Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bad News

NASA Planetary Science Subcommittee is meeting and early news all seems to be bad:

  • Ed Weiler, head of the Science Directorate, reportedly said that there is not enough money in the project planetary budgets to fund the Jupiter Europa Orbiter. Per Keith Cowing (NASA Watch), "According to sources who heard Weiler speak. during his presentation at a meeting to discuss the NRC's Decade Survey for Planetary Sciences, Ed Weiler said that the 2020 Outer Planets Flagship mission to Europa cannot be paid for within the currently anticipated SMD Planetary Sciences Division run out."
  • The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL, aka Curiosity) will require $15-115M more than the $400M added to the budget just six months ago. Solutions to supply the money include descoping Mars missions in 2016-20, delaying two small lunar missions, and delaying the next New Frontiers mission, and descoping the Discovery and New Frontiers programs.
  • MSL has two new major technical problems. One involves a key instrument (SAM which is the heart of the mission) and the other is that the power supplied by the RTG+battery will be insufficient. MSL will either need additional batteries and/or a solar panel.
  • Early looks at combining the ESA ExoMars and NASA's 2016 Mar orbiter (now called the Trace Gas and Telecomm orbiter) don't appear to provide a way to combine the missions.
  • NASA's hope for its own 2018 rover mission appear to be in doubt: "NASA’s 2018 lander mission is ill-defined WRT [with respect to] critical science and technology"
Correctıon - A prevıous versıon of thıs post mıspelled Keıth Cowıng name. My sıncere apologıes to hım - my only excuse ıs that I had just a few mınutes to wrıte the blog post whıle travelıng overseas and tryıng to fıgure out a non-Englısh keyboard ın a hotel lobby.

Editorial Thoughts: There is just no way to sugar coat these messages. The shit has hit the fan. MSL sounds as if it is a program out of control (read the comments on NASA Watch to Cowing's post). My take on MSL is that JPL is trying to do the equivalent of going from bi-planes (Spirit and Opportunity) to jet aircraft in a single generation of craft. A few months ago, I read a JPL presentation on MSL that described how much more complex MSL is than any previous Mars mission (10X sticks in my mind). As a former manager in a high tech company, programs that attempt to make huge leaps always burst their budgets and often end up failing all together. I think that the two year delay will turn out to be godsend for the program because it will need that time to work through technical issues and do the testing needed for a leap of this size. As for the effect on the rest of the planetary program, all I can say is that Alan Stern (former head of NASA Science Directorate) is looking more and more like a prophet. Unfortunately.

As for the Jupiter Europa Orbiter, Cowing's report (if upheld by fuller accounts) comes as no surprise. My reading of the planetary program budget is that only two of the following three programs can be funded at current or projected levels:

PI led missions (Discovery and New Frontiers)
Mars program
Jupiter Europa orbiter

An old Chinese curse reportedly said, "May you live in interesting times." The next few months look to be interesting for the future of the planetary program.


Cowing summary of Mars program presentation and link to the presentation:

Cowing editorial comments and reader comments (later most interesting). Includes reported funding issues for Jupiter Europa Orbiter:

Journal Nature story on meeting:

Space News article on ESA-NASA joint agreement on Mars exploration and lack of any mention of ExoMars:


  1. It's "Cowing", not "Cowling".

  2. Ok, time for a stimulous package! Seriously, I'd much rather see money being payed for high-tech, exciting missions rather than bail outs for CEO's that can't figure out high-risk mortgages remain high-risk despite calling them something else.

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