineers at Lockheed Martin made a math error that cost millions.
Sloppy errors had plagued the U.S. space program for years by the time it all took place in 1999, but this mistake was one for the record books.
NASA’s rockets were being built by engineering powerhouse Lockheed Martin before being sent to NASA. Meanwhile, the Mars mission launched in early 1999 was run by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In the nine months between launch and mishap, no one had noticed that the math for the Orbiter’s orbiting program was off.
The LA Times explained:
“A navigation team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used the metric system of millimeters and meters in its calculations, while Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, which designed and built the spacecraft, provided crucial acceleration data in the English system of inches, feet, and pounds.
As a result, JPL engineers mistook acceleration readings measured in English units of pound-seconds for a metric measure of force called newton-seconds.”
Instead of landing on Mars, the Orbiter entered the planet’s atmosphere incorrectly and burned up upon entry, costing roughly $125 million.
The Times went on to explain why people were pretty fed up at this point:
“The loss of the Mars probe was the latest in a series of major spaceflight failures this year that destroyed billions of dollars worth of research, military and communications satellites or left them spinning in useless orbits. Earlier this month, an independent national security review concluded that many of those failures stemmed from an overemphasis on cost-cutting, mismanagement, and poor quality control at Lockheed Martin, which manufactured several of the malfunctioning rockets.”
The basic discrepancy wasn’t all Lockheed Martin’s fault. Engineers at the two facilities had been exchanging data for months and no one ever noticed the numbers were off.
There was a shot at redemption that year as the Mars Polar Lander was scheduled to set down on December 3, 1999, on the frozen terrain of Mars’ south polar cap.
Unfortunately, it crashed into the planet’s surface along with $165 million of hopes and dreams. – WTF fun facts