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NASA delays Mars Science Laboratory launch to 2011
Posted: December 4, 2008

Launch of NASA's showcase Mars Science Laboratory, a nuclear-powered rover the size of a small car, will be delayed from 2009 to 2011 because of ongoing development problems, agency officials said today. The cost of the delay through end of mission will add some $400 million to the project's price tag, pushing the projected cost from $1.88 billion to around $2.2 billion.

An artist's concept of the Mars Science Laboratory rover. Credit: NASA/JPL
"We're going to re-phase MSL for a 2011 launch," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science. "This will allow for careful resolution of any remaining technical problems, proper - and thorough - testing and avoiding a mad dash to launch.

"Failure is not an option on this mission," he said. "The science is too important and the investment of American taxpayer dollars tells us to be absolutely certain we have done everything possible to ensure the success of this flagship planetary mission."

Joining NASA Administrator Mike Griffin in announcing the delay, Weiler also told reporters that NASA and the European Space Agency agreed this week, based on initial discussions last July, to work together on future Mars missions, including an eventual robotic flight to collect soil and rock samples and return them to Earth for analysis. Such a mission likely would cost between $6 billion and $8 billion, Weiler said, and would not be feasible until the 2020s.

"In the future, NASA and ESA are going to work together to come up with a European-U.S. Mars architecture," Weiler said. "That is, missions won't be NASA missions, they won't be ESA missions, they will be joint missions. We need to work together. We'll never, ever do a sample return mission unless we work together. We both have the same goals scientifically, we want to get our science communities together and start laying out an architecture."

Mars launch opportunities come around every two years and the delay for the Mars Science Laboratory to 2011 will have downstream impacts on other upcoming Mars missions and possible impacts on flights to other destinations as well. So far, Weiler said, no outright cancellations are expected. But the delay will provide an early window of opportunity for NASA and ESA to begin planning for joint missions in the next decade.

"We now have that time, for all the wrong reasons, but we now have that time, we don't have to rush to come up with some idea for 2016," he said. "They've got some ideas, we've got some ideas. Let's work together. ... This makes eminent sense to both of us and we committed to each other to get our communities to start working toward that goal."

In the near term, MSL is the flagship of Mars exploration, one of the most complex spacecraft ever built for planetary exploration.

Designed to drop to the surface of Mars on elevator-type cables suspended from a rocket-powered descent stage called a "sky crane," the one-ton Mars Science Laboratory will be equipped with the most sophisticated suite of instruments ever placed on the surface of the red planet to help determine if Mars ever did, or still does, support microbial life.

MSL dwarfs NASA's solar-powered Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which tipped the scales at 384 pounds each, carried just 35 pounds of science instruments and could only operate in daylight. MSL will weigh 1,929 pounds and include a science payload of 183 pounds. Its radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG, will allow it to operate around the clock for two years or more.

But the mission has encountered a steady stream of technical problems that have stretched out development and driven up costs. The latest, the one that triggered the launch delay, involves subtle issues with complex actuators that do everything from driving the rover's six wheels to moving its robot arm.

The MSL project was initially budgeted at $1.63 billion in August 2006. By mid 2007, the cost had risen to $1.88 billion. Earlier this fall, officials concluded an additional $200 million would have been required to make the 2009 launch window. With the launch delay to 2011, the life cycle cost is projected to increase $200 million beyond that, to between $2.2 billion and $2.3 billion.

The additional $400 million is required for testing, resolution of ongoing technical problems and the normal pre-launch work that would be required for any mission. It includes money for operations in years beyond what was originally budgeted assuming a launch in 2009.

"We've determined that trying for '09 would require us to assume too much risk, more than I think is appropriate for a flagship mission like Mars Science Laboratory," said Griffin. "If we could delay the launch for a few months, we would, and that would probably take care of it. But launch opportunities for Mars don't allow that, they come every 26 months, and so we either go in 2009 or 2011. We're meeting with all of you today because we're aware that MSL has been much in the news lately. A mission like this ranks just behind a manned mission in importance and we want to be straightforward and open with you when we have news to report, whether it's good or bad."

In early October, NASA completed a review of MSL's status and concluded "we had a solid chance of making a 2009 launch if we could extend the launch window about three weeks, which we did, and if we could add about $200 million to cover the additional manpower to maintain schedule," Weiler said.

"We could have made the decision at that time to delay for 26 months, but making that decision then would have automatically added much more cost in the out years of the program. But, and this is very important, we did not give an unrestricted go-ahead to launch in 2009. We put in place a major progress review with the administrator on Jan. 5, 2009. Why that timeframe? If we had not made sufficient progress to that point, we could then make the decision to slip, slow down the project and live within the current 2009 budget and thus not incur the additional $200 million in costs.

"But Mike and I went further than that," Weiler said. "To ensure the goal of staying within that 2009 budget if we decided to slip, we had the project provide us with a series of milestones, week by week in November and December, that we could monitor to judge whether we were making the required progress toward that January meeting. As of yesterday, the project, the program, the independent review team and the JPL independent technical authority all agreed unanimously that MSL could not make the 2009 launch schedule."

The actuators at the heart of the current discussion are complex motor-gearbox assemblies, some with more than 500 parts each. MSL is equipped with 31 such actuators and in recent months, engineers have run into workmanship issues, problems with encoders that track motion and as-yet-unresolved questions about the braking mechanism.

The actuators are "absolutely crucial to the success of this mission," said Doug McCuistion, director of Mars exploration at NASA Headquarters. "If we get to the ground, we can't move, we can't put the arm out and we can't sample, we basically have a metric ton of junk on the surface. So actuators are absolutely crucial to any landed mission."

The 2009 launch window opened Sept. 15 and ultimately was extended to Oct. 28. The 2011 launch window has not yet been pinned down, but it will run from October through December.