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Lost in Space

A Case Study in Engineering Problem-Solving


Albert Titus
Department of Electrical Engineering
University at Buffalo


The Mars Climate Orbiter was deployed by NASA as part of a mission to study weather and climate on Mars.  It was supposed to enter orbit at an altitude of 140.5–150 km (460,000-500,000 ft) above Mars, but due to an error, the spacecraft dipped as low as 57 km (190,000 ft) and was destroyed. The failure and loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter is examined in this case study, which explores the political, ethical, and economic issues as well as the scientific and technical aspects of the mishap. The case study is designed for use in a freshman-level Introduction to Engineering course.

  • Introduce students to a problem that raises societal, political, ethical, and economic issues in engineering.
  • Introduce students to data gathering, data analysis, and problem solving in engineering.
  • Understand the importance of unit conversion in engineering.
Keywords: Unit conversion; failure analysis; space exploration; Mars Climate Orbiter; Mars; NASA
Topical Area: Ethics, Policy issues, Social issues
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Discussion, Interrupted
Language: English
Subject Headings: Aerospace Engineering   Engineering (General)  
Date Posted: 02/01/01
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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