The Cancer Spreads: Mars Science Laboratory Delayed Until 2011

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project is failing. But it is not suffering from technical failure en-route to the Red Planet, it hasn’t gotten itself stuck in a Martian sand-trap, it hasn’t even fallen foul of the “Galactic Ghoul”; the MSL is suffering from an overlooked space exploration hazard: bad management. According to today’s (not unexpected) NASA announcement, the MSL will not be launched until 2011.

I had a very bad feeling about today’s press conference, and it looks like my fears were justified. Due to technical difficulties, the launch of the MSL is being delayed by two years, as the overrun will ensure the mission misses the next Mars launch window. So I have to ask: why is an over-budget, behind schedule, poorly managed mission being allowed to sap the budgets of other NASA programs when the solution is so obvious?

Since writing about the exploration of space, I have found a reoccurring theme: dreaded overspending and delays. This is, perhaps, an obvious side-effect to the pioneering efforts NASA is ploughing into pushing the envelope of human endeavour. We cannot be overly critical of the space agency, after all, NASA has been at the forefront of space exploration for 50 years. But when news about a project such as the MSL keeps cropping up on a daily basis, highlighting mismanagement and gross overspending, one has to wonder whether NASA is on the right track.

On the blocks. Should the MSL stay there? The MSL empty chasis after a successful test of the suspension system by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA)
On the blocks. Should the MSL stay there? The MSL empty chasis after a successful test of the suspension system by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA)

Perhaps it’s the politics behind the largest rover ever to be sent to Mars (the MSL dwarfs any rover that has gone before it), or perhaps its the unwillingness of NASA project managers to “back-down” in the face of technical challenges. Or perhaps Alan Stern is correct, could there be a “cancer” overtaking the US space agency? Stern’s remarks came after his resignation from NASA in April, so there could be an element of “sour grapes” to his comments, but Stern has seen the NASA problems first-hand, made attempts to fix them, but was apparently blocked at every turn.

In a defiant New York Times article, Stern gets straight to the point with singling out the root cause of NASA’s inability to keep projects on-budget and on time:

A cancer is overtaking our space agency: the routine acquiescence to immense cost increases in projects. Unmistakable new indications of this illness surfaced last month with NASA’s decision to spend at least $100 million more on its poorly-managed, now-over-$2 billion Mars Science Laboratory. This decision to go forward with the project, a robotic rover, was made even though it has tripled in cost since its inception, it is behind schedule, there is no firm estimate of the final cost, and NASA hasn’t disclosed the collateral damage inflicted on other programs and activities that depend on NASA’s limited science budget. — Alan Stern, ex-NASA Associate Administrator.

When faced with an agency-wide institutional failing, there is little you can do to prevent projects from being over-budget in the future.

Frustrated: Alan Stern (NASA)
Frustrated: Alan Stern (NASA)

So today, NASA announces another delay of two years to MSL launch. This comes after the decision last month by project managers to cut a “wasteful” rock cache from the rover, freeing up time for project engineers to concentrate other parts of the vehicle. I am at a loss to understand why the $2 million sample storage box was ever included in the design, but at this late stage, managers deemed the cache expendable and removed it from the MSL. Any thread of hope I had for the MSL was dashed, the mismanagement Stern was citing in his NY Times article was revealing itself. On the flip-flopping managerial choices, Stern said, “The Mars program is slowly committing suicide in front of our very eyes.”

$2 million was literally sliced from the project with little, or no, accountability. Nobody is to blame. The people who decided the cache was a good idea and the people overturned the decision after it had been built, are still working on the project. What other decisions are being made that we don’t know about? Where is the budget leak? More importantly, who is letting this happen? Is it really an institutional problem? Or should the project managers be reprimanded?

Alas, I don’t think anyone knows, or cares to know. So long as the MSL project is kept alive, then NASA can fulfil its continuing domination of the Martian surface. This, I have no problem with, but when it comes with the huge cost of sucking funds and time from other, smaller NASA projects, I become concerned for the future of the Mars Program. NASA has a finite (and horribly small) budget, so the more money spent on this flagship mission will cause untold damage to other sectors of NASA science.

So what’s the answer to the MSL saga? The rover’s technology is unproven, this is a fact. It is the robotic actuators on the mission that are causing the biggest headaches for the MSL team at the moment. They don’t appear to be working…

Don’t appear to be working? Really?

According to Mars Program Manager Doug McCuistion at today’s press conference, the actuators are critical (if you haven’t guessed):

The actuators are basically motors in a gear box. All our landers have robotic actuators, and they enable the rover to do what they do: to drive and stop, they run the elbow and wrist join for the robotic arm and drills in sample handling devices. That’s why they are absolutely crucial to these missions. If the actuators can’t move, we essentially have junk on the surface of Mars. – Doug McCuistion (empasis added)

Isn’t this a very late realisation? I assumed the MSL components would have been tested thoroughly by now, these issues should not be cropping up one year from mission launch!

We know these actuator motors must work on Mars and we’ve got anomalies on some of them we don’t understand,” McCuistion added. “It’s the right thing to delay the mission to take the appropriate time to understand the technical issues and test everything thoroughly.”

And so the delays and resultant swelling of the MSL budget continues. If this was a business, I’m sure the MSL would have either been cancelled outright (scrubbed as a bad idea) or the whole team would have been replaced. But this isn’t business, this is NASA where it seems project managers feel they can be bailed out whenever they make a miscalculation or (more sinisterly) deliberately underestimate the final bill in the hope of getting projects passed by politicians and higher ranking NASA officials.

Uphill struggle: Tests on the MSL in May 2008 (NASA)
Uphill struggle: Tests on the MSL in May 2008 (NASA)

Having said that, MSL managers believe their cause is heroic in some way. Yes, NASA is pushing the boundaries of technology, science and human ingenuity, but there needs to be some common sense when it comes to planning a mission such as the MSL.

  • The MSL was budgeted to cost $2 billion.
  • It was already over-budget by $235 million in April, and an extra $100 million has been approved.
  • Components costing $2 million are being thrown away.
  • The robotic actuators are not working.
  • There was no way the MSL was going to be ready for launch by October 2009.

All this at the cost of other projects working to budget and on time. Although NASA is keen to point out that no other NASA project will be cancelled as a result of this overrun, I severely doubt that will be the case (although they do admit that other missions may be delayed).

But good news for NASA, it would appear Alan Stern’s replacement has fallen right into the groove of zero-accountability and is beginning to whistle the right tune:

Costs and schedules are taken very seriously on any science mission. However, when it’s all said and done, the passing grade is mission success.”1

Failure is not an option for this mission.”2

– Ed Weiler, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science.

The MSL design (NASA)
The MSL design (NASA)

In Conclusion

NASA is not a flawless agency and cost overruns are a fact of life for many missions into space. Although NASA has been doing this for 50 years, miscalculations are bound to occur, it is the nature of the stunning science being carried out. However, this is not a perfect world where project managers can simply ask for infinite funds for space missions. Other projects suffer when a huge mission like the $2 billion (correction, read: “closer to $3 billion when the thing is actually launched“) starts to falter and managers start requesting to be bailed out. The MSL is fast becoming a drain on all of NASA’s resources… isn’t that a good definition of a cancer? Perhaps Alan Stern was right after all.

If you read regularly, you’ll be familiar with my views on missions with their primary objective to search for extraterrestrials. Although I’m not adverse to the idea of “the search for life” (in fact, as Greg Fish commented on The Search For Life, What’s the Point?, what if we find some bacterial form of life dangerous to the future Mars settlers? Robotic reconnaissance missions are therefore essential to probe for this hazard), I am frustrated by the importance placed–and money spent–on this goal when there is no precedent for any form of microbial (or intelligent) life in our local volume of space.

The real crisis slowly creeping up on the US space agency is not the MSL bail-outs, it is the shuttle retirement in 2010 and the resulting lack of US manned access to space. The Russian alternative (the Soyuz spacecraft) is fortunate, but politics are fragile at the best of times, surely we should be addressing this potential flashpoint? More money needs to be spent on the Constellation Program, and that means NASA needs to have its funding boosted by Congress and an improved management structure needs to be put into place.

Budget increases and bail-outs should be a rarity, not normality.


3 thoughts on “The Cancer Spreads: Mars Science Laboratory Delayed Until 2011”

  1. While I am not exactly a fan of the “search for life” (I would rather export Earth life elsewhere–perhaps I’m biased), I dread what this may mean for human settlement of Mars.

    If NASA is having cost overruns here, I can only imagine what a manned mission to Mars would look like.

    Hopefully they can team up with NewSpace, and contract a company to do it for them (on the cheap).

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