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?""

Monday, October 27, 2008

Update on MSL & ExoMars

The latest Aviation Week has a couple of short updates on these two missions. ExoMars, as previously reported, has slipped to 2016. ESA has decided to cap its contributions for this 1.2B euro mission ($1.6B) at 1B euro. It will seek contributions from NASA and/or Russia for the rest.

For MSL, a number of tubes in the descent stage have faulty welds and these are being replaced. This is not expected to impact the schedule.

Friday, October 24, 2008

What Next for Mars?

With the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and ExoMars funding and schedules up in the air, it may seem too soon to think about what NASA missions should follow MSL. However, these projects require long development times and need to be fit with other projects into NASA’s future funding profiles. It also takes years to build consensus across the Mars and planetary science communities. With these issues in mind, NASA has a Mars Architecture Tiger Team (MATT) examining the options and recommending a sequence of missions for post 2016. (

The MAVEN aeronomy and upper atmosphere Scout mission is currently scheduled to follow MSL in 2013. However, its schedule and even continuation may be in doubt if its funding becomes required to enable the completion of MSL. (Based on past mission funding profiles, I expect that MAVEN’s peak funding years are 2011 and 2012, too late to provide a piggy bank to directly fund the MSL overruns. The MAVEN funding may be needed, however, to pay back other NASA missions that are “taxed” in the next year or two to pay for the MSL cost increase.) For the rest of this post, I will assume that MAVEN will fly on schedule.

The highest priority follow on mission (and has been for at least 20 years) would be a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission. I don’t think this mission is likely to fly before the late 2020s (the desire is for the early to mid 2020s). The cost and technology development make this mission, in my opinion, unlikely in the nearer timeframe. It would also be difficult to develop the proposed outer planets Flagship mission (destination Jupiter/Europa or Saturn/Titan) in parallel.

The rest of this post, therefore, will focus on the other three missions that MATT has identified. MATT identifies the following science goals for post MSL related to the theme, “Seeking Habitable Environments” (quoted from the MATT presentation):

-Investigate the physics, chemistry, and dynamics of the upper atmosphere, the effects of solar wind and radiation, and the escape of volatiles to space (MAVEN) - 2013
- Explore a diversity of surface environments using rovers with sample acquisition, analysis, and caching capabilities (Mars Prospector Rover (MPR) also called the mid-range rover) - 2016
- Determine the composition and structure of the current atmosphere (Mars Science Orbiter (MSO)) - 2018
- Investigate the deep interior using a network of landed geophysical experiments (Network Lander) – 2020 (if MSR is delayed past 2020)
- Return carefully selected and well-documented samples from a potentially habitable environment to Earth for detailed analysis (MSR)

Even without MSR, this is an ambitious, varied, and robust set of missions for future exploration of Mars. MATT has spent considerable time thinking about the sequence of the missions. From a science point of view, flying MSO in 2016 makes sense. It would provide continuity of climate observations with the current Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter ( and data relay for follow on missions. MATT recommends the MPR rover ahead MSO to ensure that JPL’s rover team remains intact. MSO needs to fly before NET both to provide data relay (the small NET landers presumably would not have high bandwidth direct to Earth communication capabilities) and global climate measurements to put NET’s meteorological measurements in context. Should MSR be able to fly in the early 2020’s MATT recommends that NET follow MSR.

My next post will discuss the MPR rover in more detail and an alternative roadmap that I think should be considered. The rest of this post reproduces summaries of the NET and MSO missions from the latest MATT presentation:

Mars Science Orbiter (MSO): Long-lived Science Orbiter Providing Atmospheric Remote Sensing and Mission Support
–Extend atmospheric and seasonal surface climate baseline through next decade
•Provide improved and new (e.g., winds) profiling capabilities
–Provide extensive global, diurnal and seasonal survey of key trace gases, including carbon-bearing compounds with implications for interior bio/geochemical processes
•Methane and higher order hydrocarbons
•Photochemical products, isotopes (CO, NO, etc.)
–Synergistic with Network for both relay and atmospheric science
–Synergistic (lower atmosphere) with 2013 Scout (upper atmosphere)
–Provide telecom, site characterization and atmospheric monitoring for the future

Network (NET): ≥ 4 Landed Stations Arrayed in a Seismic Network
– Characterize interior structure, composition and processes
– Elucidate evolution of the interior over time and role in Mars climate history
– Advance the comparative study of planetary formation and evolution
– Characterize local meteorology and provide baseline for orbital climate measurements
– Highest priority after sample return in NRC reports / Decadal Survey

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Presidential Candidates on NASA Funding

The two posts below include quotes published on Space Politics. I highly recommend this site for anyone interested in the politics and funding of NASA. It is very high quality and even handed.

My take on the two candidates position is that it is good news for future planetary exploration. Normally, presidential elections essentially ignore NASA and space exploration. This year, both candidates have expressed support for NASA and promised more money.

If the money arrives, it will likely go to the manned flight program (although one can hope for a little to cover the MSL budget woes!). This likely will reduce the pressure to minimize budget requests for the science side of the house to fund the development of the next generation of manned vehicles. Even if the $2B in additional money isn't funded, these quotes suggest that NASA's future budget requests may be more favorably treated by the White House than they have been in the past.

McCain on space policy

This McCain quote is from the Space Politics ( website:

"If I’m elected president I won’t cut NASA funds like Senator Obama did and then reverse myself [cheering] here on the Space Coast for political benefit. My friends, we just saw the Chinese, saw them in space. We’ve got competition. We’ve got to say ahead. We will be the first nation to Mars. We will continue, we will continue to lead in space. [cheering] I’ve always been a strong supporter of manned spaceflight and NASA. I will fund NASA including the $2 billion needed to minimize the gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the movement to a new vehicle."

Space Policy goes on to quote a McCain interview saying that space is vital and his across the board spending freeze would not apply to NASA. And, "We have to be the first people on Mars."

Obama on space policy

Thanks to Space Politics ( for the following quotes from Obama in response to India's launch of its first lunar mission:

"With India’s launch of its first unmanned lunar spacecraft following closely on the heels of China’s first spacewalk, we are reminded just how urgently the United States must revitalize its space program if we are to remain the undisputed leader in space, science, and technology.

"My comprehensive plan to revitalize the space program and close the gap between the Space Shuttle’s retirement and its next-generation replacement includes $2 billion more for NASA – but more money alone is not enough. We must not only retain our space workforce so that we don’t let other countries surpass our technical capabilities; we must train new scientists and engineers for the next generation. My comprehensive space policy focuses on reaching new frontiers through human space exploration, tapping the ingenuity of our commercial space entrepreneurs, fostering a broad research agenda to break new ground on the world’s leading scientific discoveries, and engaging students through educational programs that excite them about space and science."

Monday, October 20, 2008

ExoMars delay, budget problems

Problems with Mars rovers is not limited to the new world. ESA's ExoMars mission is having it's own problems:

"The ExoMars rover, which will search for signs of life on the Red Planet, will not now launch until 2016 because of the high cost of the project. The 1.2bn-euro price tag is deemed to be too high by governments, and space officials have been asked to find ways to reduce it." Full article at and some nice commentary at

Weiler on MSL and future budgets

The Planetary Science Subcommittee met recently (this is an advisory board to NASA) and has posted the notes of its meeting at I found the following summary of the discussion with Dr. Weiler, head of the NASA science program, interesting for its analysis of problems facing MSL and future funding directions and challenges for the planetary program as a whole.

Dr. Weiler shared some of his thoughts on MSL. He noted that SMD found ways to fund the last overrun with almost no impact to other programs. However, there are no further sources of money. Some budget estimates expect the problem to be $120M - $150M. Delaying the MSL mission is one option. Although there would be additional cost (beyond the overrun) for a delay, the Directorate could save money in 2009. The other option is to cut missions and go ahead with MSL in 2009. The decision cannot be delayed until January. Dr. Weiler stated that any philosophical thoughts that the Subcommittee could give the Directorate would be appreciated. About one-third of the funding problem could be solved painlessly by JPL reducing its carryover to one month. He emphasized that the JPL team working on MSL could not be pushed to the brink of making mistakes. JPL must convince NASA management that it has a solid plan to make the launch. Best case (a delay, use of carryover funds, and other savings), the impacts to the rest of the Planetary program would probably mean delays to schedules and AO’s, rather than cancellations. R&A is not on the list as a funding source—should it be? Dr. Weiler stated that his number one concern on MSL is risk—successful launch, landing, and science return. An important question is whether this mission will make a major science impact on the public as well as the science community. The present MSL experience argues even more strongly for a series of moderately-scaled missions leading up to a MSR mission. The next decadal study will evaluate Mars along with the rest of the program.

With respect to the future NASA budget, there has never been a period before where there have been so many unknowns. Congress has taken the necessary action that will allow NASA to have the option of using Soyez instead of keeping Shuttle going. The science budget, at worst, should remain stable. The public sees the science side of NASA very positively, and there are some strong advocates on the Hill. If there is any new money, Earth science is probably in the best position for an increase. With respect to Europa or Titan, an Outer Planets Program should be established. ESA is on board and wants to participate in every mission; however, international collaboration should not complicate the program. Rather, it should get NASA and the science community more money or more science. The interfaces should be clean. Mr. McCuistion noted that an ExoMars collaboration has been on-going for the past four years and there is an excellent international community. For MSR, it is even larger—a twelve-nation membership as well as a bilateral engineering association. The international collaborations on Mars are very strong. Realistically, collaboration will be necessary on any MSR mission. With respect to lessons learned on MSL, Dr. Weiler mentioned several: early investments are crucial and standing review boards are very important; extended Phase A’s and Phase B’s may be advisable; “faster, better, cheaper” may not be the best approach for large missions. In addition, the entire philosophy of how missions are funded may need to be re-examined.

Very tight window for MSL

This week's Aviation Week has a short piece in "Washington Outlook" about the tightness of the MSL schedule to hit the 2009 launch window. The piece says "NASA managers say there is still time to make the 2009 launch window for the MSL mission -- if enough extra money can be found. But sources... worry there's only about a week of wiggle room to get the critical launch/cruise environmental tests underway..." "...the next president will be able to take a broader look at the mission when it comes up for review again in January." Alan Stern is quoted as saying that he would ask two questions: (1) how much will this hurt other parts of the Mars and science programs, and (2) is there really time to complete the testing to provide high confidence that the mission will succeed?

I obviously have no insight into the internal state of affairs. As an outsider with experience in multi-hundred million dollar development efforts, however, the '09 launch is looking like a hail Mary pass. Everything necessary to meet the '09 launch has to be done, so there's no downside to trying to meet the current schedule and $3-400M upside in additional costs not incurred with a slip to '11. I would not, however, be at all surprised to learn that the mission does in fact have to slip. Either way, the additional costs are sufficient that there will be implications for the rest of the science program for the next several years.

I don't think the next president's staff will get involved in this issue in any serious way. Whichever team it is will have their hands full with lots of other issues. There will be a budget submitted in Jaunary for the entire government (most of the gov't is currently on a continuing resolution at '08 levels until the next president submits his budget). MSL, however, is very small potatoes. I think NASA will be told to deal with it on their own within whatever budget is approved.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Since the approval and funding of planetary missions has to go through the political process, discussions on this topic are not appropriate for UMSF. To provide a place for these discussions, I'm starting a blog on this topic. I'll be the only one able to initiate topics, but will post (anonymously if requested and appropriate) material from others on these topics. Just send me an e-mail. A couple of the people on this mailing list have had lots of excellent contributions in the past. Anyone can comment on the postings.

Because this tends to be a period topic when news occurs, postings will be period. I will try to remember to send out a notice when I do post. If there is a particularly hot or important posting, I'll put a brief notice and link on UMSF, too.

Discussions of how politics affect future planetary missions are allowed. Vigorous debate of ideas and alternatives are encouraged. Trashing others personally will not be tolerated.

I hope that this will be the place for lively, informed discussion on these topics and a reference site of links and disucssions on this topic.