Folks at NASA were pretty excited early in the morning of September 23, 1999, as they prepared for the Mars Climate Orbiter to start circling and studying the Red Planet. The Climate Orbiter was one of the new wave of inexpensive space exploration vehicles – it had cost a mere $650 million dollars to build, launch, and monitor – and it was expected to produce bucketloads of useful data on the climate and weather of Mars. But as the engineers on Earth tried to guide the craft into orbital insertion that morning, something went wrong. Instead of looping in lazy gentle circles around the planet, the Climate Orbiter flew screaming into Mars’s lower atmosphere. It was torn apart and incinerated as it crashed to the surface, becoming no more than elaborate, unseen fireworks worth two-thirds of a billion dollars.
A week later, NASA announced that they had found the cause of the loss. The team of engineers that had built the spacecraft had programmed metric units into the on-board software, but the team of engineers on the ground that September morning had been working in Imperial units – feet, pounds, etc. Oops. When the ground team thought they were telling the ship to fire its rockets just enough to park it in orbit, they were really telling it to gun its engines for a kamikaze attack.
To its credit, NASA used this mishap as a learning experience and incorporated the lessons learned into its planning for future missions. NASA Administration Daniel Goldin took responsibility for the loss, stating that in trying to push NASA employees to do things “faster, better, cheaper,” he “pushed it too hard.” What I have always wondered about, though, is what became of those individual engineers involved in the mission whose assumptions about what they were working with led to the fatal error. As far as I can tell, they were never publicly censured, and because (publicly, at least) NASA emphasized the organizational faults and their corrections, it may be that the individual engineers were held blameless. On the other hand, perhaps they were censured, and the loss of the Climate Orbiter took a toll on their future career advancement. Without really knowing the internal politics of NASA, how can anyone guess what happened to them?
But I also wonder about how they dealt with it personally. After all, not many people who aren’t elected officials get to feel personally (if only partially) responsible for wasting hundreds of millions of dollars. And for them it was probably worse than just the money spent; they had also invested thousands of hours of their time and the time of their colleagues, not to mention their aspirations of real scientific advancement. In their shoes, even if I had accepted the error as a systematic one, not a personal lapse, I’d always be thinking, “But if only . . . !” The whole incident is a reminder to me that career success and fulfillment depends not just upon finding a place for yourself in the big picture – listening to your inner voice and selecting a path that truly suits your talents and aspirations – but also upon attending to the details, every day, once you have claimed that space as your own.