The Sciences

Sky Lights

In space, what can go wrong will go wrong, which adds considerably to the adventure

By Bob BermanApr 1, 2000 6:00 AM


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Happy days of discovery are the exception, not the rule, for scientists who explore outer space. High-tech satellites and probes are only as good as their fallible engineers, which means textbook triumphs usually come only after repeated battles with Murphy's Law. The Galileo spacecraft, now concluding its remarkable five-year tour of Jupiter and its moons, has just such a dark past. After Galileo's much-delayed launch, dismayed ground controllers discovered that its main antenna had become stuck during the craft's long stay in storage. They frantically reprogrammed the 2.4-ton behemoth so it could relay information through its puny backup antenna, slowly but effectively.

NASA astronauts had to install new optics to correct the Hubble Space Telescope's misshapen mirror. Courtesy: NASA/ SPL/ Photo Researchers

April seems an appropriate time to review the many other blunders behind astronomy's proud achievements. America's first interplanetary pacecraft, Mariner 1, never made it to Venus because someone omitted a hyphen in the software programming--not the last time a single punctuation goof would cost millions of dollars. Manned exploration also had problematic beginnings, from the Liberty Bell 7 capsule that sank on touchdown when its hatch prematurely blew, to the Gemini 8 spaceship that went into a near-fatal tumble when a thruster got stuck in the "on" position. In 1967, a launchpad fire in the Apollo 1 capsule killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Edward White, who were trapped by a slow-opening manual hatch lock. After Apollo 1, NASA worked overtime to improve the design and operation of the manned space program. As a result, the pioneering Apollo 11 moon landing was an unqualified success. Well, almost. As Neil Armstrong placed the first human foot on the moon, he mangled his well-rehearsed speech. He had meant to say "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." But he left out the article ("One small step for man . . ."), leaving his meaning unclear.

"Fools imagine the day will always meet dusk without disaster," said a dejected astronomer while watching the misadventures of Skylab. The giant U.S. space station lost a meteoroid shade and half its solar panels during its launch in 1973. Technology progresses, but the list of mishaps goes on and on. The Soviet Union's Venera probes to Venus repeatedly fizzled and fried when they reached the planet's surface during the 1970s. In 1986, NASA launched the Space Shuttle Challenger on a cold day, when the seals in its solid-fuel rockets wouldn't hold properly, resulting in the tragic explosion. The Hubble Space Telescope went into orbit in 1990 equipped with a flawed mirror, exquisitely fashioned to the wrong shape, while a perfect backup mirror sat useless in a warehouse. Even when the equipment works fine, often the scientists themselves go awry. In 1997, Louis Frank at the University of Iowa announced that Earth is constantly bombarded by tiny comets that replenish the oceans. His colleagues soon concluded that what Frank was seeing were actually instrument noise and data glitches on the satellite images he was studying.

Day after day, human exploration of the cosmos keeps teaching the same lesson. Error is an inevitable part of our experience; in space as on Earth, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The best we can do is learn from our mistakes and move on, accepting our foolishness--a message you can extract from this article by linking together the first word of each paragraph.

NASA maintains an on-line history of manned space flight ( history/index.html), as well as a chronology of all unmanned lunar and planetary missions--successes and failures-- ( For the story of the missing hyphen that caused the Mariner 1 to crash, see

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