Thursday, October 30, 2008

Alan Stern on MSL budget

Science Magazine published the following letter to the editor from Alan Stern. It is short enough that reproducing it in full seems to fall within the fair use clause of the copyright laws, so I'm posting it here for other readers. If your library has a subscription to Science, I encourage you to read the original article.

Viewing NASA's Mars Budget with Resignation
I would like to clarify several points in the News of the Week story (26 September, p. 1754) by A. Lawler, "Rising costs could delay NASA's next mission to Mars and future launches."

When the National Research Council's Planetary Science Decadal Survey recommended the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission for priority funding, it assigned a cost level of $650 million. This value, rather than $1.4 billion, is the true metric for seeing the deep damage that MSL's profligately overrunning cost--now likely to top $2.1 billion--has inflicted on NASA's Mars and wider planetary science budget.

Also, the story focused its overrun discussion on instrument costs. Although certainly part of the problem, instrument cost increases have been considerably smaller than overruns in the rest of MSL's budget, which was severely mismatched to the project's complexity from its inception. This mismatch sowed the most fundamental seeds of MSL's cost problems.

The article's end quote described NASA's Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission plan as "smoke and mirrors." Disappointingly, MSR is becoming a mirage in the wake of MSL and other budget damage caused by numerous substantial Science Mission Directorate (SMD) cost overruns accepted in recent months. However, as evidenced by both internal NASA and external Office of Management and Budget scrutiny in 2007, NASA's MSR plan in the President's Fiscal Year 2009 budget did fit in SMD's future budget envelope. It could well have launched near 2020, had a strong emphasis on cost control been sustained as a priority.

Finally, there was no mention that a NASA independent review team found numerous development issues that called MSL's 2009 launch date into serious doubt almost a year ago. Nor did it describe that scenarios for dealing with MSL without causing such deep budgetary damage elsewhere were proposed by SMD but rejected at higher levels in early 2008. That, and the concurrent, forced disbanding of the MSL independent review team, precipitated my resignation as SMD Associate Administrator.

Alan Stern

Summary of original Science article that Stern refers to (from my post on Unmanned Spaceflight):

Science magazine just published an article on the implications of a possible two year delay to MSL that is being considered. Some highlights:

"Faced with a dramatically higher price tag, NASA managers will decide next month whether to postpone the launch of a sophisticated Mars rover for 2 years... In addition to worrying about the unbudgeted overtime, Weiler is concerned that engineers may be rushing their inspection of the rover's complicated systems... The latest technical problems affecting the MSL budget include the tardy delivery of hardware used in the sample acquisition and handling portion of the laboratory. NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green said in June that the total overrun for MSL in 2008 and 2009 was $190 million. Most of that money--some $115 million--will come from other Mars-related projects... A new $300 million overrun, says a NASA official familiar with MSL, could force the agency to cancel the $485 million 2013 Scout mission announced just last week to probe the planet's atmosphere or the 2016 Mars mission."

"The 2016 Mars effort now under consideration likely would be a smaller rover that could include some sample-gathering technology designed to test systems for an eventual sample-return mission from Mars to Earth. The projected $1.4 billion cost of such a rover would fall between MSL and the current Spirit and Opportunity rovers now on the surface."

"...static budgets, spacecraft overruns, and the need to conduct other missions make that [a Mars sample return] increasingly unrealistic, say agency managers and academic researchers. Weiler notes that a sample-return mission would cost many billions of dollars and that NASA is planning first to launch a mission to either Jupiter or Saturn late in the next decade... "Plans for a sample return were smoke and mirrors," says Mustard. "It's a good idea--but where's the money?""

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