Design lessons from the Mars Climate Orbiter

Artist's rendition of the Mars Climate Orbiter. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Artist’s rendition of the Mars Climate Orbiter. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Alexander Pope famously wrote that “to err is human.” In doing so, he was probably referencing Seneca the Younger who said something similar about seventeen hundred years earlier: errare humanum est. Both quotes suggest that mistakes are a fundamental part of the human experience. If we are honest, all of us would confess to having erred on many occasions. Most of those mistakes were small. Some were large. Thankfully, few of us will ever have to admit to a mistake that cost over $125 million! [1] Continue reading


Brunos and Smoots

We recently spent a lecture in my first year engineering course introducing the concepts of units, unit systems, and unit conversions. We talked about meters and feet. We discussed kilograms and slugs, pounds mass and pounds force. We even talked about esoteric units like furlongs and fortnights. But I realized afterward that I’ve short-changed their education by not mentioning two important engineering units: the bruno and the smoot. Both these units were created by (and named for) undergraduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Continue reading