Mariner 1 - Program Error - "The Most Expensive Hyphen in History"

"The Most Expensive Hyphen in History"

The most consistent account was that the error was in hand-transcription of a mathematical symbol in the program specification, in particular a missing overbar. Yet the story persists of a "missing hyphen" (‐), either in the data or in the computer instructions, or even somehow in the equations. No doubt several factors contributed to the "missing hyphen" narrative and its longevity, even in official accounts from technical cognoscenti at JPL and NASA. Among the factors cited (or obvious enough):

  • The overbar's resemblance to a hyphen (‾ versus ‐).
  • The difficulty of explaining the real error to the American public and its elected representatives.
  • External political pressures and internal schedule pressures. After all, the mission was
    • an expensive failure of a three-way collaboration (JPL, NASA, USAF),
    • legitimized within the narrative of the US-USSR space race,
    • very high profile, as America's first planetary mission,
    • on a very tight schedule, as it was planned with a narrow launch window (45 days), leaving little time for inquiries, investigations or recriminations before the launch of Mariner 2. The official accounts (which included mentions of a missing hyphen) were the results of an inquiry conducted in less than a week.

Regardless of whatever may have given rise to initial reports of a "missing hyphen", the simplest and most consistent-sounding explanation that the public and Congress would accept would probably have been preferable to those who simply wanted to get on with the job of a Venus fly-by mission. The stories had contradictions, perhaps, but they were so technical that nobody who could have interfered with Mariner program progress was likely to care about them or even notice. (After all, even in one later NASA account, the supposed "hyphen" is reported as missing from instructions at one point in the text, and from equations at another).

Read more about this topic:  Mariner 1, Program Error

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