Recent events remind us both of the frailty of human nature, and the universal need to communicate. In one case, we almost want to laugh--but we won't. In the other case, we want to get mad--and we are.
Let's talk about NASA first. Is it really possible that something so simple as a confusion between metric and English units could have caused the loss of the $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter? For anyone who has been living in a cave for the last few months and hasn't heard about the fiasco, here is a quick summary: Lockheed Martin, which built the spacecraft, used pounds to measure the craft's thrust. But, when they sent the numbers to NASA, scientists there assumed the measurements were in newtons. The result: The Orbiter missed its course by about 60 miles when it approached the red planet. No one knows where the spacecraft is now. The only thing we know for sure is that it's not where it's supposed to be, taking the measure of Mars climate.
Do NASA and its contractors talk to each other? Why would anyone assume measurements are either metric or English and not bother to check? The solution to problems like this are hardly rocket science. It just takes communication.
To miss their mark by 60 miles out of a journey of about 416 million miles must be frustrating for NASA scientists, to say the least. But at least no one was hurt by this human error, and it may rekindle the debate on whether the U.S. should go metric.
But what do we make of the other recent tragedy, the radiation leak from the nuclear power plant near Tokyo? People were hurt by this human error, some seriously.
According to a report in the New York Times, it all began when workers poured 35 lb of uranium into a purification tank containing nitric acid instead of the normal 5.2 lb. That set off a chain reaction which quickly got out of control.
Worse, though, is the reportedly slow reaction of the workers, who, some analysts say, were more concerned with filling out forms than sounding a warning. There's no excuse for that lack of communication.