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It is an ancient Mariner, of which explodeth three


Yes, we are back to unmanned spacecraft in today’s post,and back to tiny errors in editing that have hugely costly consequences.

Accounts vary about the loss of Mariner 1 in 1962, and there is no point in me tinkering with the Wikipedia entry for the blog, as it would only confuse further. Mariner 1 was, unsurprisingly, the first in the visionary Mariner series of planetary exploration missions, less than 5 years after the first Sputnik had been lobbed uncertainly into earth orbit, and was scheduled to perform a close pass of Venus. It didn’t, however, because of an infinitesimally small glitch in the programming. This sent the rocket off course, requiring it to be detonated by the range safety officer after a flight of slightly less than 5 minutes. According to NASA’s report to Congress the following year:

NASA-JPL-USAF Mariner R-1 Post-Flight Review Board determined that the omission of a hyphen in coded computer instructions transmitted incorrect guidance signals to Mariner spacecraft boosted by two-stage Atlas-Agena from Cape Canaveral on July 21. Omission of hyphen in data editing caused computer to swing automatically into a series of unnecessary course correction signals which threw spacecraft off course so that it had to be destroyed.

You see the slight conflict in bold type; was it the initial programming or the edit? Never mind; the editors always get the blame! In 1968, (belatedly, Sir) Arthur C. Clarke wrote in The Promise of Space that Mariner 1 was “wrecked by the most expensive hyphen in history”.

The cost was comically modest by comparison with that of the 2 Mars probes chronicled in my February 20 post, but it was still $18.5m. Those were 1962 dollars, remember, when 18.5m simoleons could still fund quite a respectable few weeks’ unrespectable entertainment. It’s only fair to note that, a few months later, Mariner 2 was triumphantly successful, passing within 22,000 miles of Venus (it was the first Earth spacecraft to have a “positive encounter” with another planet) and remaining in orbit around the sun to this day.

The headline? There were 10 Mariner missions in the programme, and there will be an infinitesimally small prize if you can guess how many of them failed.

More brief audio bliss from Will Self over the weekend.

I was looking through the WordPress logs over the weekend. I appear to have a handful of readers in Norway. God morgen, Norge. Hilsen fra hjertet av den engelske landsbygda. Er en av dere Kjell i Stavanger?


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