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Could a Dirty Rag Take Out a $2 Billion Satellite? 297

Posted by Soulskill
from the dumb-mistakes-cost-the-most dept.
An anonymous reader writes "The alleged rescue of a U.S. military communications satellite underscores some of the weaknesses in U.S. space efforts. Quoting: 'The seven-ton “AEHF-1,” part of a planned six-satellite constellation meant to support radio communication between far-flung U.S. military units, had been in orbit just one day when the problems began. The satellite started out in a highly-elliptical, temporary orbit. The plan was to use the spacecraft’s on-board engine to boost it to a permanent, geo-stationary orbit. But when the Air Force space operators at Los Angeles Air Force Base activated the engine, nothing happened. The Government Accountability Office would later blame the failure on a rag left inside a fuel line by a Lockheed worker.'"
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Could a Dirty Rag Take Out a $2 Billion Satellite?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09, 2012 @02:14PM (#38640406)

    Seems like the gov't should sue lockheed for failing to deliver the working satellite as contracted.

    Hopefully that'll happen (which will probably leave that worker jobless) and we'll get some of our tax dollars back.

    Shhh... I can dream!

  • by Lumpy (12016) on Monday January 09, 2012 @02:20PM (#38640502) Homepage

    Assembly failure - leave a rag.
    Inspection failure - did not check for rag.
    Pre-flight final inspection - still did not find the rag.

    Wow, complete failure all the way down the line from assembly to mating with the launch vehicle.

  • by pla (258480) on Monday January 09, 2012 @02:27PM (#38640586) Journal
    FTA: "They didn’t know it at the time, but a fuel line had become clogged. The blockage “was most likely caused by a small piece of cloth inadvertently left in the line during the manufacturing process,” according to the Government Accountability Office." (bolding mine).

    So no, we don't know that a dirty rag caused a two billion dollar satellite to fail. We think a fuel line became clogged, and some government bean-counter pulled the dirty-rag hypothesis straight out of their derriere so they could sign off on this one and go home.
  • by wisebabo (638845) on Monday January 09, 2012 @02:28PM (#38640620) Journal

    "Finally, it speaks to the size and age of the U.S. space arsenal that the Air Force felt it had no choice but to rescue AEHF-1 instead of replace it with a back-up spacecraft. 'The asset inventory is getting so tight that they spent months limping the heap to its proper orbit,' the insider lamented."

    Look guys, before you throw away (replace with a backup) a $2 Billion satellite, I damn well hope you try some pretty heroic measures. Those are my tax dollars in (the wrong) orbit! So I'm very glad you didn't have (to use) a backup satellite.

    Anyway, does anyone know if the low power thrusters which were eventually used to put this satellite into the correct orbit used the same fuel tank as the clogged thruster? Otherwise 1) I'm very surprised they had enough fuel to get there and 2) they would probably have very little left to last the lifetime of the mission. So let's hope that all the thrusters used a central (hydrazine?) fuel tank and there's plenty left.

    Space is hard and while the U.S. program has certainly had its ups and downs at least it hasn't seen the near total collapse as what happened to the Ruskies. They had quite a bad year last year and that blogger walking around their factory just exposed their problems more. If Mars is going to be a "Red" planet it will because of China not Russia.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09, 2012 @02:30PM (#38640640)

    Seems like the gov't should sue lockheed for failing to deliver the working satellite as contracted.

    Hopefully that'll happen (which will probably leave that worker jobless) and we'll get some of our tax dollars back.

    Shhh... I can dream!

    Lockheed wouldn't piss off their biggest spender. They'll pay back in the form of a "credit" for some kind of services that have the highest margin for Lockheed. The guy who screwed up and his boss will get fired for sure, and then they will have some business analyst examine their QA process and add a little redundancy in the inspection policies. Nothing to see here folks.

  • by ClickOnThis (137803) on Monday January 09, 2012 @02:44PM (#38640810) Journal

    Yeah. Damn it people! This is just rocket science, not brain surgery!

    Actually, compared to rocket science, brain surgery is a walk in the park [youtube.com].

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09, 2012 @02:45PM (#38640814)

    Seems like the gov't should sue lockheed for failing to deliver the working satellite as contracted.

    Hopefully that'll happen (which will probably leave that worker jobless) and we'll get some of our tax dollars back.

    Shhh... I can dream!

    Lockheed wouldn't piss off their biggest spender. They'll pay back in the form of a "credit" for some kind of services that have the highest margin for Lockheed. The guy who screwed up and his boss will get fired for sure, and then they will have some business analyst examine their QA process and add a little redundancy in the inspection policies. Nothing to see here folks.

    Isn't that what should happen? I mean, when did the world suddenly decide that anytime anyone makes an honest mistake they should be crucified for it forever? If there is restitution for lost funds as well as improvements to try to prevent a repetition of the same problem, shouldn't everyone involved be satisfied? I'm fairly certain that the OP's hope that we all get some kind of tax refund is probably not going to happen, and even if it did, you'd be talking about a few dollars per person at most.

  • Re:Check the logs? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hedwards (940851) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:00PM (#38641026)

    Probably the same reason why things end up being left inside of patients. Accidents happen, even if it's something that should never happen because it was on the checklist.

  • by pixelpusher220 (529617) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:24PM (#38641414)

    49% don't actually pay income tax

    Because they didn't make any money above federal poverty rates....but hey, don't let details get in the way of a perfectly overused irrelevant statistic.

    the top 1% paid 40%

    When they account for 50%+ of the income, the should be paying *more* taxes, not less.

  • by treeves (963993) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:29PM (#38641508) Homepage Journal

    No, not paper. These things are assembled in cleanrooms, in which ordinary paper is not allowed, due to the particles/fibers it sheds. Cleanroom cloths are usually lint-free polyester cloth squares about 8 inches on a side, IME.

  • More seriously, why wouldn't groundside testing notice that there was a rag in the line?

    Some of these positioning rockets are single-use. If you test one you have to build another to replace it. And then test it. And then.....

  • by DJ Jones (997846) on Monday January 09, 2012 @03:39PM (#38641658) Homepage
    Actually that whole 49% figure is misleading. The element of "time" is conveniently left out. 49% of Americans at any given "time" do not pay income tax, not because they are lazy, poor, freeloading citizens but because they are either too young to earn income or retired. In actuality, over 90% of Americans pay income tax at some point in their lifetimes.
  • by Hatta (162192) on Monday January 09, 2012 @04:25PM (#38642314) Journal

    I mean, when did the world suddenly decide that anytime anyone makes an honest mistake they should be crucified for it forever?

    Forgetting a rag is an honest mistake. Failing to plan for honest mistakes by implementing the appropriate checks into your process is negligence.

  • by lgw (121541) on Monday January 09, 2012 @05:03PM (#38642858) Journal

    It is relevant that 49% don't make money above the poverty line. Fix that problem

    That problem was fixed. So they moved the poverty line up, and it will keep being moved every generation, because it's a good political football.

    Look around you and see whether America seems to have a starvation problem, or an obesity problem. Real poverty, as would be recognized in most of the rest of the world, is almost absent in America.

    No matter what you do, 20% of people will be in the bottom 20%, you know. The best system to avoid too much wealth concentration is to change inheritance taxes to be income taxes, so that spreading it out when you die is greatly encouraged. On any shorter timescale I'm not sure it matters, and since wealth and income are different things, you won't otherwise solve a wealth distribution "problem" with an income tax.

  • by syousef (465911) on Monday January 09, 2012 @05:31PM (#38643356) Journal

    I mean, when did the world suddenly decide that anytime anyone makes an honest mistake they should be crucified for it forever?

    Forgetting a rag is an honest mistake. Failing to plan for honest mistakes by implementing the appropriate checks into your process is negligence.

    The engineer following the process is not necessarily the person that created the procedure. Also even if a procedure is in place double failures do occur - they are just less likely.

    I love the way so many people are willing to judge that a man should or should not be fired based on 3 minutes of reading a slashdot story. Really enhances my faith in human nature. Hope none of you ever sit on a jury. What disciplinary action if any should be faced by various staff involved is something that would require at least weeks of investigation, IF you want to go in that direction and waste the time on a witch hunt instead of just fixing the issue.

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