Mile wide and a newton short $125 million goof: U.S. failure to adopt worldwide metric standard costs NASA a Mars mission.

October 07, 1999

WHAT A way to celebrate National Metric Week: The nation's space agency loses a $125 million spacecraft on a mission to Mars because some engineers -- like too many other Americans -- cling to old-fashioned measurements abandoned by the rest of the world.

The United States and its citizens refuse to turn yards into meters and pounds of thrust into newtons -- a metric measurement used by NASA scientists but not, it turns out, by engineers building the satellite at Lockheed Martin Corp.

So when NASA fired up the rockets on its Mars Climate Orbiter, the satellite soared too far, going 60 miles off course. The mission and the $125 million craft were literally lost in space.

Such costly confusion should be expected in a nation that won't fully embrace the metric system used by every other industrialized country in the world. Our resistance to change could prove even costlier for companies in the future.

International trade increasingly requires metric measurements. The more the United States hangs on to its inches and ounces, the more business U.S. firms will lose.

Let's face it: The metric system is the global language of measurement. Even the proud English have abandoned their yardsticks. But not the Americans.

Public protests and protectionist lawmakers have blocked government efforts in Washington to "go metric."

So it is with chagrin and irony that we soon will enter National Metric Week, Oct. 10 through Oct. 16.

Perhaps every math class in America can observe the occasion by discussing NASA's fiasco and why meters should replace yards in their classrooms.

Once, the United States led the world in metric conversion -- when it adopted the very first decimal currency in 1792. One hundred pennies equals a dollar. It's an easy way to count.

So are other metric calculations -- if we ever decide to give the worldwide standard a chance.

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