Mars Science Lab launch delayed two years


Washington (CNN) – The launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory – due to technical difficulties and cost overruns – has been delayed until fall 2011, NASA officials said at a news conference in Washington on Thursday.

A photo of the laser-equipped vehicle set to become part of the Mars Science Laboratory.

The mission was scheduled for launch in the fall of 2009.

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

It is, according to NASA’s Web site, part of a “long-term robotic exploration effort” established to “study the early environmental history of Mars” and assess whether Mars ever harbored life. is – or still is – worth maintaining. .

The launch delay, according to NASA, is due to several “testing and hardware challenges that (still) must be addressed to ensure mission success.”

“Progress in recent weeks in solving technical challenges and pulling hardware together has not been fast enough,” said Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weller argued that switching to a 2011 launch would “allow any remaining technical problems to be carefully resolved, properly and thoroughly tested, and avoid a mad dash to launch.”

The overall cost of the Mars Science Lab is now estimated to be about $2.1 billion, according to NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown. The project was originally valued at $1.6 billion.

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

According to NASA, the Mars rover will use new technology and engineering to explore farther than previous missions to the planet. This will be done in part by implementing a new surface propulsion system.

“Failure is not an option on this mission,” Weller said. “The science is so important and the investment of American taxpayer dollars makes us absolutely certain that we have done everything possible to ensure the success of this flagship planetary mission.”

Weller emphasized that, based on the agency’s preliminary assessments, additional costs associated with science lab launch delays will not result in the cancellation of other NASA programs over the next two years. He, however, admitted that this would result in further unspecified program delays.

Critics have charged that the delays and cost overruns associated with the Mars Science Lab are indicative of an agency plagued by a lack of accountability and inefficiency in managing both time and taxpayer dollars.

In a Nov. 24 op-ed in the New York Times, former NASA associate administrator Alan Stern wrote, “The Mars Science Laboratory is just the latest symptom of a NASA culture that has lost control of spending.” “A Cancer Overtaking Our Space Agency: Routine Eclipses for Endless Cost Increases in Projects.”

Stern alleged that the agency’s cost increases are being fueled by “administrators who disguise the size of the cost increases that come with missions” and “members of Congress who accept huge increases to protect local jobs.” are.”

Brown responded in a written statement, saying that NASA administrators are “continually working to improve (the agency’s) cost-estimating capabilities. … We will assess the real risk in terms of performance, cost and schedule.” We constantly review our projects to understand.”

“The fact of life at NASA, where we are charged with building first-of-its-kind scientific research missions, is that … estimating the cost of science is as difficult as actually doing the science,” Brown said. can,” Brown said. .

NASA’s most recent Mars project — the mission of the Phoenix Mars lander — ended last month after the solar-powered vehicle ran out of batteries as a result of a dust storm and the onset of Martian winter. It was operational two months after its initial three-month mission.

NASA officials landed the vehicle on an Arctic field after satellite observations revealed that the region contained large amounts of frozen water, most likely in the form of permafrost. They thought such a place would be an excellent place to search for organic chemicals that would indicate a habitable environment.

NASA said Thursday that scientists were able to confirm the presence of water-ice on the surface of Mars, detect small concentrations of salts that are nutrients for life and observe snow falling from clouds.

About all Exploration of Mars • NASA

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