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Published: Monday, 10/25/2004

Another oops! for NASA

Perhaps the public would be more alarmed if the government contractor involved in the latest multimillion space snafu also made, say, elevators for tall buildings. As it is, the engineering failure that caused the crash of the Genesis space capsule is one more of those "believe it or not" tales of incompetence in the space program.

The Genesis craft, returning from a three-year, $264 million journey to collect cosmic dust a million miles from Earth, slammed into the Utah desert in September because, a review board said, a gravity switch that was supposed to trigger its parachutes failed because it had been installed backwards.

While officials believe some of the "solar wind" material captured by Genesis can be salvaged, the 200-mph crash was a clear case of human negligence that could have been avoided by closer supervision.

In the annals of scientific screwups, the incident comes close to the fabled 1999 loss of the $328 million Mars Climate Orbiter experiment because English units instead of metric were entered in computer software regulating its retro rockets. The rockets fired 170 miles too low and the orbiter either burned up or crashed.

In both cases, the contractor was Lockheed Martin Corp., one of the federal government's biggest space contractors. Why the company still holds that status is a bit of a mystery, since it also has been involved in at least a couple of other notable mistakes that cost the taxpayers dearly.

A $120 million companion to the Climate Orbiter apparently crashed on Mars in 1999 when its landing engines shut down prematurely. The reason: "inadequate checks and balances" on the part of both Lockheed Martin and NASA, investigators said.

And last year, workers for the contractor improperly removed bolts securing a $239 million weather satellite, resulting in severe damage when the craft crashed to the floor of a California assembly plant.

NASA claims to be chagrined by such wasteful negligence but not enough attention is being paid by Congress to punishing those responsible. The reason: Opinion polls indicate strong public support for the space program despite such continuing mishaps.

Every government program has its limits, though, and the awarding of further huge contracts to Lockheed Martin should be halted until the contractor proves it has cleaned up its act.

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