Mishaps in Space: Failures and Foul-Ups
Improperly installed switches led to the Genesis science capsule reaching Earth without benefit of parachutes. Image
Credit: NASA

It remains a resolute axiom of the space business: "Failure is not an option". However, there are a host of terrible tales of misfiring rockets, lost-to-space satellites and interplanetary probes gone awry.

Perhaps a more solid maxim is: "To err is human."

Foul-ups occur--and often due to intense schedule pressure. Sometimes less money means accepting more risk by reduced testing of hardware. Failure is indeed frustrating. It can be sparked by the littlest thing that turns into a big snafu.

The chronicles of space exploration are littered with costly mistakes. Satellites blow their fuses. Spacecraft shoot by their targets. Parachutes fail to unfold. Ground operators transmit a wrong command.

Why mishaps arise--many quite preventable--might seem a mystery until you put all the fact down. In the end, when the complexity of space missions is fully appreciated, it seems more mysterious that anything ever flies.

And that's exactly the focus of a new book: Space Systems Failures - Disasters and Rescues of Satellites, Rocket and Space Probes (Springer-Praxis Books, 2005).

The fact-filled volume has been written by David Harland, a British space historian, along with Ralph Lorenz, a space scientist at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona.

Errant trajectory

The trials and tribulations of exploration at the high frontier are many. In compiling their book, Harland and Lorenz encountered a feeling "of growing surprise that anything works at all!"

For example, following a string of failures--a Titan 4A booster, the loss of the Mars Observer, a weather satellite, as well as a Landsat remote sensing spacecraft--a panel of experts in late 1993 that studied these catastrophic accidents blamed "too much employee turnover, an unclear organizational structure, and a breakdown in accountability."

In one other instance, a thermal wrap and tape were misapplied, preventing a clean separation of rocket stages. The result: Loss of an expensive Defense Support Program satellite.

The authors also note one incident involving a Titan 4 that had sat on the launch pad for over 1,000 days, with a frustrated Air Force commander threatening to mount a plaque on the booster that tallied the $3.5 million-per-day of delay bill for the U.S. taxpayer.

Japanese, European, as well as Chinese rocket woes are also detailed. Spotlighted is the case in 1996 of China's Long March 3B that toppled just seconds after liftoff. There were casualties and deaths when the rocket took its errant trajectory. That disaster was traced to the deterioration of gold-aluminum wiring connections within the power amplifier for a motor in the rocket's inertial measurement unit.

High-profile losses

Sifting through spacecraft failure reports, Harland and Lorenz underscore the value of redundancy--likening it to a human having a pair of kidneys, but able to live on just one. Broadly speaking, the authors suggest that the number of failures is decreasing, "and their significance is generally becoming less serious."

Still, there's the loss of Mars Observer in 1993, three days before it was to enter orbit around the red planet. Unable to conclusively identify a single cause of the failure, experts later observed the probe was using technology designed for Earth orbiting satellites, not for deep space. Braking engine hardware, therefore, was not suited to spending several months coasting through the harsh environment of interplanetary space.

Then came the back-to-back, high-profile losses of NASA's Mars Climate Observer and Mars Polar Lander--a consequence of the faster, better, cheaper philosophy introduced by the space agency in 1993.

Even the highly successful Galileo mission suffered a major setback when its high-gain antenna failed to deploy fully, greatly diminishing the craft's radio transmission capabilities. That forced ground operators to re-program Galileo's on-board computer, allowing it to fulfill its mission and provide stunning images of Jupiter and its moons.

One classic case of an unstable-in-space satellite design harkens back to America's first satellite lofted in 1958: Explorer 1. In the history books for revealing Earth had a belt of trapped charged particles, the satellite suffered attitude problems, some tied to errors introduced during its construction.

Acts of God

Star tracker breakdowns, gyro failures, balky batteries, clamps that were not removed before flight, a screw pushed in too far--even contaminated lubricants that can give a spacecraft the jitters--all are part of a large laundry list of items that have plagued missions of various nations over the decades.

Of course, Harland and Lorenz add that there is the "act of God" that can haunt a spacecraft too.

Solar storms may threaten. A high-velocity speck of space dust might cause damage. You could also be knocked out by human-made debris. There are shielding techniques that help guard against such dangers. But sometimes, the authors point out, a satellite maker or operator may purposely declare acts of God rather than fess up to malfeasance.

A recent irksome reminder that even the smallest item can bring down a major space mission was the crash of NASA's Genesis return capsule. It slammed into the Utah desert last September. The craft's science canister was badly beat up and solar samples spoiled when parachutes did not open.

It was later discovered that tiny but critical G-switches on the return capsule -- designed to monitor deceleration forces during the plunge through Earth's atmosphere -- were installed the wrong way around. That being the case, the devices were unable to set into action small explosive charges to toss out a set of parachutes.

Bad day at the shop

Consider the take-your-breath away view of a $233 million satellite spilling to the floor. Unbeknownst to technicians working on the spacecraft in 2003, critical bolts securing the nearly two-ton weather spacecraft to its work platform had been removed for another project.

Talk about your bad day at the shop. The damage added up to $135 million in repair costs.

Arguably, one of the most bizarre bungles was chalked up during the Russian Venera 13 mission to Venus in 1982. The craft successfully touched down on the hellish landscape. But when a camera lens cap was ejected to image the local terrain, it came to rest at exactly the spot where a sampling arm swung down.

Data relayed by the Venera lander's arm-mounted science gear dutifully reported on the makeup of the discarded lens cap, rather than the Venusian surface!


Certain inevitability

For the book, Lorenz told SPACE.com that he had considered an alternative title, more on the lines of: "A Million Ways to Fail."

Some slip-ups in space are being made over and over again, Lorenz observed, particularly mistakes involving the polarity of magnetometers - an instrument for measuring the magnitude and direction of a magnetic field.

"Researching the book brought it home just how many things have to go exactly right for a mission to succeed," Lorenz said. He admitted that it's a realization that is something he tries not to think about day-to-day..."otherwise I'd go quite mad."

Lorenz said that a hopeful outcome from reading the book is that people may think twice before dismissing a failure mode as "improbable."

"The craziest things do happen," Lorenz emphasized. "Failures are not going to go away," he said, adding that there is a "certain inevitability" when space systems are almost all "one-offs" that are done under time and budget pressure in sometimes uncertain operating environments.

Unheeded messages

In putting the book together, there were some surprises, Harland suggested, noting that he's a writer, not an aerospace engineer. "So I don't build or operate hardware. I brought an outsider's perspective," he said.

"One thing that struck me was the determination of engineers to rescue their ailing spacecraft...a little like medics trying to save their patient," Harland told SPACE.com. Or to put it another way, he added, in writing the book it "brought into focus the deep sense of loss that engineers suffer when they lose one."

Harland said while there are many "lessons learned" messages, some go unheeded--even those from as far back as the Apollo program.

"The lesson that I don't think has been learned yet--speaking as a non-engineer-- is what Apollo flight controllers asked potential hardware suppliers after the salesperson explained how their gizmo worked: 'How does it fail?'".

This article is part of SPACE.com's weekly Mystery Monday series.