Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A fairy tale about a space probe failure that never happened

I enjoy reading Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog. On September 5th he posted about The Great Kersten Blunder Blunder. That was a story about failure of a space probe due to a programming error. Among other places, the story appeared in an apparently reputable publication from the National Physical Laboratory titled Beginner’s Guide to Measurement in Mechanical Engineering (on page 8):

“Software controlling the Vigor space probe, on course for Venus, used 24.5 instead of 25.4 to convert millimetres to inches. The error meant that the probe missed Venus completely, and $2 billion worth of technology was lost. The eponymous Kersten was the programmer who made the error.”

What is missing from this story? It doesn’t say who launched the probe, or when. Phil pointed out that even a little Google search will reveal the story is a fairy tale. The moral is that you never should pass along a story without checking to see if it is real. See my August 27th post titled Stamp out fuzzy thinking: Please don’t confuse satire with reality

The image of a wolf and Red Riding Hood came from Wikimedia Commons.

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