Space & Planetary Science: December 2008 Archives

Mars exploration: Phoenix: a race against time, Nature

"On missions led by principal investigators, such as the Discoveries and Scouts, NASA is supposed to defer to the scientist in charge on all matters of scientific operation. But Phoenix was high profile and some of its instruments a little erratic. At headquarters, everyone from Administrator Michael Griffin down was involved in daily reviews of the mission, says Doug McCuistion, Mars exploration programme chief at NASA. At the end of June, word came down that the Phoenix team was to treat its next TEGA sample as its last, and to go after a sample of rock-hard ice before it did anything else. The Tucson team had lost its autonomy. "We stepped in, I'll be honest," says McCuistion. Boynton -- a bit of a bulldog when it came to keeping control over his instrument -- acknowledges the logic: "NASA was really afraid ... that if we never got the ice it would be embarrassing." But he and Smith still resent the way that the mission was taken over. "That's not the way you do these things," says Smith. "That's why we were pushed at the end."

Snow on Mars

Snow On Mars!, commentary by Peter Smith, Forbes

"Last month, the Phoenix Mars Lander sent its final signal after working for 151 Martian days photographing, digging and testing samples in the arctic there. During those days, its findings reshaped what we know about Mars, the prospects of future space exploration and our approach to undertaking that mission. All reports provide reason for optimism about the scientific advances of the United States and the world, as well as excitement about the future for those of us involved in this landmark NASA mission."

NASA Mars Science Lab Launch Delayed Two Years

"NASA's Mars Science Laboratory will launch two years later than previously planned, in the fall of 2011."

Delays and Cost Overruns Epidemic at NASA, Former Official Charges,

"But [former SMD AA Alan] Stern says that MSL's delay and cost overrun are prime examples of a pervasive problem within NASA to "reward" missions that go over-budget and punish those that don't. "It is unhealthy" to the entire NASA program, Stern told, and is the reason he resigned earlier this year from his NASA job."

Technical glitches force delay of Mars mission, USA Today

"MSL is "a marvelous mission, it will do wonderful things. But at what cost?" said Keith Cowing, editor of the NASA Watch website. "And how often do we have to watch cost overruns on these NASA missions where projects get too big to cancel?"

Editor's note: In a nutshell: The only specific hardware issue with MSL seems to be the complex motor actuators that allow various systems to operate. The delay will cost $400 million. The money will come from other Mars missions and if that is not enough, from other space science missions. Total cost for MSL could be as much as $2.3 billion - up from an initial cost of $650 million (or $1.6 billion depending on what starting point you favor). Griffin claims that the way that NASA estimates mission costs should not be linked or held to the same standard as the way in which it designs missions since NASA is doing things that have never been done before. He said "If we are to judge the worth of our work by our ability to estimate, then that is a standard I am not ready to apply or to accept." Oh yes, Griffin also said that the Webb Space Telescope does not have a cost overrun.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this press conference was the lack of media interest in this huge cost overrun and the nonchalant, dismissive way in which the NASA Administrator and his staff discussed it. No one on the stage seemed to be at all upset or concerned about this latest delay and this latest failure of NASA to understand and/or control the way it spends money. Other than gratuitous reference to "how hard this is", no one seemed to be at all committed to trying to fix this chronic problem once and for all. Business as usual at NASA i.e. "watch us spend your money the way we want to spend it".

JPL Director Elachi "takes full responsibility" for all of these MSL problems. Gee, that's nice. It is also rather hollow. His predecessor took responsibility for MCO and MPL. Yawn. There are no consequences for things like this at NASA. No one is ever reprimanded, no one is ever reassigned, costs continue to climb, and NASA wants everyone to just accept this situation and leave them alone.

Watch the automaker bailout hearings today in Congress. Just substitute "NASA" for any one of the carmakers' names as you listen ... does any of this sound familiar?

MSL Delays?

NASA To Provide Mars Science Laboratory Update

"NASA will hold a briefing at noon EST, Thursday, Dec. 4, about the agency's Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL. The briefing will take place in the James E. Webb Memorial Auditorium at NASA Headquarters, 300 E Street, S.W., Washington. The briefing participants are:

- Michael Griffin, NASA administrator
- Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington
- Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters
- Charles Elachi, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Editor's note: Word has it that there will be a telecon or briefing for affected NASA employees before the press conference.

Editor's update: Informed speculation is that NASA is going to announce that the launch date for MSL is going to be slipped. One option that has been under consideration would be to launch MSL in 2010, park the spacecraft in a solar orbit (1 AU), do an Earth flyby in 2011, and then send it on to Mars. The additional cost for this option was estimated by NASA to be around $300 million. Another option would be to wait to launch until 2011 (directly to Mars) at a cost a few tens of millions above the cost of launching in 2010.

Stay tuned.

MSL Cost Overruns: More Smoke and Mirrors from NASA, earlier post
Lack of Discipline = Slaughter of the Innocents, earlier post
Shooting The Messenger at NASA, earlier post
MSL Commentary in Science Magazine, earlier post
What the MSL Bailout Looks Like, earlier post
NASA SMD's Cost Overrun Coverup (updated with Telecon notes), earlier post



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