Faster + Cheaper – Better = Spectacular Failures

In September 2004, a probe from the Genesis space mission returned to earth in what was supposed to be a controlled parachute descent. However, the parachutes never opened, and the probe crashed into the Utah desert, destroying most of the space dust specimens it had collected during its 27 months in space.

An investigation into the malfunction blamed NASA’s new emphasis on a “Faster, Better, Cheaper” design process.  In this case, apparently, they got the Faster and Cheaper part, but neglected the Better. It turns out that four deceleration sensors had been  designed  backwards. The probe was doomed before it was ever launched.

And now it turns out that the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft that suddenly died in November 2006, after ten years of extraordinary work circling the red planet, was the victim of a bungled software patch that was uploaded to the spacecraft prior to the failure.  The patch caused both batteries on the spacecraft to completely discharge, and temporarily blinded ground controllers to the problem until it was too late.

These failures do not inspire confidence in the ability of NASA to advance the frontiers of space exploration.


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