A Difficult Space Anniversary: Mars Mission Failure

A Difficult Space Anniversary: Mars Mission Failure

Ten years ago today — September 23, 1999 — the Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft fired its main engine to go into orbit around Mars. The maneuver was unsuccessful, however, due to a navigation error. The spacecraft was lost.

The “navigation error” — i.e., the root cause of the failure — was contention between English units and metric units in the ground-based navigation software. It was a glitch in the program, and could be considered a systems engineering failure or a configuration management failure in that the error crept in because two different teams — the Colorado-based spacecraft team and the California-based mission navigation team — used two different measurement systems.

The spacecraft had been launched on a Delta-II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on December 11, 1998.


While I’m at it, and for no better reason than that I’m pleased with the work I did on it, here’s a link to the newly-updated North Carolina Aerospace Initiative web site.

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