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
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