Mars Science Lab launch delayed two years

A photo illustration of a laser-equipped rover that will be part of the Mars Science Laboratory. The launch of the mission was scheduled for the fall of 2009. The Mars Science Lab is a large nuclear-powered rover designed to travel long distances with a suite of scientific instruments onboard.

It is, according to NASA’s website, part of a “long-term robotic exploration effort” set up to “study the early environmental history of Mars” and assess whether Mars has ever been, or still is, capable of supporting life.

The launch delay, according to NASA, is due to several “test and hardware challenges that (still) need to be addressed to ensure mission success.”

“The progress in recent weeks has not been fast enough to resolve the technical challenges and bring the hardware together,” said Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Switching to a 2011 launch “will allow for careful resolution of any remaining technical issues, adequate and thorough testing, and avoid a mad rush to launch,” NASA associate administrator Ed Weiler argued.

The total cost of the Mars Science Lab is now projected to be about $2.1 billion, according to NASA spokesman Dwayne Browne. The project was originally priced at $1.6 billion.

NASA’s total budget for the current fiscal year, according to Browne, is about $15 billion.

According to NASA, the Mars rover will use new technologies and be designed to explore greater distances over more rugged terrain than previous missions to the planet. This will be done in part by employing a new surface propulsion system.

“Failure is not an option on this mission,” Weiler said. “Science is too important and the investment of American taxpayer dollars requires us to be absolutely confident that we have done everything possible to ensure the success of this flagship planetary mission.”

Weiler stated that, based on the agency’s preliminary assessments, the additional costs from the Science Laboratory’s launch delay would not result in the cancellation of other NASA programs for the next two years. However, he admitted that it would lead to other unspecified delays in the program.

Critics have said that the delay and cost overruns associated with the Mars Science Lab are indicative of an agency plagued by a lack of accountability and inefficiency in managing taxpayer time and money.

“The Mars Science Laboratory is just the latest symptom of a NASA culture that has lost control of spending,” Alan Stern, former NASA associate administrator, wrote in a Nov. 24 op-ed in the New YorkTimes. “A cancer is taking hold of our space agency: the routine acceptance of massive cost increases on projects.”

Stern charged that the agency’s cost overruns are being fueled by “managers disguising the size of cost increases missions incur” and “members of Congress accepting increases to protect local jobs.”

Browne responded in a written statement saying that NASA managers are “constantly working to improve (the agency’s) cost estimating capabilities… We continually review our projects to understand the true risk in terms of performance, cost and schedule.” “.

“The fact of life at NASA, where we are charged with creating the first scientific discovery missions, is that estimating the costs of… science can be almost as difficult as doing science,” Browne said.

NASA’s latest Mars project, the Phoenix Mars Lander mission, came to an end last month after the solar-powered rover’s batteries died as a result of a dust storm and the onset of Martian winter. . It had operated for two months beyond its initial three-month mission.

NASA officials had landed the rover on an arctic plain after satellite observations indicated there were large amounts of frozen water in that area, most likely in the form of permafrost. They thought that such a location would be a promising place to search for organic chemicals that would signal a habitable environment.

Scientists were able to verify the presence of water ice in the Martian subsurface, find small concentrations of salts that could be nutrients for life, and observe snow falling from clouds, NASA said Thursday.