Lost in space: NASA, data mistakes and business growth

What a lost Mars Orbiter can teach us about data governance

In 1999, NASA lost a Mars Climate Orbiter.

Now, how exactly does one lose a $125 million, 338-kilogram space probe?

By not paying attention to data governance.

What is data governance?

Data governance defines the processes by which information flows through an organisation, and it has as much to do with people as it does technology.

Effective data governance shouldn’t just ensure that there is a robust technology system to manage an organisation’s data: it should make sure that everyone who handles that data understands data definitions, expectations, consistency and the importance of accuracy.

If you don’t have a comprehensive data governance structure in place, what’s the real cost of ignoring it?

Well, it’s a lesson that NASA learned the hard way.

NASA’s data disaster

When NASA lost the Mars Climate Orbiter, their mistake was simple and avoidable. The navigation team were using metric measurements in their calculations, while the team who designed and built the craft were using imperial.

No one realised the measurements hadn’t been converted as they should have been until long after the probe launched and disappeared, probably exploding somewhere just inside of Mars’ atmosphere.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall of that debriefing…

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Data errors in every organisation

If it can happen to NASA, it can happen to anyone.

While your own data errors might not be as dramatic (or explosive) as NASA’s, they will have an impact on your business, especially if you’re in growth mode.

A rogue digit, an incorrect product tag, a poorly defined data definition…these minor errors can have big consequences, from budgeting mistakes and bad customer experience, to production mistakes that cost thousands.

The knock-on effect of data mistakes

Data mistakes are rarely an isolated issue, either. The impact of NASA’s Orbiter mistake was bigger than just losing the one space probe (although, losing a multi-million-dollar piece of tech is quite a big deal to begin with).

It was also a disaster for NASA’s wider project: the 1998 Mars Surveyor program. The Mars Climate Orbiter was supposed to be the communications relay for the Mars Polar Lander. Its loss delayed the next phase of the entire Mars mission.

If you’re not careful, your hidden data errors can jeopardise your own growth plans, creating a knock-on effect that can damage customer trust, skew financial forecasts and impair data insights.

And just like the Mars Orbiter, they may not become apparent until it’s too late.


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Avoiding data mistakes and propelling growth

By implementing effective data governance, you can avoid costly data mistakes. It gives everyone in the business accountability for data, and outlines the technology they need to manage that data effectively.

The result? Reliable, accurate data that you can trust to influence decisions, support digital initiatives and fuel business growth.

If you don’t know where to start, we can help. We’ve helped clients in almost every sector to implement data governance practices that have had a significant impact on their businesses.

To speak to a Comma data expert, book a virtual consultation here, give us a call on +44 1926 911820, email info@comma-group.com or get in touch directly with a member of our expert team.

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