I'm searching for a short story I read in a book, during the 1990s, in either Russian or English.

In the story, they investigate a spaceship that just crashed on a planet while landing. During landing, the spaceship's computer reported seeing an asteroid and turned on the primary engines (nuclear if I recall correctly) instead of the ones that were supposed to be used for landing ("hydrogen" if I recall correctly), the two kinds described by having different flame colour/intensity.

During investigation, the responsible person figures out that the author of the spaceship's programming was over-cautious. When they weren't sure of something, they would gather more information instead of acting on incomplete information. Story brought out a metaphor of a general sending their whole army as scouts instead of fighting.

Turns out the spaceship designer "taught" the computer this trait, and when making landing decisions, it became overwhelmed and interpreted the planet they were landing on as a really large asteroid. The story ends with preparations to re-program the second ship from the same series, which is a few days away from landing (and hopefully not crashing like the first one).

1 Answer 1


I'd say its Ananke, a Pirx tale, by the Polish author Stanisław Lem? See also this question Trying to identify a short story about an unexplained spaceship crash, whose solution is finally inspired by a Mark Twain quote .

The space ship Ariel crashes on its first landing on Mars. When crashing, the autopilot switches from what's called a 'boran' drive in the German translation — and could well be called hydrogen in the English translation — to atomic. The flame of the former is green, that of the latter white-blue.

Pirx deduces that the autopilot was overloaded by requesting more and more information, due to the training by its designer, and it fired the main engine to escape from the "asteroid" Mars.

The story doesn't end with a quick reprogram before the next ship lands, but the investigators are under time pressure, because the next ship is arriving in a few days.

  • 3
    Boron-based rocket fuels burn green, so I'd guess the "boran" drive is one of those. Commented Mar 1 at 15:00
  • "Boron-hydrogen" in the translation I found. Commented Mar 1 at 22:59
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    I will note a personal observation. When I've been in small aircraft there is a certain point approaching a landing when the plane no longer appears to be approaching the ground but rather the ground is seen to be coming up at you.
    – civitas
    Commented Mar 2 at 1:02

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