It's 1998. The Mars Climate Orbiter has been launched to collect data. Over its 9-month-long journey, it was supposed to make corrections in its path to enter Mars' atmosphere optimally but it did so much closer to the surface than calculated before, which resulted in it being violently torn apart.
The 328 million dollar project went in vain. And the culprit? A simple conversion error.
Imperial system is the measuring system used in some Commonwealth countries and in the US - involving units like pint, ounce, pound etc.; whereas the Metric system is the one that sane people like us use - kilogram and liter.
You see, the orbiter was coded with Metric units, while the controller used Imperial. This silly mistake led to the orbiter's crash.
In the early days of space exploration, computational power was extremely limited. Still, it was wasted to convert metric calculations to Imperial so that the monkeys floating in space known as American astronauts could understand what was going on.
The rockets were built using a mixture of Imperial and Metric units. A conversion error was a disaster waiting to happen.
Furthermore, this is not the only instance where conversion errors led to accidents.
Take Air Canada flight 143 for example.
In 1983, it took off from Montreal and ran out of fuel halfway to its destination - Edmonton.
This is because the plane was loaded with 22,000 pounds of fuel instead of 22,000 kilograms.
This meant that it had only half the fuel it required to make the trip. Luckily, it managed to land in a former Canadian air force base in Gimli, which is the origin of its nickname - the Gimli Glider. But the negligence could have easily led to a catastrophic accident.
Both of these incidents could have been avoided if America learned to get along with the rest of the world, that is, to learn the Metric. It would be so much more convenient.
Even the British people themselves have moved on from using the Imperial system, like they moved on from measuring their importance with the number of countries they colonized. Like everything British, the Imperial measurement system has become somewhat of an antique.
But you may ask, how is the Metric system any better? That is because in Metric system, every unit is related to each other. How many grams are there in a kilogram? 1000. How many milligrams make a gram? 1000.
It's in the name, as kilo and milli both mean thousand. Every unit is 10 times more than its predecessor. To convert units, you just move the decimal.
Meanwhile in the Imperial system, you have to switch within the same system all the time.
There are 16 ounces in 1 pound and 2240 pounds in an Imperial ton. They don't even follow the same conversion process.
To make it all worse, there are no different units for mass and weight. Why? Because the Imperial system is a prehistoric fossil created before Newton got hit by an apple.
So, we have to specify pound-mass and pound-force.
The ironic thing is, America legally uses the Metric system. All their dumb units are defined in Metric, as the rest of the world uses it. For instance, one foot is legally defined as 0.3048 meters. That's because there is no standard to know what a foot is, unlike a meter.
The Metric system is miles ahead, or should I say, kilometers ahead.
It is perfect for measuring and weighing everything. Hence, switching to Metric would eliminate a reason for engineers to bang their head against a wall.