As a Keynote and Keynote and Motivational Speaker, I am often asked about the most instructive topics. In my experience, communication is one of the most valuable topics for a Workshop or Keynote. It’s one of those fundamental topics often overlooked as too elementary to include in a workshop. And yet more disasters are attributed to miscommunications than anything else.
One of my segments on communication uses a lesson learned from a team of NASA rocket scientists. The Mars Climate Orbiter debacle is an example of why communication is crucial. It seems even rocket scientists can use a lesson in communication! I also speak from personal experience where a failure in proper communications cost me the loss of half a million dollars. I use my experience as the punch line for this part of my communication presentation as it illustrates how easily these types of incidents can be avoided. It’s a reminder that human error can screw up just about anything, no matter how advanced the technology is. And let’s face it, who hasn’t had their fair share of embarrassing miscommunications? The Mars Climate Orbiter and my foul-up are valuable lessons and an essential segment in my Workshop and Keynote Speaking on communications.
The Mars Climate Orbiter Debacle
In December 1998, NASA launched the Mars Climate Orbiter, a robotic space probe designed to study the Martian climate, atmosphere, and surface changes. The spacecraft was also meant to be a communications relay for the Mars Surveyor ’98 program. However, in September of 1999, after almost ten months of travel to Mars, the Mars Climate Orbiter burned and broke into pieces. What went wrong? Well, someone failed to use the correct units, leading to a costly mistake. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) navigation team used the metric system of millimeters and meters in its calculations. At the same time, Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, Colorado, which designed and built the spacecraft, provided crucial acceleration data in the English system of inches, feet, and pounds. JPL engineers did not consider that the units had been converted, i.e., the acceleration readings measured in English units of pound-seconds for a metric measure of force called newton-seconds. In a sense, the spacecraft was lost in translation.
The Mars Climate Orbiter was built at $125 million, making it a significant loss for NASA. The mistake could have been avoided if proper communication and checks had been in place. However, errors can and do occur in a rush to meet deadlines and launch dates. The Mars Climate Orbiter is a valuable lesson in the importance of attention to detail and proper communication in any project, especially as costly and complex as a spacecraft.
In science and engineering, units are crucial for accurate and precise measurements. The Mars Climate Orbiter debacle highlights the importance of using the correct units in calculations. Any mistake, no matter how small, can have far-reaching consequences. While it may seem small and insignificant, the consequences can be devastating.
While losing a $125 million spacecraft is not a laughing matter, there is a humorous side to the Mars Climate Orbiter debacle. That a simple mistake in units caused such a massive failure is ironic and amusing. It is a reminder that human error can bring down even the most advanced technology.
The Mars Climate Orbiter debacle is a cautionary tale for any project, whether building a spacecraft or something as simple as calculating measurements. The importance of attention to detail and proper communication cannot be overstated. While mistakes are inevitable, they can be minimized through appropriate planning and checks. The loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter was a significant setback for NASA, but it serves as a valuable lesson for the future. Let us all learn from this mistake and avoid similar mishaps in the future.
Scientific American Space Lab. (2011, September 27). How NASA Lost a Mars Orbiter Because of a Metric System Mix-Up [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IUdMNmIbJg ;
NASA. (1999, September 30). Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board Phase I Report. https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/resources/239/mco-mishap-investigation-board-phase-i-report/
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Wes Berry is a Keynote Speaker and Workshop facilitator with the professional skills and real-life experience to deliver on any stage. He is a TEDx Speaker and a Wall Street Journal best-selling author; he has written twelve books in the business and success genres. As an entrepreneur, he built a $750 million international company that operated in 130 countries. Wes has even done some standup comedy as well as radio and television.
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