WE have no choice but to discuss this Mars Climate Orbiter fiasco, but first, let me say I hope everyone's feeling okay this morning after last night's celebration of the new federal fiscal year.
I know many of you got carried away in the hoopla surrounding FY2000. There were fearmongers who claimed that, at the stroke of midnight, the spreadsheets and budget tables would suddenly go haywire, and figures expressed in thousands would retabulate themselves as though they were hundreds. That didn't happen. The numbers still look good. But as we nurse our hangovers we should really think again about whether it's such a wonderful tradition to ring in the new fiscal year by throwing our pencils and slide rules in the air. Someone could lose an eye.
Now, back to the Mars Climate Orbiter. No, wait, one more thing. Jesse Ventura, in a Playboy interview, has denounced organized religion, people who like gun control and fat people. His words were as blunt as his head. Most strikingly, he declared that he wants to be reincarnated as -- a 38-DD brassiere!
Interesting choice -- he's already a boob.
So it's not a good day at NASA. The engineers were supposed to fly the Mars Climate Orbiter TO Mars, not INTO Mars. Right there in the name it says "Orbiter,` not "Lander.` When you design an "Orbiter` you are supposed to MISS the planet.
What actually happened is that the spacecraft got way too close to the surface, where the atmosphere was thicker, and it burned up. But the spacecraft didn't make an error. It followed directions perfectly. The engineers, making their calculations, suffered a mix-up over English units and metric units. They thought they were dealing in newtons, and in fact they were dealing in pounds.
Our reflexive ridicule for such a boneheaded move is tempered only by the fact that most of us don't actually know what a newton is (though I personally am pleased that someone named a unit of measurement after one of history's greatest, if perhaps overly mushy, snacks). NASA, however, isn't supposed to have a pound-newton problem. NASA is not expected to be perfect - cracks develop, fuel lines leak, engines overheat - but we expect it to get the math right. This is an error worse than blowing a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter, worse even than building a stadium that's not on the local subway system. This is, quite frankly, Jesse Ventura dumb.
NASA's announcement of what went wrong induced a state of shock on Capitol Hill. Rep. James Sensenbrenner chairman of the House Science Committee, issued a statement that is herewith reprinted in full:
This sort of thing has happened before. Lou Friedman, executive director of The Planetary Society, recalls that one of the early Mariner spacecraft had a minus sign instead of a plus sign on one of the codes controlling the launch. It was supposed to go into space and went to the bottom of the ocean.
You have to feel terrible for the scientists and engineers who worked on the mission -- these people are unbelievably dedicated and spend not months but years of their lives trying to thread a needle on a planet that's tens of millions of miles away. Obviously someone should have noticed the problem, but in a way it's easier to make a mistake as a team than as an individual. In a group you always assume that someone else is monitoring the toddler.
NASA's going to have some rough days ahead. It has two probes on the way to Mars and is simultaneously trying to put together a giant Lego contraption called the International Space Stations. The space station also has some hybrid English-metric components. It's a good time to triple check the conversions.
A congressional aide said yesterday of NASA's mistake, "It's a junior high school error.`
The truth is, the junior high-school error is precisely the kind of error that we all fear throughout our lives. As a reporter I don't worry about making an adult mistake, I worry about making a childish one, a real howler, the kind that makes the phone ring at 6 a.m., the kind where you don't merely misspell a name but you get the gender wrong AND inadvertently kill off someone who's still living.
If I'm not mistaken it was the late Neil Armstrong who said, "Always make sure you convert to newtons.`
Rough Draft is posted at approximately 1 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, unless it accidentally burns up in the atmosphere.