On June 4, 1996 an unmanned Ariane 5 rocket launched by the European Space Agency exploded just forty seconds after its lift-off from Kourou, French Guiana. The rocket was on its first voyage, after a decade of development costing $7 billion. The destroyed rocket and its cargo were valued at $500 million. A board of inquiry investigated the causes of the explosion and in two weeks issued a report. It turned out that the cause of the failure was a software error in the inertial reference system. Specifically a 64 bit floating point number relating to the horizontal velocity of the rocket with respect to the platform was converted to a 16 bit signed integer. The number was larger than 32,767, the largest integer storeable in a 16 bit signed integer, and thus the conversion failed.
The following paragraphs are extracted from the report of the Inquiry Board. An interesting article on the accident and its implications by James Gleick appeared in The New York Times Magazine of 1 December 1996. The CNN article reporting the explosion, from which the above graphics were taken, is also available.
On 4 June 1996, the maiden flight of the Ariane 5 launcher ended in a failure. Only about 40 seconds after initiation of the flight sequence, at an altitude of about 3700 m, the launcher veered off its flight path, broke up and exploded.
The failure of the Ariane 501 was caused by the complete loss of guidance and altitude information 37 seconds after start of the main engine ignition sequence (30 seconds after lift-off). This loss of information was due to specification and design errors in the software of the inertial reference system.
The internal SRI* software exception was caused during execution of a data conversion from 64-bit floating point to 16-bit signed integer value. The floating point number which was converted had a value greater than what could be represented by a 16-bit signed integer.
*SRI stands for Système de Référence Inertielle or Inertial Reference System.