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Mars Bug NASA Space

Mars Phoenix Lander's Ovens Were Destined To Fail 77

Posted by Soulskill
from the double-checking-is-for-wimps dept.
RobertB-DC writes "The Phoenix mission to Mars' frigid polar regions was going to be tricky from the start, with only a few weeks to perform as much science as possible. Success depended on everything working right. But one of the mission's most frustrating glitches — the stuck doors on the TEGA ovens — could have been prevented with basic quality control on Earth. Nature is reporting that bad brackets were replaced by the manufacturer ... with identically bad brackets. The Planetary Society blog sums it up succinctly: 'Ouch. Ouch ouch ouch.'"
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Mars Phoenix Lander's Ovens Were Destined To Fail

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  • Design by commitee (Score:3, Insightful)

    by linzeal (197905) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @09:22AM (#26102137) Homepage Journal
    This is what happens when too many people have their hands up the engineers and by extension the technicians' asses.
    • by causality (777677) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @09:27AM (#26102167)

      This is what happens when too many people have their hands up the engineers and by extension the technicians' asses.

      Sounds like a bunch of smelly hands.

      • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Sounds like they want to stink-palm somebody... mmh, chocolate pretzels...

      • by reilwin (1303589)

        Sounds like a bunch of smelly hands.

        Smells like a bunch of noisy hands.

  • So ? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Fred_A (10934) <fred.fredshome@org> on Saturday December 13, 2008 @09:22AM (#26102141) Homepage

    Aren't they covered by warranty ? Get them to replace them.

    • Re:So ? (Score:5, Funny)

      by TheLink (130905) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @09:38AM (#26102227) Journal
      I think the main problem is when you ask for on site support.

      They'll look at you as if you came from another planet or something.
    • by peragrin (659227)

      hey i can see the tech support bill for that one.

      think call center's in India are annoying?The martian centers refuse to speak any earth language.

    • Re:So ? (Score:4, Funny)

      by confused one (671304) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @09:48AM (#26102261)
      But they want you to pay the return shipping.
    • Re:So ? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Sockatume (732728) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @11:00AM (#26102677)
      Seriously, they should do this. Hold them to the same standards as a washing machine company. If a contractor screws up, they're going to pay for sending an engineer out there to fix the product. (And if they want him back, they can pay or that too.) If they don't want to do that, well, they can pay for a whole new mission. Then they're less likely to do things like skip diagnostics and fuck up multi-million dollar missions [wikipedia.org].
      • Re:So ? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Enter the Shoggoth (1362079) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @11:12AM (#26102749)

        This reminds me of the the Apple iBook I have rotting in a draw somewhere, Apple acknowledged that the product had a known [apple.com] design fault, but all they did was replace the logicboard with an identical one, which of course would also fail, in my case I went through _six_ logicboards, two of them in the one go (the tech replaced it and it failed during testing so had to be replaced again before it was returned to me)

        What really amazes me about this is that it is legal. This is due (in my country at least) to corrupt politicians taking too many brown paper bags full of cash in return for winding back consumer protection laws... if a manufacturer acknowledges that there is a known _design_ fault and then continues to provide the faulty product they aught at the very least be told to replace the faulty product with a _redesigned_ one without someone having to go to the trouble of filing suit. Personally, in addition to this I think the executives should also be sent to pound-me-in-the-ass prison.

        • by cide1 (126814)
          I played that game with my iBook G3. Eventually I got fed up with it and bought an iMac G5 20". I paid $2200 for it. My iMac G5 failed after two years, Apple replaced the logic board + power supply due to bad caps. Another two years later, the exact same failures. Apple washed their hands of it, as it was past the 3 year warranty. They openly acknowledge this is a systemic problem, but have no plans to correct it. I was a very loyal customer, with the iBook G3, the iMac G5, a Macbook, 3 iPods and an
          • by adolf (21054)

            And this, boys and girls, is why we don't buy Apple products.

            Or anything else proprietary, for that matter. Especially for desktops. (Laptops get a bit of exception here, on the basis that they're all finicky little pricks by default.)

            Were it a parts-built desktop PC with after-warranty bad caps (raise your hand if you haven't seen an Athlon XP box with bad caps), it'd have been fairly easy and inexpensive to replace the motherboard with something different of newer design.

            Alas, the 20" iMac G5 (which sou

      • by sjames (1099)

        Absolutely, insist on that in writing.

        You'll get one of two possible responses. The first response is to decline to bid on the contract at all. The second is to form a subsidiary to bid with the explicit intention of declaring bankruptcy if you try to collect on the warranty.

  • How will we know exactly how extremely high altitudes affect baking times now?
  • by owlnation (858981) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @09:58AM (#26102305)
    Ovens?

    Sounds like too many cooks were involved.
  • by 3seas (184403) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @10:00AM (#26102317) Journal

    ...isn't this what happens when you gotta have it yesterday?

  • One more thing to add to my list why humans should be involved in space exploration, not just robots.. Perhaps this could be fixed if there was a human there?!
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Face it - humans (at least, American humans representing NASA) aren't going to Mars any time soon. The bad PR from a fatal mission failure would be too much for them to overcome, so they will never try. The West is too pussy whipped by the safety police to attempt manned interplanetary exploration.

      Plus, this problem could have been averted by simply checking the oven bracket design again after it came back from Honeybee. Honeybee should be sued for returning a flawed design a second time and ruining the

      • Human Mars mission (Score:4, Informative)

        by wfstanle (1188751) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @01:02PM (#26103723)

        You are forgetting something ...

        Some plans for a manned Mars mission were based on there not being a return trip to Earth. Anyone who went on such a mission would be marooned there on purpose. It's not a kind of trip I would like to take.

        • by Toonol (1057698) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @04:05PM (#26105247)
          I think there would be no shortage of volunteers. And by that, I mean, millions of volunteers, including all astronauts, and everybody that wants to be one.

          I'm kind of surprised to read a poster on slashdot write they wouldn't volunteer for a one-way mission.
          • by chis101 (754167)

            I'm kind of surprised to read a poster on slashdot write they wouldn't volunteer for a one-way mission.

            As cool as going to Mars would be, I for one don't want to die for it.

          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            by KORfan (524397)

            Just run an ad in the paper saying something like this

            "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success."

            Evidence suggests you'll get more volunteers than you can use.

            • Honour and recognition in event of success.

              Technically, they would get that anyways. They just get to enjoy it more if they survive.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by sjames (1099)

      One more thing to add to my list why humans should be involved in space exploration, not just robots.. Perhaps this could be fixed if there was a human there?!

      That's not a very good reason to send humans to Mars. For the difference in cost, we can send a dozen or so replacement probes before we even approach the cost of a manned mission.

      We would do well to expand our orbital presence first. We need better than chemical propulsion and we need life support systems that can run as a closed system. It's much better to test that in orbit where a failure means we evacuate and try again rather than on a Mars mission where failure means transmit your last words.

      Once we h

  • "were just a hair's width too big"

    and is obstructing the door??? that's some horrible engineering.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tftp (111690)
      Yes, it is a horrible engineering. However these are one-off designs that never existed before and will never exist after. There is no legacy to build upon, and there is no "Release 1" to learn from. The very first release flies the mission, and if there are bugz ... too bad. To confound the problem, much of this work is probably done by scientists and not by engineers; that's why if the gap between doors is above zero it's all good to go. An experienced mechanical engineer would consider thermal expansion
  • by PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @10:34AM (#26102501)

    From the blog:

    Boynton and his team had noticed, on a test version of TEGA, that the brackets at the bottom of this cover were just a hair's width too big, and as a result obstructed the doors. They sent revised designs for the cover to the manufacturer, Honeybee Robotics of New York. New parts were delivered and installed. But Honeybee had made the new parts using the original flawed designs -- and nobody in Tucson checked them. "They should've caught it and we should've caught it, but neither of us did," says Boynton, ruefully.

    . . . which is why NASA needs to hire my mother as oven test engineer. Not only would she have noticed "hair's width" difference, she would have taken every opportunity she had to complain to everyone she knows, and even total strangers about it.

    On the other hand, once the door problem got fixed, she would find something else wrong with it, and the damn thing would probably never get off the ground.

    • by isaac338 (705434)

      From the blog:

      Boynton and his team had noticed, on a test version of TEGA, that the brackets at the bottom of this cover were just a hair's width too big, and as a result obstructed the doors. They sent revised designs for the cover to the manufacturer, Honeybee Robotics of New York. New parts were delivered and installed. But Honeybee had made the new parts using the original flawed designs -- and nobody in Tucson checked them. "They should've caught it and we should've caught it, but neither of us did," says Boynton, ruefully.

      Doesn't NASA of all institutions have the capacity in-house to machine off a couple thou from whichever dimension was oversize?

      • Yeah seriously I work at a factory that makes formed insulation for electrical transformers, and I'm willing to say that just about any of our CNC machines could probly have planed down a couple thousandths from a few sides. O NASA, how we love you.
      • yes, but it's very hard to ACCURATELY estimate the size of the oven in the quite large temperature variations on Mars.. Don't forget the oven does expand and contract every day/night, and every time it warms itself up.
      • by pavon (30274) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @01:00PM (#26103709)

        The lander wasn't made by NASA, JPL, or anyone like that. It was designed and assembled by the University of Arizona, who naturally had to get most of the parts fabbed by other folks.

        • by lytir (1415381)
          The university of Arizona defined the scientific objectives. The spacecraft was designed and built by Lockheed.
          • by Tablizer (95088)

            Different parts were built by different organizations. Lockheed may have been the main integrator.
                 

    • I am very picky and stubborn with things. And that' why I have a job in software quality assurance (SQA). I always finds things that bother me even it is a pixel size problem. :D

  • Amazing (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RAMMS+EIN (578166) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @01:28PM (#26104001) Homepage Journal

    ``Nature is reporting that bad brackets were replaced by the manufacturer... with identically bad brackets.''

    Isn't that just purely amazing? A manufacturer who _knows_ the component is bad (because it needs replacement), and then replaces it with ... the same thing with the same faults. That's just unethical. I hope they are suitably punished.

    Also, you would have thought that, after sending a component back for replacement, the replacement would be tested to see if the problem had been fixed.

    I just don't have words anymore.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by NekSnappa (803141)
      As the saying goes. "Never attribute to malice what can be explained with incompetence."
      This could well have been an issue of poor configuration management. Since the article says they used the same drawings. I imagine that even if their models were updated if those changes weren't propagated up through the drawings and the machining files used on the fabrication floor.
      So the net result would be an identical part being fabbed.
    • This sounds like the classic, if apocryphal, ISO 9000 process written by a noticed to termination and pissed employee.
      "Floppy disks are to be soaked in warm, 96 deg water before shipping"
      Same shit, developed without reviewing the processes and executing same without thought.
      Idiots!

    • by instarx (615765)

      Not unethical - just sloppy and incompetent. On any job there is usually one and only person who is able to anticipate problems and do "what ifs" to head off problems. Everyone else is just doing their 9-5. Clearly the spacecraft people didn't have one of those.

      i am increasingly depressed by the sheer incompetence of most people in this country, from assembling hamburgers to Mars landers.

  • documentation (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wkk2 (808881) on Saturday December 13, 2008 @02:21PM (#26104415)
    Everything needs a version number and serial number.
  • manglement (Score:3, Informative)

    by sohp (22984) <snewton&io,com> on Saturday December 13, 2008 @04:05PM (#26105237) Homepage

    Most of the comments so far are focusing on the oven door problems. Naturally, because that's what's mentioned in the summary and no one RTFAs.

    Anyway, the *much* more interesting revelation is that after the problems came up, the directive came all the way down from the top of NASA directing the mission scientists to change their plans. "At the end of June, word came down that the Phoenix team was to treat its next TEGA sample as its last, and to go after a sample of rock-hard ice before it did anything else. The Tucson team had lost its autonomy." After that, the team blew at least a month trying to meet this directive, and missed out on doing some of the basic science they wanted to do, just so NASA heads could trumpet feel-good publicity about having detected ice with Phoenix.

    • It was clear to management that the mission scientists had stuffed up and were not to be trusted.
      • by sohp (22984)

        That *might* be true, but if it were, you'd think they'd have been asked to conduct some real science, not focus on the golly-gee-whiz-we-found-ice aspect.

  • Clearly what happened is that the design was made specifying a tolerances of a blonde hair, and it was built to within a red one. When will these engineers learn to be more specific!
  • Nature is reporting that bad brackets were replaced by the manufacturer ... with identically bad brackets. The Planetary Society blog sums it up succinctly: 'Ouch. Ouch ouch ouch.'

    Not to mention the diodes down its left side.

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