When Simple Typos Destroy Multimillion-Dollar Spacecraft

By Heather Ramsey on Thursday, August 27, 2015
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“The study of mathematics is the indispensable basis for all intellectual and spiritual progress.” —F.M. Cornford

In A Nutshell

NASA engineers are skilled at making complex mathematical calculations to send spacecraft to the Moon and beyond. That’s why it was so surprising that NASA’s $80 million Mariner I exploded within five minutes after lift-off in 1962 because of a typo. One little hyphen was missing in its mathematical code. In 1999, the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in Mars’ atmosphere because NASA engineers forgot to convert their measurements to the metric system. But it’s not just the Americans who have problems with math. In 1983, Air Canada Flight 143 ran out of fuel mid-flight because its pilots also forgot to convert their fuel measurements to the metric system.

The Whole Bushel

NASA engineers are skilled at making complex mathematical calculations to send spacecraft to the Moon and beyond. That’s why it was so surprising that NASA’s $80 million Mariner I exploded within five minutes after lift-off in 1962 because of a typo. One little hyphen was missing in its mathematical code.

This happened during the space race between the US and the USSR. After the Soviets’ accomplishments with Sputnik I and Yuri Gagarin, the first person to go into space and return safely, NASA was eager to do something for the record books. The Mariner program was set to do that. It just didn’t happen the way most people hoped it would.

The goal of the unmanned Mariner I was to fly by Venus and collect data. No other space vehicle had ever flown by a planet other than Earth. At 9:21 AM on July 22, 1962, Mariner I launched with much publicity and great expectations. But the missing hyphen in its computer code caused NASA to quickly lose control of the steering, risking a crash in an area where people lived or worked. Supposedly, a NASA programmer had omitted the hyphen when he entered a lot of code into the computer. As NASA official Richard B. Morrison explained, “[The hyphen] gives a cue for the spacecraft to ignore the data the computer feeds it until radar contact is once again restored. When that hyphen is left out, false information is fed into the spacecraft control systems. In this case, the computer fed the rocket in hard left, nose down and the vehicle obeyed and crashed.”

NASA deliberately aborted the mission and Mariner I was destroyed at a cost of $80 million.

Considering the type of work NASA does, it’s amazing they don’t make more mistakes. Even with the ones they’ve made, their accomplishments have been legendary. But another minor error led to the 1999 loss of the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO). This spacecraft was supposed to orbit Mars and gather scientific data such as weather conditions. But it burned up in Mars’s atmosphere because NASA engineers forgot to convert measurements of thruster firings to the metric system, which then caused navigation errors that propelled the craft into Mars’ atmosphere. This error occurred before the MCO was launched, but no one caught it.

That is so dumb,” John Logsdon, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told the LA Times. “There seems to have emerged over the past couple of years a systematic problem in the space community of insufficient attention to detail.”

But it’s not just the Americans who have occasional problems with math. In 1983, Air Canada Flight 143 ran out of fuel mid-flight because its pilots also forgot to convert their fuel measurements to the metric system. The pilots thought they had 20,400 kilograms of fuel left when they really had 9,144 kilograms. Canadian airlines were just switching over to the metric system, so everyone involved had missed the conversion.

Fortunately, the pilots were able to glide the plane safely to the ground. No one on the plane was hurt during the landing, although some people suffered minor injuries as they left through the emergency exits. Nevertheless, it was a miracle there weren’t more serious injuries or even loss of life. The plane had touched down in the midst of a crowded recreational center that had been set up on the abandoned runway. Luckily, everyone on the ground scrambled out of the way in time.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: NASA/JPL
Priceonomics: The Typo that Destroyed a NASA Rocket
LA Times: Mars Probe Lost Due to Simple Math Error
Listverse: 10 Times NASA Totally Dropped The Ball
Today I Found Out: The Gimli Glider

  • Hillyard

    It’s always the little details that will do you in..

    • Joseph

      The devil is in the details. He must be a cute little guy.

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  • lonelydisco

    And this is why I always take so much time with my Math quizzes.

  • Joseph

    Mistakes happen all the time. There’s no real way to avoid them. The best that can be done is to try and be as vigilant as possible to limit the number of mistakes. Until skynet comes online and kills all of us anyway.

  • Timmy tam

    just go metric ffs

  • oouchan

    My mom worked for Rockwell back in the day. One of her job duties was to review the documents that the astronauts would take into space and manuals for the space team. One typo she caught had to do with the “facilities”. In order to take a piss, the astronaut was instructed to open the vacuum like apparatus, insert organ, close the vacuum and go. However, the typo was that the astronaut had to re-open the vacuum after going to safely remove said organ….see…..that part was left out. If removed without opening the vacuum, a certain “appendage” would go down the tubes. OUCH!

    Interesting.

  • George Rowe

    When writing computer manuals back in the early 1960s (no cell phones , etc.) my philosophy was (and is) that some maintenance guy in some remote location early on Sunday morning sitting before a broken computer has only my manual to help solve the problem. What I had written and illustrations included must be clear and concise.
    So much I read today is so badly written as to be nearly unintelligible. Misuse of the hyphen, use of ‘then’ when ‘than’ is the word intended (as indicated by context.) Misuse of the hyphen is one of the most egregious errors extant. I have often seen the hyphen used correctly and incorrectly in the same sentence. Back then (1960s) I insisted that computer data input was more important than office typing. One small error in computer data input often resulted in computer garbage. “Garbage in garbage out.”
    George