Jul 242011

In 2003, at the Lockheed Martin factory in Sunnyvale, CA, a NOAA GOES satellite (“NOAA-N Prime”) was being readied. It was bolted to a “turn over cart,” a mechanism that allowed the satellite to be tilted up or down to be worked on. On September 3, 2003, it was in the vertical position, basically sitting on the turn over carts support platform. Several people working on another satellite needed some bolts, saw that this particular satellite was not being worked on and was in the vertical position (thus not needing its bolts). So… they undid the bolts and wandered off with them. Then the crew whose job it was to work on the NOAA-N Prime satellite came back. Their first task was to tilt the satellite over to work on it. Since it had been bolted down securely a few days earlier, they simply assumed that it was *still* bolted down securely.

The results:

Reportedly, there was considerable excitement on the factory floor when this happened. Not just because of the sudden conversion of potential energy into kinetic energy (and then into acoustic energy), but also because the satellites fuel tanks were already topped off with hydrazine. Hydrazine is *not* one of those chemicals you really want splashing around humans who are unprotected and who don’t want to get cancer and die.

This was one of those incidents where several people worked together to accomplish something monumentally stupid.

Fortunately, the satellite was not a total writeoff. While damaged, it was repaired, and eventually launched on February 6, 2009.

 Posted by at 6:08 pm
  • znapel

    I was just reading an article yesterday about how the AF’s new AEHF satellite, manufactured by LockMart, suffered a propulsion problem. Leading theory is that a piece of cloth is stuck in the fuel line. They’ll be able to send it to a proper orbit eventually, via other means. I was wondering how a firm like LockMart could allow this kind of thing to happen. Now I know…

  • Grey Havoc

    Bring back TRW!

  • I dunno, it seems like every time I read about a monumental screw-up in the aerospace industry, it seems to be associated with “Lockheed”.

    I still remember their mess with the Mars Climate Orbiter, programming the blasted thing in imperial units instead of metric like the rest of the scientific world. Or “how to spend 300 million dollars to create a new crater on Mars”

  • Bruce

    Why didn’t they just plain ask before doing this?…..use a little common sense.

  • Bruce

    I’ll clarify on my last statement….someone should have asked if it was okay to remove the bolts before doing so to avoid such a mishap.

  • Sean

    What really perplexes is me about this is that due to the torque requirements on those bolts, they are typically one time use in order to prevent such a mishap. So why Lockmart was reusing them is beyond me.

  • tps

    Its mean but I wish there was a video of it happening and reactions on the faces of the guys as it tipped over…

    • Brianna

      Screaming and hair-tearing. Those guys probably had years of their lives invested in that thing, after all.

  • K

    Speaking of destroying satellites, in the late 80s or early 90s, I believe, a member of a peace group calling themselves the “Harriet Tubman – Sarah Conner brigade” climbed a fence behind Rockwell Satellite Systems division and took an axe to a GPS satellite while it was mounted in a test fixture. It also was later repaired since the activist had no idea what to hit that would do the most damage and ended up just destroying most of the solar array.

    I noted that the day of the attack, there was extra security at the gates – likely someone had a mole in the group, but the activist still managed to make it into the building and chop up the solar array.

  • Michael the Civilized

    Is there insurance for this kind of thing?

    • Ken R


      There’s insurance for loss of the satellite during launch… but I suppose Lockmart could get their own insurance for mishaps prior to delivering the sat to NOAA. I don’t think they could afford the premiums, given the record.

      Remember Mars Polar Lander? The “after that” investigation showed the fuel bellows were never tested to Mars conditions and probably would have failed, but that wasn’t a problem ’cause the engine shutoff switches on the landing feet had been set to ‘landed’. What happened to MPL was the craft separated from the parachute and then plummeted to the surface with the descent engines off.

      So, like the old slogan goes, “Look to Lockheed for Leadership!”. And then go the other way.

  • David Weber

    As to Hydrazine being already loaded..that’s pure bunk. MMH and N2O4 are never loaded at the build site. The proximity of homes to Lockheed Martin and the risk of a Hypergolic reaction preempt even the chance of that. Satellites are NEVER transported loaded ..period. Strict protocols at the launch site are required with full suits worn.during loading ops of either/ both oxidizers or propellants. Any kind of use of Hydrazine as to testing/ loading/live firings are done at remote locations for obvious reasons.

    • Joe Blow

      Maybe they were being lazy about that too.

    • Joe Blow

      “Never mind.” – Grace Hopper

  • Joe Blow

    Dang it. That last one was supposed to be in reply to the article. 😛

  • Christopher S. Dunn

    As an Air Force Technician, a Semiconductor Manufacturing Technician and a Technician working on the Stanford Linear Accelerator’s Computerized Beam Magnet Control System, I can guaranty you that Engineers are the smartest dumb people around. I can also assure you, through years of working with many different educational, technical and professional people, most with degrees well beyond average, there are only a few within any large group of any class of people that are truly worth their salt.

    Most folks, even in those “advanced” degree fields are merely average people with anywhere from mediocre to slightly above average sense. Combine that with a general sense of “let’s do what we need for us” mentality within any group effort and you have recipes for this sort of thing. The “funny” part is that I have worked amongst some of the most educated and some of the least educated folks in this country and the resultant thoughtlessness is statistically the same between the two.

    The real difference is that when the accidents occur, the more educated group tends to make a much more significant loss of money and effort to the mix. It has made me wonder why they don’t have reqiured college courses in Practical Courtesy and Sensible Methodoligies for any higher degree beyond a Liberal Arts degree? Then again, I wonder why Ethics and Logic aren’t required courses for MBAs?

  • Christopher S. Dunn

    Oops, mis-spelled methodologies.

  • Jeff Wright

    Another instance of Parkour gone bad.