At an air force base in Guam, during a routine check of a Stealth Bomber (aka The Most Expensive Fucking Plane Ever Built) somebody on a maintenance crew noticed the humidity was screwing up the air pressure sensors. Not a big deal, it's just a $1.4 billion aircraft, not like they could have ever guessed it would be flown in a place where there was humidity. We always go to war with dry countries.
Anyway, they just made sure to dry off the sensor before calibrating it. Problem solved. Good thing they worked that out before anything went wrong!
Communication is a beautiful thing. As simple as the sensor fix was, the maintenance crew overlooked one minor detail, which was telling other maintenance crews to do the same thing. But seriously, it's just an air sensor, with some droplets of water on it. Do those things really even serve any purpose? It's not like it's an engine or a flux capacitor or something.
Really, What's the Worst That Could Happen?
When another bomber pulled into Guam earlier this year, on presumably an equally humid day, a different maintenance crew left the wet sensors the way they were. As it turns out, those air sensors feed data to the Stealth Bomber's flight control system. Important data. The kind that keeps Stealth Bombers in the air.
See, that's what makes a $1.4 billion plane cost $1.4 billion--it takes hundreds of pounds of sophisticated computers to fly the thing. The malfunctioning sensors resulted in a premature take off, a 30-degree nose-towards-the-sky ascent, and ... well let's just show you:
Fortunately for the pilots, they were able to safely eject. And on the bright side, the next time a problem like this arises, they'll know how to fix it!
Along with The Mars Polar Lander, The Mars Climate Orbiter was one part of the Mars Survey '98 project. The ambitious project was intended to study weather and climate patterns on Mars, presumably so we can all move there one day when things finally go completely off the rails here on earth.
With two separate, unmanned aircraft designed to work together from completely different points on a (probably) uninhabited planet, an obvious question is raised. Who the hell is working on our flying cars?!?! Whoever it is, we can only hope that as much careful attention and detail goes into our airborne Prius as was put into the Mars Climate Orbiter.
Or not. When Maryland-based contractor Lockheed Martin was tapped to help build the Orbiter, they made as assumption that many of us probably would also. They're in the United States, NASA is in the United States, and 'round these parts, we don't deal with no stinking metric system. Thus some unnamed engineers installed software in the craft's thrusters that operated on the good ol' American units.
Nobody told NASA this, and they continued doing business in the same fruity metric system way they always have. But shit man, isn't there a checklist somewhere in the billion dollar orbiter building process that confirms these things?
We like to think there was one lone intern in mission control who, upon seeing some odd readouts on a screen, got the urge to ask his supervisor, "Is this like, in metric or American here?" but was afraid it was a stupid question.
Really, What's the Worst That Could Happen?
There are no stupid questions when it comes to $330 million spacecraft. You would really be hard pressed to find a NASA project that went more horribly wrong that didn't involve multiple fatalities. While neither machine performed particularly well, The Mars Polar Lander at least lived up to the promise of its name and, you know, landed.
The Mars Climate Orbiter, on the other hand, just couldn't be bothered. Initially expected to enter orbit at an altitude of 140 kilometers above Mars, the whole metric system misunderstanding caused the thrusters to fire incorrectly, causing the Orbiter to come in as low as 57 kilometers. At that height, the Orbiter was perilously close to the Martian atmosphere. Or at least that's where it was the last time anyone saw it.
The thing vanished, the most likely explanation being that atmospheric pressures and friction caused it to burst into flames and disintegrate. But, as a website that thrives on geekery, we're unwilling to rule out alien intervention. Whatever the case, it proves that countless disasters can be prevented by simply assuming everyone you're working with is a moron.
Find out about people who screwed things up in entirely intentional ways in The 7 Insane Conspiracies That Actually Happened. Or find out about five more tiny things that can fuck your world up in The 5 Most Horrifying Bugs in the World.