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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Richmond Times Mar 03, 2001

NASA urged to go metric

Report faults use of different systems Practice of mixing its use with English system faulted

A review by the NASA Inspector General's Office, conducted after a disastrous $125 million Martian mission, says the space agency fails to adhere to its policy of preferring to use the metric system.

NASA's response: We'll try to use metric more often, but not exclusively, in part because the U.S. aerospace industry refuses to do so. Agency observers wonder whether NASA's response will prevent another multimillion-dollar loss of taxpayers' money.

Inspector General Roberta L. Gross ordered a review of NASA's metric policy following the loss nearly 18 months ago of the Mars Climate Orbiter, blamed on a contractor's use of English measurements instead of metric. Despite that catastrophe, the agency continues to allow those responsible for the space shuttles, the International Space Station and robotic missions to mix metric and English systems.

The IG's review says NASA, one of the nation's premier science agencies, "must decide whether it wants to be a leader or a follower" in the process of transitioning to all-metric, like other space-faring nations.

The report recommends that NASA develop a new ap- proach to convert to an all-metric policy and, meanwhile, put its money where its mouth is.

"Here are the policies you have, and what you should do is follow your policies," said Paul Shawcross, who led the IG review team.

Although by law federal agencies can avoid using metric when it's not economically feasible, not making the switch at NASA will be costly in the long run, according to the review.

"If the agency follows the aerospace industry's slow transition to [metric], the protracted period during which NASA uses mixed metric and English systems may further increase costs and risks for NASA programs," the report said.

NASA Chief Engineer W. Brian Keegan, whose job is to ensure that mission operations are planned and conducted on a sound engineering basis, says the report was "on point," but adds that full transition to metric, "is not possible in the near term."

"We believe that we should implement [metric] where we can, and support improvements, but attempting to be a leader in the aerospace sector - without industry support - would be unacceptably costly," Keegan said.

Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., who has reintroduced legislation to push the country's conversion to metric, says the orbiter's loss was unconscionably costly. He wants to ensure that taxpayers don't pay for future mistakes by NASA contractors who fail to follow federal metric requirements.

Frequent NASA critic John Pike, director of Global Security.org, said he was disappointed by the report's failure to address how NASA can avoid the risk of a repeat disaster.

"I don't think this report has much to do with mission assurance at all," he said, although he noted that other NASA investigations addressed the orbiter's loss. "There's a disconnect between what prompted the report - the orbiter's loss - and the report's recommendations."

The report found adherence to NASA's metric-preferred policy to be spotty. For example, NASA policy requires waivers for programs to use mixed systems. However, the system "is no longer in use," and no waivers have been applied for or issued since 1994, the IG report said.

The report also expressed concern over NASA's follow-through when it allows the mixed use. Experts say that mixing measurements will continue to increase the risk of space missions. Space shuttles built on the English system dock with the mostly metric space station. Mars orbiters using mixed measurements failed; the metric Pathfinder succeeded.

The very low but not negligible "probability of a future calamity due to English/metric conversions will be present as long as our society continues to use English units when the rest of the world is using metric units," said Robert L. Ash, an aerospace engineer at Old Dominion University who has consulted for the space agency.

Barry Taylor, who serves as spokesman for the metric system at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, said, "I think people are being very, very careful, but when you make conversions, you can always make mistakes. That's always a possibility."

The IG report also noted NASA's long-standing complaint that it has difficulty in purchasing metric parts from the U.S. aerospace industry, one of the remaining large industries in the country that has not converted.

The IG office agreed that an individual NASA project is too small to influence the manufacturing industry to increase the availability of metric parts, but said NASA's own Goddard Space Flight Center has set up a central supply for some parts, and similar centers could alleviate some of the initial cost of using metric.

Lorelle Young, president of the U.S. Metric Association, said the aerospace industry, with its engineering mindset, has long been the holdup. "Metric is moving right along," she declared, and NASA will have to move with it.

NASA disagreed with only one of the report's eight major recommendations, saying that despite federal law, it would be inappropriate to use metric when communicating with the public about its programs that use English measurements only.

The report was delivered to numerous NASA officials, including Administrator Dan Goldin. The agency's deputy administrator will oversee a hashing out of the disagreement between the IG office and NASA on the issue of using metric in public communications, said Shawcross, who led the IG review team. The IG's office will monitor the agency's compliance on its recommendations.

NASA's pro-metric policy was instituted as a result of the 1975 Metric Conversion Act and its 1988 amendment, which required federal agencies to be metric by the end of the 1992 fiscal year. Despite official encouragement, conversion to the metric system is still piecemeal in practical terms throughout federal agencies.

2001, Richmond Newspapers Inc.