The NASA blunder that cost the agency a pricey Mars-worthy spacecraft

In a $125 million loss.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Artist's conception of the Mars Climate Orbiter.NASA

Even the most intelligent and devoted scientists make big mistakes.

This is the story of one such mistake that cost NASA a $125 million spacecraft for Mars, as per a NASA statement.

And it all came down to a mix-up of the metric system.

The Mars Climate Orbiter

The Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) was a 338-kilogram (745-pound) robotic space probe launched by NASA on December 11, 1998, to study the Red Planet and serve as a communications relay for the Mars Polar Lander. 

But something went terribly wrong upon the spacecraft's arrival to Mars. "At 09:00:46 UT on September 23, 1999, the orbiter began its Mars orbit insertion burn as planned. The spacecraft was scheduled to re-establish contact after passing behind Mars, but, unfortunately, no signals were received from the spacecraft," wrote NASA in the statement.

NASA led an investigation and quickly discovered that a navigational error had occurred due to commands from Earth being sent in English units (pound-seconds) without being converted into the metric standard (Newton-seconds). Although this might not seem like a big deal, space travel is a very precise science and the mistake led to the orbiter missing its intended orbit (87 to 93 miles or 140 to 50 kilometers).

MCO fell into the Martian atmosphere at approximately 35 miles (57 kilometers) in altitude and burned up and broke down into many little pieces. The spacecraft was forever lost.

A problematic culture

Engineer Richard Cook, who was the project manager of the NASA Mars projects at the time, told WIRED the mistake became legendary. "The units thing has become the lore, the example in every kid's textbook from that point on," Cook said. "Everyone was amazed we didn't catch it."

The story is indicative of the fact that even the best-laid plans can have glitches. Something as simple as a metric system mixup can have devastating consequences.

However, Cook believes there was more to the incident than a mistake. There was a general culture where employees were pushed too far too fast at NASA.

"'Better, faster, cheaper' was the mantra at the time," Cook said. "Certainly that project was trying to do a whole lot for a limited amount of money." Perhaps the best lesson to be learned from this tragic event is to not rush or take shortcuts for missions as important as planetary exploration.

Luckily, it seems NASA has gotten it right with its current Mars missions.

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