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Originally published January 30 2005

Titan probe failure demonstrates pattern of quality control failures at NASA

by Mike Adams, the Health Ranger, NaturalNews Editor

Here is a real whopper in the history of stupid space exploration tricks. The spacecraft that recently arrived on Titan was supposed to transmit images and experimental data on two data channels: channels A and B. But as it turns out, someone forgot to turn on channel A and so only channel B was available. And channel B was the least reliable channel of the two. It had slower transmission speed and was not designed to be the primary data channel.

As a result, some experiments were entirely destroyed. One scientist had been working for 18 years on an experiment to measure the winds on Titan, and his data was supposed to be transmitted on channel A. But since somebody at NASA or the Italian space agency forgot to turn on channel A, none of that data was transmitted. And thus, 18 years of waiting was lost.

All of this reminds me of the fiasco that happened when NASA sent the rovers to Mars. When the rovers first got to Mars and started taking pictures, NASA suddenly discovered that, 'Gee! The onboard computer memory is getting full!' For some reason, when you actually take photos, it takes up memory. And after only a couple of days, the rovers were unresponsive because they were constantly rebooting due to the fact that their memories were full. It was as if no one had thought to actually test the rovers here on Earth before launching them into space at a cost of 800 million dollars.

So I have a question. Why do we as a nation spend literally billions of dollars to launch hardware into space when that hardware is being programmed and operated by bumbling idiots who can't flip a switch or remember to test the hardware before launch day?

Of course, NASA always manages to put a positive spin on these events. The Mars rover missions were ultimately proclaimed a great success, but only because some sharp-minded system administrators were able to 'hack' the rovers from Earth with a process that reprogrammed the way the rovers store images.

But as far as the Titan explorer, it's too late for any long distance hacking. The explorer is all but destroyed now. It only had a short window of opportunity during which it could send data back to Earth.

Clearly, we have significant quality control problems at NASA. I recall a recent satellite that was supposed to orbit Mars but instead slammed into the red planet and destroyed itself. Why? Because someone at NASA decided to do the calculations in the English system of measurement rather than the metric system. Funny thing, isn't it, how miles and kilometers don't measure up the same when you're trying to orbit a planet...

So why don't we take some capable people and put them in charge of space exploration? Why don't we offer the job to Burt Rutan, the builder of Spaceship One, the first privately funded craft that has actually reached outer space. This guy knows how to get things done. And his designs actually fly!

Or why don't we invite Jeff Bezos to be in charge of NASA? The guy sure knows how to run a large organization with efficiency, and he's more than a little bit intrigued with space travel. In fact, he's launching his own company to help make long term space travel possible. If he ran NASA, I'm willing to bet he wouldn't make excuses like, 'Oh! We forgot to turn on the switch!' Or, 'We launched a billion dollars worth of hardware but decided not to test it until it actually reached Mars.'

I have another idea too. I think NASA should call all their launches 'Beta' launches. 'Today we're having a beta launch of the Mars rover. And if this one actually works, we may have an official launch many years later. But we won't actually test the spacecraft until it gets to Mars. That's when we'll boot it up for the first time and see if it can manage to store digital images and send them back to Earth.'

Come on, folks. This isn't rocket science. Okay, actually it IS rocket science, but these people are supposed to be the smartest geniuses on the planet. Couldn't they have taken the Mars rover out to a desert and tested it before they launched it at a cost of 800 million dollars? Couldn't they have practiced turning on the channel A data transmission switch on the Titan satellite?

I realize that space exploration is not a simple thing, and it is easy to be a critic when you're a back seat driver. There are a million things that can go wrong on any mission, and it may be unfair to pick out one problem and focus on that as a mission failure. But the reasons these missions are failing are laughable. It's not that the complex things are going wrong, it's the simple things. And if they could just cover the simple things from the get go, it seems like they've got the complex issues mastered.

I'm not saying that I could do a better job at it, but then again, I'm not running NASA. If I were, you can bet I'd have one policy firmly in place: test the hardware before launch day, not after.

Titan probe failure demonstrates pattern of quality control failures at NASA

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