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How IT Failure Brought Down the Mars Polar Lander

The loss of the Mars Polar Lander was a stark wake-up call for NASA, wherein the potential for small mistakes creating full scale failures (and the inherent failure of not recognizing those small mistakes early) created a sweeping change to process and procedure in the organisation. This release found on Mars.jpl.nasa.gov indicates the root cause of the Lander’s failure: The failure board’s first report identifies eight contributing factors that led directly or indirectly to the loss of the spacecraft. These contributing causes include inadequate consideration of the entire mission and its post-launch operation as a total system, inconsistent communications and training within the project, and lack of complete end-to-end verification of navigation software and related computer models. “The ‘root cause’ of the loss of the spacecraft was the failed translation of English units into metric units in a segment of ground-based, navigation-related mission software, as NASA has previously announced,” said Arthur Stephenson, chairman of the Mars Climate Orbiter Mission Failure Investigation Board. “The failure review board has identified other significant factors that allowed this error to be born, and then let it linger and propagate to the point where it resulted in a major error in our understanding of the spacecraft’s path as it approached Mars. The release goes on to explain how small errors went undetected, communication failed, and handovers didn’t go smoothly. All of these little errors led to the failure of the craft, and also point to the small errors that can bring about the failure of any project.

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