Next Mars Rover Held Up Until 2011

The fevered race to pick a landing site and a new name for the Mars Science Lab seems to have come to a screeching halt today, as NASA announced that the mission will have to wait until fall 2011 to launch.
—Image courtesy NASA/JPL

Citing technical issues and a too-tight testing schedule, NASA officials told reporters at a press briefing that the planned fall 2009 takeoff would have to wait, and the next launch window wouldn’t come for another two years.

Aside from the delay in collecting a whole new swath of data about the red planet and its past climate conditions, the delay means that an already over-budget MSL will cost almost a billion more U.S. dollars than it was approved to spend.

At the briefing, NASA administrator Michael D. Griffin said that agency officials think they can get by without canceling any other NASA programs, although it’s almost certain that some projects will see delays due to budget cuts.

Bloated costs have definitely been an issue for NASA before, and Ed Weiler, the agency’s associate administrator for its science missions, was quick to point out the roller coaster ride that accompanied the early days of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Challenger tragedy of 1986 delayed Hubble’s launch via shuttle by about four years, inflating costs from $400 million to $2.5 billion.
Mars, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope

—Image courtesy NASA

Then, within weeks of launch, the images Hubble sent back revealed that its primary mirror was a full 2.3 micrometers too flat—a tiny flaw that created stupendously huge troubles, both for science and for public relations.

Add to that the fact that Hubble was designed to be regularly serviced by space shuttles, which have seen enough technical troubles by now that the program is scheduled for termination in 2010.

Today NASA also announced that the telescope’s final servicing mission has been rescheduled for May 2009—eight months after a hurricane and then an electrical glitch in Hubble’s data formatter scrubbed the mission’s planned October 2008 launch.

Still, Hubble has become a media darling and an invaluable science tool over its almost 20 years in service.

Long story short [I know, too late], delays with the MSL should be seen as par for the course when it comes to these big NASA “flagship” projects.

What I’m more interested in is what program scientists and engineers will do with the extra time.

Aside from relaxing the testing schedule, a full two years sounds like plenty of time to add to, subtract from, divide, and conquer the MSL’s already impressive payload.

Just a few weeks ago, for example, NASA had a nice little kerfuffle over the decision to toss the MSL’s collection basket.

As of last year, the SUV-size rolling laboratory was slated to include a bin where it could deposit intriguing rock samples. The idea was that a future mission to Mars might be able to drop in on the MSL and return to Earth with the filled basket, providing scientists with their first samples direct from Mars.

But as things got cramped trying to meet the 2009 deadline, critics said the already-built but untested unit was a waste of money with low science value, and officials decided to let the basket go—a move former NASA science chief Alan Stern exemplified how the Mars program is committing suicide.

“The only concrete step toward a sample return has been tossed after it has already been built. How does that save money?” he told the Associated Press.

Now, with a bit more wiggle room and some likely time out of the public eye, will MSL get its basket back? What else could be tacked on or taken away? And what else might go wrong before, during, and after the rover’s launch?

Human Journey