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NASA’s $125 million mistake

Think communication at your company is bad?

Jason Connell
August 10, 2019
NASA’s $125 million mistake | Fuckup Nights

Think communication at your company is bad?

Well, once, a simple miscommunication turned into a $125 million Fuckup for NASA.

To tell the tale, we’re gonna take you back to 1999, a time when you could download your favourite music off something called Napster, Smash Mouth debuted an infectious tune, and everyone was worried that all the computers in the world would stop working because of a computer bug.


It was also the year when NASA launched their Mars climate orbiter, which was supposed to be the first weather observer on another world.

But, as the $125 million orbiter approached Mars, it disappeared, and pretty quickly scientists realized that it burned up in the red planet’s atmosphere.

So what happened? Well, the error was in the software controlling the orbiter’s thrusters. And it was a crazy simple mistake: two teams were using different systems of measurement.

See, Lockheed Martin, the company who created the craft, expressed force in pounds. But, for space missions, it’s common to convert that to newtons. So, the NASA team assumed the conversion had been made, and didn’t check.

Yep. $125 million gone in an instant because one team was using Imperial, and one team was using Metric, and no one thought to talk to the other team.


But, this isn’t a mistake that just happens to NASA. How many times can you think of when something has fucked up at the company you’re working at because of silos and miscommunication? How many times have things gone awry because someone assumed something?

Usually, it’s better to over-communicate than it is to be heads down and assume everyone else is equipped to do what they need to do.

So let’s all avoid those $125 million mistakes, and take the initiative to communicate better, and more often.

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NASA’s $125 million mistake


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