Magazine article Insight on the News

Mars Crash Questions NASA's Competency Gap

Magazine article Insight on the News

Mars Crash Questions NASA's Competency Gap

Article excerpt

When waste & abuse rails against tax dollars "vanishing into thin air" or falling "down a hole," it's usually just hyperbole -- a cry for help from a writer suffering from simile fatigue. But in the case of NASA's $165 million

Mars Polar Lander, lost somewhere near or on the Red Planet Dec. 3, 1999, we can use such cliches with a clear conscience, knowing there's a good probability that the mission, and all the time and money it cost, "vanished into thin air" by falling "down a hole" that we earthlings might say is like a "canyon."

There may be a myriad of technical reasons for the spacecraft's sudden disappearance. "The simplest explanation is it's just not there," flight-operations manager Sam Thurman said upon calling off a monthlong effort to communicate with the silent probe. But simple human error increasingly is seen as the most likely culprit. The spacecraft's landing zone was no Sea of Tranquility, according to the Denver Post and, as things turn out, it included a one-mile-deep, six-mile-wide canyon that easily could have swallowed the Lander.

The canyon's existence, however, reportedly came as a post-catastrophe shock to the Lockheed Martin team charged with steering and landing the spacecraft, following directions from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL. …

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