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Number Identity Crisis

An artistic rendition of the Mars Climate Orbiter. Photo credit: NASA

The time had finally come for NASA to send the spacecraft into orbit around Mars.  In the early morning hours of September 23, 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter disappeared behind the red planet.  A team of scientists waited for this spacecraft to reappear on the other side of Mars, but it never did.   The $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter was lost forever to the Martian atmosphere. What went wrong with this mission?  It’s actually quite simple.  The two teams working on the spacecraft, one in located in Colorado and the other in California, were using different units of measure in their calculations (e.g., one team measured in feet and the other in meters) and failed to communicate about this difference.

Units of measure – miles, meters, pounds, grams, quarts, liters, etc. – are crucial for practicing good science.  You might have heard that normal letter-sized paper is 8 ½ by 11.  But is it 8 ½ by 11 centimeters, inches, miles, or what?  From the context, you know that it’s safe to assume we’re talking in inches here (really – who’s ever heard of paper 8 ½ by 11 miles?), but it isn’t always this obvious.  If you get into chemistry very much, you will find that many of the scary looking calculations hinge on units and converting between units.

Chemistry was one of my favorite subjects, both in high school and college (seriously, I would have added chemistry as a second major if I hadn’t been too practical for that), and I enjoyed helping many of my classmates with understanding the calculations. Often, people want to just take numbers they have been given, put them into a mathematical formula, and solve for another number to write down as the answer.  There’s a fundamental flaw with this – they are just calculating with numbers, not the units as well.

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So what? Why does it matter if you write the units or not?  It’s not just that I’m being some nit-picking, perfectionist scientist – the issue is that calculating with units teaches people how to think rather than just what to think (e.g., knowing that one number is in feet and another is in pounds reminds you that it makes no sense to add those numbers).  Identifying what we’re working with is the first step to good reasoning. In the same way, identifying who we are as people, made in God’s image, helps us to put our lives in perspective and solve the problems that come up in life.  Is your identity found in Christ or does it depend on the people around you?  Be sure you know your identity as a person created in the image of God and redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb so that you do not meet a similar fate to the Mars Climate Orbiter that is forever lost.

More information about the Mars Climate Orbiter Here

Copyright Sara J. Bruegel, 2014.  Used with permission

Written by Sara J. Mikkelson

Sara J. Mikkelson (Bruegel) is a young woman dedicated to bringing glory to God in all that she does. Her focus is creation science children’s ministry, reaching kids with truth and hope that comes from the Word of God. Sara has an associate of science degree in geology, graduating Phi Theta Kappa with honors. She is administrator of the Creation Club. Sara and her husband David both work at David Rives Ministires

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  1. I thank you for your creation site and all the indisputable facts that you present in a calm and informative method. This was a good article as it shows the necessity of measuring in common units. I liked Chemistry and Mathematics in College! As you can see from my website, which needs updated, that I had to use Metric or English measurements in all the equations and electronics that I had build and used. One of my instructors was constantly on the issue of “Use common units in equations! Watts are not inches and feet could be for shoes!”
    Again thanks for the article and your informative articles that I read on
    Eph 2:8-9
    Greg Weinfurtner

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