Good Example Of A Computer Failure That Resulted In A Catastrophy And Covered In Media Essay

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Software, Space, Spacecraft, Mars, Ethics, Development, Computers, Navigation

Pages: 3

Words: 825

Published: 2020/12/27

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Software glitches and errors have resulted in huge losses and escalated problems. Some computer hardware or software problems have been so huge that they resulted in catastrophic results and even reported in the print and online media. Computer software and hardware failures have been reported in various fields from Healthcare, Space Exploration, Military, Media, and Operating Systems to Video Gaming industries and Telecommunications.
One of the highly reported and a catastrophic event was the disaster of Mars Orbiter Spacecraft which crashed into the Mars planet. Mars Orbiter Spacecraft was used for relaying data from another spacecraft that was set on the Mars planet. The orbiter spacecraft was responsible for conveying data that helped scientist the study of the planet for an earlier presence of water. A navigation error caused the spacecraft to crash on September 23, 1999. The navigation error shoved the spacecraft very near to the planet and eventually resulting in a crash [1]. The error which caused the spacecraft’s crash was identified as a software glitch in terms of mathematical conversion of units. The glitch was termed by NASA as a human error by the engineering team’s lack of identifying and correcting a simple software bug. The spacecraft was into the orbit for only ten months, and it costed NASA close to $125 million dollars [2].

Goal of the Study

The paper objective is to identify a major catastrophic incident that caused huge loss in terms of effort and cost. The goal is to identify one incident that has been widely reported in the media and is supposedly a clear case of error, misjudgement and inability to detect a software defect in time. The case must be clearly described with proper reference citations and also identifying the exact cause of the software error which resulted in the catastrophe.

Background and Discussion

The Mars Orbiter Spacecraft was launched on the December of 1998 and after about ten months in the September of 1999 it crashed in the atmosphere of the planet Mars. The spacecraft was designed to be into the upper atmosphere of Mars and then at a later point move into the lower atmosphere. The spacecraft crashed into the Mars upper atmosphere after it moved into a trajectory that was lower than expected [3].
There have been several accidents in the space that have occurred at different periods of time. At the onset, each accident seemed different with a different set of conditions and events involved. However, with a detailed analysis each one of the events showed resemblances to each other. Leveson, in his study on the role of software in spacecraft accidents, argues that each of space accidents hints at software or a hardware design or implementation error. In each of the incidents, some or other form of software error was reported but never investigated or taken to a logical conclusion. The development processes of the software remained at the same level and indicating an involvement of stricter guidelines and ethics. An investigation board that runs a checklist and a set of experts that review each technical design and development. It is very important to learn from the mistakes of the past and improve on processes [3].

Cause of the Error

The investigation committee looking into the Mars Orbiter Spacecraft crash found the cause to be a mathematical error in the software that was controlling the navigation path of the spacecraft. The ground software that was responsible for the monitoring the trajectory and creating a navigation path failed to use metric units. Instead, English units were used. This resulted in failure to transfer information between the spacecraft team and the mission navigation team situated at different locations [1][2][3].

Lessons Learnt

The report from NASA on Mars Orbiter Spacecraft noted that since the navigation system had worked well for thirty years, there was a perception that that it is self-sufficient, resulting in inadequate attention to navigation risks. Investigators also observed that project managers were focussed on controlling cost and achieving objectives than on the mission risks. Warnings and risks identified from earlier accident reports were ignored or not attended at all. There was no mission quality assurance manager who must be responsible for looking at such risks. The problems that were faced by the launch and initial activities were not seen as a red flag. Communication problems at an organization level were reported. It was also observed that responsibility was dispersed without proper knowledge transfers, and roles were unclear [3].


This paper undertakes an event that was catastrophic in resulted in a huge loss. The cause of the event was a software glitch that occurred partly due to human error and partly due to process error where the responsibility was not properly managed. There are several learning outcomes from this incident that would enable to improve the software development processes and also avoid such errors in the future. The first step is to understand the problem and then act upon it creating robust solutions that can help in avoiding common systematic errors. Also, it is pertinent to have in place software development practises that are based on ethics and moral values to cut down on software errors and resulting losses.

Software Development Ethics

The advent of technology has opened new levels of opportunities and threats as well. With an increasing dependence on the technology, it is important to adapt to a set of ethical standards and code. The dependency of various critical tasks has increased over the software processes. It is important to have a new level of responsibility and liability for the development, maintenance and running of the software products [4]. There are several factors that would guide an effective software process. However, some important ethics to be considered are:

Ethical attitude towards system design

Accuracy of the software developed must be maintained and tested.
Software system output must be as defined in the design
Appropriate access must be provided to the developed system at all levels
The above points are just a highlight however contemporary software systems involve the same set of moral and ethical values that would be required in any transaction. Moral and ethical values like honesty, reliability, responsibility, fairness and accountability [5].


[1] NASA, 'Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board Phase I Report', 1999.
[2], 'CNN - NASA's metric confusion caused Mars orbiter loss - September 30, 1999', 2015. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 22- Mar- 2015].
[3] N. Leveson, 'Role of Software in Spacecraft Accidents', Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 564-575, 2004.
[4] T. Forester and P. Morrison, Computer ethics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990.
[5] A. Thomson and D. Schmoldt, 'Ethics in computer software design and development', Computers and Electronics in Agriculture, vol. 30, no. 1-3, pp. 85-102, 2001.

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Good Example Of A Computer Failure That Resulted In A Catastrophy And Covered In Media Essay. Free Essay Examples - Published Dec 27, 2020. Accessed May 17, 2022.

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