by John Wyatt
Deep in the heart of the Gobi desert, a tiny lizard crept out into the cool night air. Few creatures lived here, in the most desolate and isolated place in the world (including Canada). Overhead, a star twinkled brightly. As he scampered about, the little lizard had no way of knowing that this bright, twinkling object was more than just a bright star, nor did he know how profoundly this object would affect his small life.
The Potemkin orbiting science laboratory was the very latest multi-national scientific endeavor, costing hundreds of billions of dollars and taking ten years to build. Powered by a combination of solar panels and a nuclear reactor, it sported a telescope nearly as advanced as the Hubble, and a complete chemical laboratory for the study of space organisms. It even had fuel and liquid oxygen storage tanks, for refueling spacecraft. The Potemkin was designed to be the first serious stepping stone towards international space study and exploration.
It was new. It was high-tech. It was a symbol of international unity.
It was crashing.
Each component had been carefully designed and crafted by the lowest bidder, cost-cut to the bone, tested by highly stressed and overworked Quality Assurance engineers, and forced into place by NASA’s best space engineers. But all the best planning of government agencies failed to detect a critical flaw in the eighty-seven million lines of computer code that formed the space station’s operating system. Years from now, a curious team of forensic software experts would eventually decipher what had happened, which began with some curious lines of code that looked something like this:
// comment – chemical lab
system startup function
for (i = 1; i ≤ NumSystems; i++)
errorcode = CheckForSystemError(i);
if (errorcode > 0)
// comment – add error handling later.
// This needs to go to testing now.
After returning from lunch break, the programmer was fired for accessing X-rated web sites from his workstation, so the code was never finished. The testers, flustered and over-worked, completely forgot to test the error handling for the chemistry lab systems. A year later, when the uncompleted test documents were un-earthed, they reasoned that the chance of an error at this late date was quite slim. Besides, the software was already in the final system integration phase. They sent the test cases to the system integration team, who promptly threw them away; after all, why should they do someone else’s work, when they already had enough of their own?
The Potemkin was completed just in time to receive the first collection of Mars rocks, which had been collected by the new Russian Mars probe. Eager chemists quickly retrieved the Martian rocks from the probe’s hold and scampered to the brand new chemistry lab.
In later years, it would be discovered that the fired programmer had also mistyped the variable used for the lab’s waste tanks, calling it “tank1.” The station’s fuel tanks had been defined in the computer code as “tank1” and the lab’s waste tanks were defined as “tank2”. Naturally, the computer had no way of knowing that the programmer had meant to type “tank2.” So, instead of purging the waste tank during startup, the system purged the freshly filled fuel tanks … spilling fuel across the hot exhaust ports of the Russian Mars probe. Of course, without oxygen, the fuel would never have burned. Unfortunately, the programmer had also declared his variable as a Global variable, which overwrote all the “tank1” variables in the entire computer system. The computer was supposed to work this way. It had no way of knowing that the programmer didn’t want to overwrite all those other “tank1” variables. A computer, after all, only does what it’s told.
Since a different programmer had programmed each tank’s operating code, and since they had all called their variables “tank1”, the end result was the purging of every single tank in the station except the waste tank! The result was truly spectacular!
The exploding fuel tore out the docking platform and much of the station wall, hurling the Potemkin downward and out of orbit. The station crew escaped to the nearby space shuttle, but the chemists were left locked in their lab. They quickly exited through the outer wall, which was missing anyway. They didn’t plan it that way, that sort of thing just naturally happens during explosive decompression. Space suits would have been nice, but the chemists hadn’t expected the wall to suddenly disappear, so they weren’t wearing any. However, in the interest of fairness, I should say that they were very boring chemists, so no one missed them. In fact, after the shuttle landed with the rest of the crew, someone remarked “Didn’t we have some chemists with us?” Everyone shrugged, and then ran home to write their story – visions of movie rights dancing in their heads.
Chinese astronomers confirmed that the Potemkin was going to crash into the western portion of the Gobi desert – the most desolate and isolated place on Earth. The Chinese government, viewing this as an attack on their country, immediately sealed their borders and declared full ownership of the movie rights. This, of course, angered the former station personnel, who had hoped to sell their stories and retire as millionaires. The resulting lawsuits would tie up international courts for years, also delaying any trip to survey the crash site.
Meanwhile, environmentalists worldwide despaired over the plight of the displaced people of the Gobi desert. They collected mountains of money to feed and house the poor homeless refugees from the Gobi desert. Eventually, they discovered that there are no people of the Gobi desert (remember – Gobi Desert: the most desolate and isolated place on Earth, even including Canada), so they used the money to buy condominiums and retired from environmentalism.
The little lizard looked up; the wind had picked up considerably. Above him, the sky glowed bright yellow, something was falling rapidly towards him ….
The resulting fireball threw out mountains of debris – rocks, burning fuel, metal, plutonium, pieces of lizard, and tiny micro-organisms from the Mars rocks – they all fused together in a radioactive glow, forming a surrealistic landscape of broken, grayish-black rocks.
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