August 06, 2012

I have #Curiosity about #NASA, #Mars and superstition

NASA's 'good luck peanuts.' ( photo)
Yes, the landing of the new Mars rover from NASA, Curiosity, was an incredible triumph.

But, with such technological skill, does NASA (technically, JPL) really need its good Mission Control staff ... keeping a jar of "good luck peanuts"? No, I'm not joking. (Click No. 3 above the top of the first roll-through photo and caption to get the details.)

Oh, sure, one could easily say it's a "harmless tradition."

One could also look at how it got started, then try to remove all jars of peanuts from Mission Control during the next Mars mission and see just how much of a superstition it is.

One could also note that there have been unsuccessful Mars missions since Ranger 7. The Mars Climate Orbiter, which crashed because different engineers used a mix of metric and ASE (feet/inches) measurements and didn't communicate this to one another, immediately comes to mind.
On November 10, 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board released a Phase I report, detailing the suspected issues encountered with the loss of the spacecraft. Previously, on September 8, 1999, Trajectory Correction Maneuver-4 was computed and then executed on September 15, 1999. It was intended to place the spacecraft at an optimal position for an orbital insertion maneuver that would bring the spacecraft around Mars at an altitude of 226 kilometers on September 23, 1999.

However, during the week between TCM-4 and the orbital insertion maneuver, the navigation team indicated the altitude may be much lower than intended at 150 to 170 kilometers. Twenty-four hours prior to orbital insertion, calculations placed the orbiter at an altitude of 110 kilometers; 80 kilometers is the minimum altitude that Mars Climate Orbiter was thought to be capable of surviving during this maneuver. Final calculations placed the spacecraft in a trajectory that would have taken the orbiter within 57 kilometers of the surface where the spacecraft likely disintegrated because of atmospheric stresses.

The primary cause of this discrepancy was engineering error. Specifically, the flight system software on the Mars Climate Orbiter was written to take thrust instructions using the metric unit newtons (N), while the software on the ground that generated those instructions used the Imperial measure pound-force (lbf). This error has since been known as the metric mixup.
 Now, this could be a "teaching moment" for NASA/JPL, where top brass, at a minimum, says something like this:
While we at NASA are not about to restrict individual employees' behavior, we do not condone it, either, and we certainly do not support the thought processes behind it.
Then, blast that jar out to space along with all the old sweaters of Gene Kranz.

Of course, speaking of sweaters and other sartorial issues, as a segue, my friend Leo Lincourt mentions that JPL even has a history of connection to the occult.

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