Following directions.


Genesis had its switches in backward.

IT DOESN’T take a rocket scientist to follow simple directions: “this end up”, say, or “fragile, handle with care”. Indeed, the latest news from NASA, America’s space agency, suggests that a rocket scientist might be the last person you would want.

In September, 2004, Genesis, a NASA space-probe that had been sampling the solar wind returned to Earth . The mission looked like a publicist’s dream—if not for the basic science being done, then certainly for the theatrical method of recovery. The plan was for Genesis’s parachute to be snagged by a hook dangling from a helicopter flown by a Hollywood stuntman.

The bad news was that the parachute did not open . The worse news, according to a preliminary statement issued this week by NASA investigators, is that the reason it did not open was that the switches designed to trigger its release were fitted back-wards. (The investigative team is still tracing the branches of a “fault tree”, and hopes to issue a final report in late November, 2004.)

The good news is that many of the sensitive wafers which had been collecting particles of solar wind (charged atoms and molecules that stream out of the sun) survived the subsequent crash intact. The scientists behind Genesis consider the mission a success.

Luckily, Stardust, a sister mission to Genesis which gathered bits of a comet in the same way, and is due back in 2006, seems to have its switches in the right way up. At least, it does according to a review of Stardust’s construction undertaken as the Genesis revelations came to light.

Both Genesis and Stardust were built by Lockheed Martin, a defense and aerospace contractor. Among Lockheed’s other projects was Mars Climate Orbiter which, in 1999, did not so much orbit Mars as slam into it. That time, Lockheed’s rocket scientists confused yards and meters. Earlier this month, the firm was given a $33om contract by NASA to design a robotic maintenance mission for the Hubble space telescope. Hubble, too, was built by Lockheed, but its own near-fatal flaw, an improperly shaped mirror which crippled the telescope for three years, was the fault of the mirror’s manufacturer, Perkin Elmer. Rocket scientists, it seems, are every-where.


The Economist Magazine

October, 23rd, 2004. (Pg.81)

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