What NASA’s New Horizons has in Common with Regulatory Writing

Michael Blaze

Today, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will pass by Pluto in the outer solar system after a journey of more than 7.8 million miles (12.5 million kilometers). That is, if everything goes well. After a 6-year journey and a cost of $728 million dollars, mission managers are hoping to avoid a mission ending error caused by a lack of quality control. Surely the engineers and scientists at NASA have checked and double-checked every line of code in order to preserve this costly, historic mission?

Not so fast. Consider the September 1999 loss of the NASA Mars Climate Orbiter, launched in 1998. The orbiter missed its target altitude insertion by 80 to 90 km and burned up in the Martian atmosphere. Findings of the failure review board indicated that the navigation error leading to the loss of the spacecraft resulted from some commands being sent in English units instead of being converted to metric. After a journey of 10 months and a cost of $193.1 million, a simple English to metric units conversion ended up being this program’s downfall. With a $728 million dollar, 6-year mission on the line, one would hope that NASA has invested significantly more funding in dedicated quality control this time around. We won’t have to wait long to find out.

While a lack of dedicated quality control in regulatory documentation preparation may not result in such costly failures, they may still cause significant problems with government regulatory bodies. Consider the time and cost investment into your product. How much is that worth to you? To your shareholders? To the patient population you are hoping to serve?

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Topics: Regulatory Writing
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