Government Space Exploration Paid a Heavy Price Due to this Data Governance Issue

Welcome to the “did you know” moment in the world of data governance. Sometimes stories are the best ways to exemplify the importance of data governance. To that end, I’d like to start with framing the issue that happened in Government Space Exploration quite some time ago.

Government Space Exploration and their Third Parties paid a heavy price in 1999 due to a data governance issue.

But actually, these kinds of errors happen, happen regularly, large and small scale. So listen to this to this story…

Any effort to launch objects into space requires immense amounts of data.

The ill-fated mission by Government Space Exploration to launch the Mars Climate Orbiter is a good example of the lack of data governance.

In 1999, just before orbital insertion, a navigation error sent the satellite into an orbit 170 kilometers lower than the intended altitude above Mars. One of the most expensive measurement incompatibilities in space exploration history caused this error.

Government Space Exploration engineers used English units, Pounds, instead of their Space Exploration specified metric units, Newtons.

This incompatibility in the design units resulted in small errors being introduced in the trajectory estimated over the course of a nine month journey and culminated in a huge miscalculation in orbital altitude. Ultimately, the orbiter could not sustain the atmospheric friction at low altitude.

So we’ve got this huge problem that showed up. It plummeted through the Martian atmosphere and burned up. This relatively minor mistake resulted in the loss of $328 million for the orbiter and lander, and set space exploration back several years in the United States.
So what exactly happened if you were to deconstruct it?

  • Was it a quality issue in the data? No.
  • Was it an access issue? No.
  • Security? Testing? No.

It was actually not even an individual metadata issue…

It had to do with governance. Governance working at a level that combines metadata with a matrix focus and with the governance that has enough sustainability, that is able to go across domains and across groups and across teams. Not an easy task, but a must.

This is what makes data governance really shine when it works well. Just like in security and in data privacy, governance can cause major disasters when it is not present. This is the impact data governance can have.

Have additional questions or interested in connecting further on what it might look like to set up governance with a passionate expert?

Feel free to email me at or connect with me on LinkedIn.



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