The launch of the Mars Science Lab was delayed by two years

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

A photo illustration of a laser-equipped vehicle that will form part of the Mars Science Laboratory.

The mission had been scheduled for launch in the fall of 2009.

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

According to NASA’s website, it is part of a “long-term robotic exploration effort” established to “study the early environmental history of Mars” and assess whether Mars has been or still is capable of supporting life. .

The launch delay, according to NASA, is due to a series of “hardware tests and challenges that must (yet) be addressed to ensure mission success.”

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

The switch to a 2011 launch “will allow for careful resolution of remaining technical issues, adequate and thorough testing, and avoid a crazy launch,” argued NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler.

The overall cost of the Mars Science Lab is now projected to be approximately $2.1 billion, according to NASA spokesman Dwayne Browne. The project was originally priced at $1.6 billion.

NASA’s total budget for the current fiscal year, according to Browne, is roughly $15 billion.

According to NASA, the Mars rover will use new technologies and be designed to explore greater distances over rougher terrain than previous missions to the planet. This will be done in part by using a new surface propulsion system.

“Failure is not an option in this mission,” Weiler said. “The science is too important, and the investment of American taxpayer dollars requires us to be absolutely sure that we have done everything possible to ensure the success of this flagship planetary mission.”

Weiler stated that, based on the agency’s preliminary assessments, the additional costs linked to the Science Lab’s launch delay would not result in the cancellation of other NASA programs over the next two years. However, he admitted it would cause other unspecified program delays.

Critics have charged that the delay and cost overruns associated with the Mars Science Lab are indicative of an agency suffering from a lack of accountability and inefficiency in managing taxpayers’ time and money.

“The Mars Science Laboratory is just the latest symptom of a culture at NASA that has lost control of spending,” Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator, wrote in a 24 November in the New York Times. “A cancer is creeping into our space agency: routine acquiescence to immense project cost increases.”

Stern charged that the agency’s cost overruns are being fueled by “managers who hide the size of cost increases that missions incur” and “members of Congress who accept steep increases to protect local jobs.”

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

“The fact of life at NASA, where we are tasked with creating first-of-its-kind scientific discovery missions, is that estimating the costs of … science can be almost as difficult as doing the science,” Browne said. . . .

NASA’s most recent Mars project, the Phoenix Mars Lander mission, ended last month after the solar-powered vehicle’s batteries died as a result of a dust storm and the start of the ‘martian winter It had operated two months beyond its initial three-month mission.

NASA officials had landed the vehicle on an arctic plain after satellite observations indicated that there was large amounts of frozen water in that area, likely in the form of permafrost. They thought such a location would be a promising place to look for organic chemicals that would indicate a habitable environment.

Scientists were able to verify the presence of water ice in the Martian subsurface, find small concentrations of salts that could be nutrients for life and observe snow falling from the clouds, NASA said Thursday.

All about Exploration of Mars • NASA

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