Former NASA technician Chris Lewicki has revealed that he accidentally crashed the Spirit Mars rover two weeks before it was meant to launch.
The former NASA technician took to his website to reveal the behind-the-scenes story that took place in February 2003 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where it was like any other day at work. However, this day, Lewicki was testing the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT), a tool designed to cut into Martian rock and reveal just beneath its surface. To verify the integrity of the motors powering the RAT, Lewicki sent an electric charge to the components and checked the chart reading. A smooth decreasing line on the chart indicates a functioning motor, while spikes indicate problems.
Lewicki's chart during this test was not "like anything we had seen before. It did not even look like a broken motor. It was decidedly - something else." Here's where it went wrong.
"All that power we just released did not go into the RAT-Revolve motor. Due to a mistake I had made with the break-out-box, it went the other direction on the connector interface, sending a surge of electricity straight into the spacecraft, instead of the motor," explained Lewicki.
The rover stopped producing telemetry, and then Lewicki said he remembered that the Spirit and sibling rover Opportunity cost $1 billion, and Spirit was due to launch in two weeks. Lewicki explains that luckily the part of the rover that received the electrical jolt was equipped to handle it, and the rover rebooted with no lingering damage. Furthermore, Spirit launched, landed, and the RAT tool worked "just fine". Spirit lasted more than six years and Lewicki was awarded flight director for it and Opportunity.
"Whenever I'm called upon to give my approval or endorsement for something significant, I'm instantly transported back to that moment - the room, the lighting, the chair I was in, the table, the pit in my stomach, the intense mix of fear, anxiety and regret for an oversight that nearly led to catastrophe," he wrote.