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NASA’s Historic Trivial Mistake

Have you ever heard of the costly mistake which made NASA lose $572.67 million in a few minutes?

Humanity has achieved a lot of technological breakthroughs and brilliant scientific advancements. However, we’ll remain no more than creatures with limited skills because of our limited senses.

This is not an underestimation for ourselves as humans, but it’s the normal scientific fact. God has created us for a mission to develop civilization and prosperity in His lands. He provided us with the suitable tools for this precious task; “O my people, worship Allah ; you have no deity other than Him. He has produced you from the earth and settled you in it, so ask forgiveness of Him and then repent to Him. Indeed, my Lord is near and responsive.” (Surat Hud: 11:61).

That’s a pretty logical concept in philosophy that you receive what fulfils your needs without exaggeration or scarcity. This is totally natural since we are the creatures of God. He’s the only one who has the characteristic of completeness and perfection. Otherwise, it would have been sarcastic like the Animistic beliefs. They depict deities as creatures who need to sleep, eat, drink,…etc; characteristics that require a needy being and not a creator.

This is scientifically and practically proven since Tigers for examples have stronger muscular tissues than ours. Tigers’ muscles have more blood vessels than us and a larger number of Mitochondria and Myoglobin. Besides, a better ability to deliver oxygen to the muscular tissue. That’s in addition to its slower Oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS). All these factors make the muscles of tigers more powerful than humans’.

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Additionally, the ears of dogs are better than ours. Dogs can listen to sound waves till 60 KHz while our ears can only listen to 20 KHz maximum. For instance, mice ears are more sensitive than ours. They can hear voices of high frequencies as low as 1 KHz; something which we can never feel in our surrounding.

However, we are still the most intelligent creatures; “And We have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with [definite] preference.” (Surat Al-Isra’: 17:70).

This is proven by our extremely sophisticated brains. Our brains encompass the knowledge of the entire 13-billion light year-wide universe. Allah blessed the humans with 200 billion-neuron brains; way more than the number of neurons in the brains of any other living organisms.

We are Only Humans

Noise PollutionThis has allowed us to accomplish all the achievements and the civilized developments we have reached since the beginning of humanity and even more in the future, God willing.

Despite this miraculous organ which Allah created for humans, it didn’t prevent NASA from committing one the most trivial yet costly mistakes in the history of science.

In 1998, NASA managed to launch its MCO mission (Mars Climate Orbiter). It’s a regular 338 kilogram robotic space probe that targeted studying the Martian climate, atmosphere, and surface.

As a vital benefit between both, NASA and Lockheed Martin were cooperating in this space mission. For navigational calculations, NASA was using Metric Units of Newton-seconds (N×s) in the system of the space probe. On the other hand, Lockheed used the non-SI Units of Pound-seconds (lbf×s) in the ground-based computer software.

On September 8, 1999, scientists has computed the Trajectory Correction Maneuver-4 and then executed it on September 15, 1999. Astronomers 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 km on September 23, 1999.

NASA’s flight system software on the spacecraft which takes thrust instructions using the metric unit newtons (N), while Lockheed’s software on the ground that generated those instructions used the Imperial measure pound-force (lbf).

As a result of this mix-up, during the week between TCM-4 and the orbital insertion maneuver, the navigation team indicated the altitude may be much lower than what they 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.

Instead of the correct navigation of the spacecraft, it encountered Mars at an improper angle, causing it to incorrectly enter the upper atmosphere and disintegrate costing NASA $572.67 million.


This horrible loss wasn’t an outcome of a shortage in astronomical knowledge, or a weakness in navigations or aerodynamic calculations, and neither because of neglecting atmospheric studies of Mars nor an engineering obstacle; this has only occurred because of mixing-up and omission.

It’s important to mention that the discrepancy between the calculated and measured levels, resulting in the discrepancy that occurred in MOC mission between desired and actual orbit insertion altitude, had been noticed earlier by at least two navigators, whose concerns were dismissed.

In order to benefit from our mistakes, scientists has identified this mistake since then as the “Metric Mixup”. So trivial yet so pricey! It’s exactly like telling you: “cook a meal at 100 degrees”; if you cooked it at 100°C, the meal will just be overheated and become an inedible piece of black cooking. And if you cooked it at 100K it will be the opposite; it will come out as a frozen dish at -173°C!!

Humans will always commit mistakes. But we must benefit the most from our faults and learn to avoid.

You must also take note that no one is safe from committing mistakes, neither NASA nor anyone except Allah, don’t underestimate yourself, believe in your skills and your mind and have a firm self-confidence and at the same time be aware of your tools, abilities and their limits as well.

Also don’t ever give that incorrect feeling any chance to enter your mind; that Astronomy and Space Sciences are useless trillions of dollars gone in the air. What NASA has financially lost in this partially failed mission was overcome by countless financial, practical, theoretical, and scientific achievements and profits in several other astronomical missions. Profits of astronomical missions exceed trillions of dollars in the form of income for the USA and NASA or in the form of scientific applications in your daily life that you use on a daily basis.

Finally, there is only one question left for you to wonder about; why does a major scientific organization like NASA always cooperate with defense contractors and weaponry manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor!

The answer relies on applications, science and national development.Mars