A NASA investigative board has found that an “elementary design flaw” is the most likely reason for the loss of the Genesis, which smashed into the Utah desert Sept. 8.
Four switches, intended to signal the capsule to open its parachutes, were installed upside down, according to the board’s preliminary report.
The parachutes didn’t deploy and Genesis, carrying delicate samples of particles from the Sun, hurtled to the ground. NASA scientists at the Johnson Space Center in Houston are salvaging what they can from shattered sample containers recovered from the three-year, $264 million mission.
The assembly error was due to incorrect drawings made at Lockheed Martin Astronautics of Waterton, Colo., which built the craft, according to the investigation’s chairman, Michael G. Ryschkewitsch of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Each of the switches is a mass attached to a spring which – when installed correctly – responds to the deceleration of reentry into the atmosphere, closing an electronic circuit.
The panel is investigating how the error went undiscovered, despite extra reviews that were added after the failures of two Mars missions due to similar “simple” errors. Those missions also were designed by Lockheed Martin Astronautics.
Lockheed Martin officials say they will not comment until the panel’s final report is issued.