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Report blames Genesis crash on poor design

Sensors mounted in wrong direction so chute didn't release

Published: Wednesday, June 14 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Genesis space probe crashed near Dugway Proving Ground in September 2004.

Associated Press

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Call it faster, worse, more expensive.

During an era of belt-tightening in the mid-1990s, NASA launched a new approach to space exploration that it termed the "Faster, Better, Cheaper" process.

On Tuesday, a mishap report on the Genesis space capsule — which crashed into the western Utah mud flats in September 2004 — makes it clear that the development of new probes may have happened faster, but it certainly wasn't better and it cost the agency many millions of dollars.

Genesis was launched in 2001 on a three-year, 2 million mile cruise to collect samples of solar wind. These particles would explain much about the makeup of the solar system.

When the probe came in for a landing at the Utah Test and Training Range, the increasing pull of the Earth was to trigger gravity sensors and release a drogue parachute and parafoil to slow the probe's descent. Helicopters were to then capture the capsule in midair.

But the drogue chute did not open and Genesis slammed into the mud flats. Collector plates were shattered and mud got inside the capsule.

NASA had used a flawed design in which the probe's gravity sensors were installed in the wrong direction.

The Genesis Mishap Investigation Board Report makes these points:

  • The design process inverted the G-switch sensor design.
  • The design review process did not detect the design error.
  • The verification process did not detect the design error.
  • The Red Team review process did not uncover the failure in the verification process.

The pitfalls of the "Faster, Better, Cheaper" idea became clear when two Mars probes failed, says the report.

The "Red Team" was an independent review launched after the failures of the Mars probes, said Michael Ryschkewitsch, director of NASA's Applied Engineering and Technology Directorate and chairman of the board reviewing the mishap.

After the $327.6 million Mars Climate Orbiter and the $120 million Mars Polar Lander failed, NASA convened Red Teams to review other projects and make sure they didn't have errors that needed fixing.

But Ryschkewitsch said that unless such a team has "the time and resources to really dig all the way through" the project's intricate details, it could miss something.

Like other reviewers, the Genesis Red Team missed the design flaw.

What caused the design error?

"The bottom line is no one knowingly cut a corner" thinking that would imperil the project, Ryschkewitsch said. But the Genesis probe's teams were "under a great deal of pressure" to not spend too much money or take too much time.

The error occurred when the team used the same design for the gravity sensors that were placed in the Stardust probe, launched earlier to gather cometary samples. When the Genesis electronics component became so large, it was redesigned and changed in orientation inside the capsule.

That meant the sensors were mounted at 90 degrees from the correct angle, and they failed to release the drogue and parafoil.

The $264 million Genesis project was jeopardized. However, NASA believes that through hard work most of the science goals will be met.

A second volume on the Genesis crash is to be released later, said Erica Hupp, spokeswoman at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.


E-mail: bau@desnews.com

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