Tracing the origin of Genesis’ crash

A NASA investigative board has found that an elementary design flaw is the most likely cause of the crash of the Genesis spacecraft. Four switches intended to signal the space capsule to open its parachutes were installed upside down. The parachutes never deployed and the craft, which was carrying delicate samples of particles from the sun, smashed into the Utah desert on Sept. 8 (SN: 9/18/04, p. 190: Available to subscribers at Crashing Genesis). Scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston now are trying to salvage what they can from the shattered samples recovered from the 3-year, $264 million mission.

The assembly error was due to incorrect drawings by Lockheed Martin Astronautics of Waterton, Colo., which built the craft. Investigation chairman Michael G. Ryschkewitsch of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., released the preliminary findings on Oct. 14.

Each of the switches consists of a mass attached to a spring. When installed correctly, the mass responds to the deceleration of a spacecraft reentering Earth’s atmosphere, and the action compresses the spring and closes an electronic circuit.

The panel is investigating how the error went undiscovered, despite the extra reviews added during Genesis’ construction, after two missions to Mars failed because of simple errors. Those missions were also designed by Lockheed Martin Astronautics.

The panel is expected to submit its final report to NASA in late November. Lockheed Martin says that the company is waiting for that report before commenting.

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