NASA's Genesis space capsule crashed in the Utah desert last month because a critical piece of equipment that was supposed to trigger the release of two parachutes was apparently installed backward, NASA officials said Thursday.
The finding, if verified, would be a blow to NASA and its major contractor on the $264-million Genesis mission: Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp., which was also involved in the 1999 loss of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter because of a mix-up between English and metric units.
The problem in Genesis focuses on a device known as a "gravity switch," which was designed to monitor the capsule's rapid deceleration as it reentered the atmosphere and then signal a timer to deploy the first of two parachutes.
Michael G. Ryschkewitsch, chairman of the Genesis Mishap Investigation Board, said that because the switch was incorrectly installed, it could not register the effects of the 27 G-forces the capsule encountered as it descended through the upper atmosphere.
If the system had operated as it was supposed to, the first chute, known as a drogue, would have slowed the capsule until being ejected and replaced by a second, heavier chute designed to slow the capsule to about 10 mph. Helicopters were waiting with special hooks to pluck the capsule out of the sky.
"The board is working to confirm this proximate cause to determine why this error happened, why it was not caught by the test program and an extensive system of in-process and after-the-fact reviews of the Genesis system," Ryschkewitsch said.
He added that investigators had not yet determined whether the gravity switch problem was the only failure on the spacecraft.
The Genesis spacecraft spent nearly three years about 1 million miles from Earth gathering delicate samples of solar wind. Scientists planned to study the material flowing out from the sun in hopes of gaining clues about the early formation of the solar system.
Because of fears of contamination, the mission was designed to end with a helicopter capture of the capsule before it touched the ground. Instead, the craft hit the ground at nearly 200 mph.
Despite the multimillion-dollar accident, scientists continue to feel optimistic over what they have been able to salvage from the crash site. Although the hard landing broke many of the sensitive wafers inside the five collector panels, more of the science material was intact than expected. Several thousand samples have been recovered and sent to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for cleaning and analysis.
"Our hopes remain high that we will get most of the science," said Orlando Figueroa, deputy associate administrator for programs at NASA.
What is giving scientists hope is the expectation that the solar wind particles would have buried themselves several layers deep into the collectors and beyond the reach of topical contamination from dirt and dust.
"Despite the hard landing, Genesis was able to deliver," said Ghassem Asrar, deputy associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington.
The Genesis spacecraft and the capsule were built at the Waterton, Colo., plant of Lockheed Martin Astronautics.
NASA said the space contractor, along with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which oversaw the Genesis project, had been cooperating with investigators.
"All of the people from both organizations who were involved in the Genesis project have been extremely professional and cooperative," Ryschkewitsch said.
Evan McCollum, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, declined to comment and referred questions to NASA.
Genesis is one of several accidents that have involved Lockheed Martin, one of the government's biggest space contractors.
This month, accident investigators released a report blaming the company for severe damage to a weather satellite for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bolts holding the satellite in place were removed during assembly at the company's Sunnyvale facility, allowing the craft to fall to the ground.
Lockheed Martin was also the main contractor on the Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter, missions that failed in the late 1990s.
The Mars Climate Orbiter took off Dec. 11, 1998, on a mission to orbit Mars as the first interplanetary weather satellite. The spacecraft was lost nearly a year later as it entered orbit around Mars.
The problem turned out to be that English units, instead of metric measurements, were used in a software file. As a result, the craft was 170 kilometers too low when it tried to enter orbit. A NASA investigation determined the orbiter either burned up in the Martian atmosphere or was lost in space.
Its companion project, Mars Polar Lander, is believed to have crashed on Mars in December 1999 because of a premature shutdown of the lander engines.
As with the climate orbiter, "the most probable failure of the Mars Polar Lander resulted from inadequate checks and balances," investigators said, criticizing NASA and Lockheed Martin.
NASA's Stardust mission, designed to return to Earth in 2006 with samples of comet dust, uses the same type of gravity switch mechanism as the Genesis spacecraft. Officials said Lockheed Martin and JPL were scrutinizing records on the mission but so far believed the switch was properly installed.
In a statement, NASA said the Genesis accident board expected to wrap up its investigation and reach final conclusions in November.