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Space & Planetary Science

JPL's Overruns and Gutting Mars Exploration

By Keith Cowing
February 17, 2012
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JPL’s math problem, Pasadena Sun
“Meanwhile, it would be foolhardy to impose a radical reduction in the Mars program. Exploring Mars is not the same as running a Laundromat. You can’t just close one day (or fiscal year) and then reopen the next without losing progress and expertise. Nor can you do so while staying ahead of other nations in the space race.”
NASA Leadership In Space Exploration Shaken, Aviation Week
“Because NASA is “protecting the civil service workforce,” job losses resulting from that cut will be felt among contractor personnel and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is run by the California Institute of Technology. Contractor job cuts are already well understood, according to Robinson, but the impact of changes in the Mars work at JPL remains to be seen. Overall, some 300-400 jobs that will be lost as development on MSL winds down may not be preserved with new work, Robinson says.”
NASA OIG: Final Report: NASA’s Management of the Mars Science Laboratory Project
“In February 2009, NASA delayed the MSL’s launch 2 years because of the late delivery of several critical components and instruments. This delay and the additional resources required to resolve the underlying technical issues increased the Project’s development costs by 86 percent, from $969 million to the current $1.8 billion, and its life-cycle costs by 56 percent, from $1.6 billion to the current $2.5 billion. In addition, due to planetary alignment the optimal launch window for a mission to Mars occurs every 26 months. If MSL was to be delayed again, the Project would require significant redesign at a cost of at least $570 million.”
Keith’s note: Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity”, en route to Mars, is $1 billion over budget and 2 years late. The blame for this falls squarely on JPL’s shoulders. While it is foolish to gut future Mars exploration, it is the height of hypocrisy for JPLers to cry foul about budget cuts after they have abused the process by looking the other way as costs went out of control. Yet JPL has gotten smart about controlling costs before. After JPL crashed MPL and MCO into Mars (one crash being due to “math problems”) they rebounded with Spirit and Opportunity – talk about an absolutely incredible return on investment. Contrary to the Pasadena Sun’s comments, maybe the JPL folks could learn something from people who operate laundromats after all.

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.