By: Cody Moezzi and Madelyn Lucas

Let’s briefly imagine that you’re on an engineering team whose space orbit is 100 km closer to crashing into earth’s atmosphere, endangering lives, and costing NASA 125 million dollars. Except, we aren’t pretending here. This is the true story of a 1999 space orbit failure.

As a biochemistry major, I often find myself in the midst of a long limiting reagent problem or a simple conversion from milliliters to liters, asking whether I’m ever going to use this again. Who even uses moles outside of chemistry? Why does 10^-123328 even matter?

In NASA’s serious case of metric miscommunication, such numbers did matter. The U.S. spacecraft came 100 km closer to the planet than was useful for the team, ultimately failing its entire mission. After investigation, the scientists discovered that the two teams involved, the Lockheed Martin engineering team and the agency team, used different units in calculations for the spacecraft – Lockheed Martin used English units, while the agency team utilized the metric system, preventing navigational information from being transferred between the orbiter team in Denver and the flight team in California. This slight mishap was not worth the increase in danger and decrease in money.


Photo by: China Xinhua News


Do you think you could have saved NASA 125 million dollars?

Let’s find out:

The rocket was fired within 36 miles of Earth. This was about 15 miles closer than had been planned for the mission to be successful. What is the distance in kilometers at which the rocket should have been fired? (Assume 1609.34 meters = 1 mile)

If you answered 81.6 km, you should consider becoming a rocket scientist.

If you did not answer correctly come visit CAPS! Additionally, you can utilize your free CAPS resource for some additional practice to become a conversion master.

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