Mars Science Lab launch delayed by two years

WASHINGTON (CNN) – NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory launch, hampered by technical difficulties and cost overruns, has been delayed until the fall of 2011, NASA officials said at a press conference Thursday in Washington.

Photo illustration of a laser-equipped vehicle that will become part of the Mars Science Laboratory.

The mission was scheduled to launch in autumn 2009.

The Mars Science Laboratory is a large, nuclear-powered rover designed to travel great distances with a suite of onboard scientific instruments on board.

According to NASA’s website, this is part of a “long-term robotic research effort” to “learn the early history of Mars’ environment” and assess whether Mars was ever — or still is — capable of supporting life.

The launch delay, according to NASA, is due to a number of “testing and hardware issues that need (still) to be resolved to ensure mission success.”

“Progress in recent weeks has been insufficient in resolving technical issues and integrating hardware,” said Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Moving to a launch in 2011 “will carefully address any remaining technical issues, conduct proper and thorough testing, and avoid launch madness,” NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler said.

According to NASA spokesman Duane Brown, the total cost of the Mars Science Lab is currently estimated at about $2.1 billion. The project originally cost $1.6 billion.

The entire NASA budget for the current fiscal year, according to Brown, is about $15 billion.

According to NASA, March The rover will use new technology and be designed to explore greater distances over rough terrain than previous missions to the planet. This will be achieved in part through the use of a new surface propulsion system.

“Failure on this mission is unacceptable,” Weiler said. “Science is too important, and the investment of American tax dollars makes us absolutely sure that we have done everything possible to ensure the success of this flagship planetary mission.”

Weiler argued that the agency’s preliminary estimate was that the additional costs associated with the delay in launching the science lab would not lead to the cancellation of other NASA programs over the next two years. However, he acknowledged that this would result in other unspecified program delays.

Critics argue that the delays and cost overruns associated with the Mars Science Lab indicate that the agency suffers from a lack of accountability and inefficiency in terms of managing both taxpayers’ time and money.

“The Martian science lab is just the latest symptom NASA “a culture that has lost control of spending,” wrote Alan Stern, a former NASA Associate Administrator, in a Nov. 24 article in The New York Times. . “

Stern stated that the agency’s cost overruns are being fueled by “managers who hide the magnitude of the cost increases that missions incur” and “members of Congress who agree to a steep increase to protect local jobs.”

Brown responded in a written statement saying that NASA administrators are “constantly working to improve (the agency’s) cost estimation capabilities … We are constantly reviewing our projects to understand the true risk in terms of performance, cost and schedule.”

“It’s a fact of life at NASA, where we’re tasked with building first-of-its-kind science discovery missions, that estimating the costs of…science can be almost as difficult as actually doing it,” Brown said. .

NASA’s most recent Martian project, the Phoenix Mars Lander mission, ended last month after the solar-powered lander’s batteries ran out as a result of a dust storm and the onset of Martian winter. He worked two months more than his original three-month mission.

NASA officials landed the spacecraft on the Arctic plain after satellite observations showed that the area had massive amounts of frozen water, most likely in the form of permafrost. They thought that such a place would be a promising place to look for organic chemicals that would indicate a habitable environment.

Scientists have been able to test for water ice in the Martian interior, find small concentrations of salts that could be nutrients for life, and observe snow falling from clouds, NASA said Thursday.

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