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The most expensive mistakes of space engineers

How one bug in the program and confusion of meters and feet can cost millions of dollars

Главное зеркало телескопа «Хаббл»
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Developers of space projects sometimes make expensive mistakes. Let’s recall the five largest engineering errors of the space era.

Rocket «Mariner 1»
Ракета «Маринер-1»
Rocket «Mariner 1». Ph: NASA

Mariner 1 is the first apparatus of the NASA’s «Mariner» project (automatic interplanetary probes designed to investigate Mars, Venus and Mercury), the launch of which was scheduled on July 22, 1962. The apparatus was supposed to fly to Venus, however, after 293 seconds it deviated from the course, and was destroyed over the Atlantic ocean. According to the official version, the programmer made a mistake while translating the handwritten formula into a computer code: he mistook the index symbol for a regular dash. As a result, the on-Board computer software perceived normal speed jumps as critical, which led to a failure. The accident could not have happened, but the device’s antenna lost contact with the guidance system on the Ground, and the program automatically moved to plan «B». The engineering error cost $18.5 million, which the New York Times called «the most expensive dash in history».


Space station «Skylab»
Станция «Скайлэб»
Skylab space station. Ph: NASA

Skylab is the United States orbital station launched in 1873 (the first and only one). It was designed for Earth observation, astrophysical, technological, and biomedical researchs. Before the destruction, it held three space expedition, however, due to increased solar activity, it went off the orbit in 1979. The lowering of the Skylab accelerated, and since the station did not have its own engine, it was not possible to raise it to another orbit. According to the forecasts of the mission control Center, the station was to enter the Earth’s atmosphere on July 11, 1979 and sink for 1300 kilometers in South Cape Town. But the inaccuracy in the calculations by 4% led to the fall of some wreckage of the station in Western Australia. The damage from premature destruction was estimated at $10 million.

Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble Space Telescope. Ph: NASA

Hubble was launched in 1990, but immediately there was a problem in its work: the telescope transmitted a blurred image. After checking, it turned out that edges of the telescope’s main  mirror were too flat, making the telescope «myopic». NASA scientists have developed a program for image processing and, at first glance, the problem was solved. But few months later, other problems were discovered (gyro failures, problems with solar panels and computer malfunctions), and NASA organized three space expeditions to eliminate those defects. One of them brought «glasses» for the telescope — optical correction system COSTAR. Manufacturing and delivering of «glasses» have cost NASA 49.9 million dollars, while since the beginning of telescope’s construction there were spent 6 billion dollars.

Mars Climate Orbiter
Аппарат «Mars Climate Orbiter»
Mars Climate Orbiter. Ph: NASA

Mars Climate Orbiter is an apparatus studying the Martian climate, which was launched by NASA on December 11, 1998. The main objective of the apparatus is to picture the surface of Mars and to study the dynamics of its atmosphere. Nine months later the unit arrives to the planet, turns on braking and begins to move on highly elliptical orbit. According to the calculations of engineers, the device was supposed to change the orbit to circular and to begin research two months later. However, 5 minutes after the start of braking the apparatus passed Mars and never sent any signals. After analyzing the errors, it turned out that the NASA team calculated the parameters of the decisive stage of the flight in the metric system, and the engineers of Lockheed Martin — in the British system (pound-force). As a result, the device crossed the orbit for 53 kilometers lower than required and disintegrated in the atmosphere of Mars; the loss amounted to $193.1 million.

Satellite «NOAA-19»
Спутник «NOAA-19»
Satellite«NOAA-19». Ph: NASA

The accident is not related to the software, but to ordinary sloppiness. In 2003, September 6, during the construction of the satellite, engineers have tried to move it to a horizontal position, but the device collapsed to the floor. The investigation determined that shortly before failure the technician has pulled from the truck 24 screws and has not documented it, but other staff did not check the presence of screws either. As a result, $135 million were spent to repair the satellite.



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