Video: Genesis probe crash

updated 10/16/2004 12:50:53 AM ET 2004-10-16T04:50:53

The NASA spacecraft that smashed into the Utah desert last month while bringing home fragile samples of the sun may have been doomed by engineering drawings that had been done backwards, an investigating board said Friday.

Because of the backward drawings, the switches that were supposed to detect Genesis’ re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and trigger its parachutes were placed incorrectly, said Michael G. Ryschkewitsch, chairman of the Mishap Investigation Board.

He emphasized, however, that the panel has not completed its findings on what went wrong with the $264 million mission to capture particles of the solar wind.

The design drawings were produced by Lockheed Martin Astronautics, which built Genesis for NASA, Ryschkewitsch said. How the mistake escaped detection is under investigation, he said.

The discovery of the likely cause of Genesis’ crash raised questions about review processes at Lockheed Martin Astronautics, which was involved in a pair of failed Mars missions that were major embarrassments for NASA.

NASA’s Mars Polar Lander, built by the company, was lost in December 1999, probably when a sensor cut off its descent motor too soon. A few months earlier, the Mars Climate Orbiter was lost when no one noticed that Lockheed Martin Astronautics was giving NASA navigation data in English units rather than metric.

“Since Genesis was being assembled around the time of the Mars failures there were a number of additional reviews and we are trying to understand in detail what was looked at and exactly what happened there, and we’re not yet prepared to comment on that,” Ryschkewitsch said.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, based outside Denver, did not immediately return phone messages and pages left after business hours Friday.

The Genesis capsule spent three years in space but slammed into the Utah desert Sept. 8 at nearly 200 mph after its parachutes failed to open. The impact shattered the special collector arrays inside the capsule that had gathered atoms and ions of the solar wind.

The pieces now fill more than 3,000 containers that have been sent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where scientists are optimistic the samples will be useful.

Genesis was built with four so-called gravity switches, a pair in each of two separate electronics boxes. If either pair had worked, a timer would have started to release the two parachutes, Ryschkewitsch said.

NASA’s Stardust craft, which is to bring samples of a comet to Earth in 2006, is similar to Genesis and will undergo a thorough review. It has the same type of switches, but a preliminary assessment found that they are correctly oriented, Ryschkewitsch said.

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