LOS ANGELES – A report released Tuesday blamed a design flaw for the 2004 crash of a NASA space probe carrying solar wind atoms back to Earth and criticized engineers for failing to detect the error.
The 231-page document prepared by independent investigators found that gravity switches on the Genesis probe designed to trigger the deployment of its parachutes were installed backward.
Genesis' chutes never opened and it slammed into the Utah desert on Sept. 8, 2004, after a three-year mission collecting microscopic solar wind particles that scientists hoped would provide clues to the origins of the solar system.
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Investigators found that the probe's builder, Lockheed Martin (LMT), skipped a critical pre-launch test, which would have uncovered the fatal flaw, because of time constraints.
Instead, engineers decided to do a simpler test by comparing Genesis' design to drawings of another spacecraft, Stardust, which was built earlier and had passed rigorous testing.
Lockheed said it was reviewing the final report and will implement changes to ensure future success.
"The Genesis mission serves to again remind us just how demanding space exploration always is and how exact our efforts must be," the company said in a statement.
The report also said lack of oversight by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which managed the $264 million mission, caused the error to remain undetected from the design phase to the review stage.
Investigators also faulted the space agency's "faster, better, cheaper" philosophy for creating an environment where cost issues were put ahead of a successful mission.
That philosophy "created an ever-present threat of cancellation if overruns occurred on cost-capped missions," investigators wrote.
Chris Jones, who heads JPL's solar system division, didn't dispute the report's findings, but said the center has made significant strides in beefing up the number of engineers assigned to a mission.
"Clearly, we want missions to be cost-effective, but we don't want to cut corners just to make them cheaper," Jones said.
Genesis was supposed to plunge through the atmosphere in 2004, open its parachutes and be snagged by a helicopter that would lower it softly to the ground. Instead, it slammed into the salt flats at nearly 200 mph, cracking open and exposing the cosmic samples to contamination.
Genesis had collected billions of charged solar atoms — no bigger than a few grains of salt — that could explain how the sun formed about 4.5 billion years ago.
For days, scientists picked through the wreckage to salvage whatever they could from the mangled mess. They managed to save some fragments from the inner canister and shipped them to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for analysis.
Despite the crash, scientists remained optimistic that they could still achieve their main scientific objectives. Earlier this year, several scientists presented preliminary data from the mission that included an analysis of elements present in the sun's atmosphere.