Budget Fixes Return Instrument Pair to NASA's Mars Science Laboratory
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory plans to launch in 2009. The rover is to be powered by nuclear generator (not shown) and will have extensive mobility across the red planet. Image
Credit: NASA/JPL/Corby Waste

WASHINGTON - Two instruments that were cast off NASA's Mars Science Laboratory for being over budget have earned their way back onto the mission, which is scheduled for an August 2009 launch, according to the U.S. space agency's science chief.

NASA announced in September that it was scaling back some of Mars Science Laboratory's capabilities in order to keep the $1.7 billion rover mission on track.

Seeking to avoid writing another $75 million check for the already over-budget mission, NASA scuttled a descent camera designed to capture color video of the approaching martian surface and refused to provide any money beyond 2007 for Chem-Cam, a laser instrument that has exceeded its budget by 70 percent.

But Alan Stern, NASA's associate administrator for science, told Space News that the Chem-Cam and the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) programs have since found solutions to their budget quandaries and were back on the manifest.

"When Chem-Cam and MARDI figured out that we really meant that MARDI wasn't going to fly and Chem-Cam wasn't getting any more money, they came back to us with a way to do it without any significant money from us," Stern said in an interview.

In the case of MARDI, the camera's designer and principal investigator, Mike Malin of San Diego-based Malin Space Systems, offered to finish the instrument at his own expense. NASA plans to pay for installing MARDI aboard the Mars Science Laboratory using money it had planned to give Malin to process and analyze imagery from an identical camera launched aboard the Mars Phoenix Lander this summer.

Those funds are no longer needed, Stern said, due to a data-handling problem discovered shortly before launch that will limit Phoenix to taking just one picture with the camera. "The combination of him finishing on his own dime and giving back the Phoenix money ended up costing us nothing for flying MARDI, so of course we will do it," Stern said.

The Chem-Cam team, led by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, also dug deep to solve its budget problems. The instrument emerged from the Mars Science Laboratory's critical design review more than 70 percent over budget and still in need of $2.5 million to finish development and $1.3 million for integration with the rover

Stern pledged to find the money for integration if the team could figure a way to finish the Chem-Cam without extra funding from NASA.

The Chem-Cam team solved $1.5 million of its budget problem through increased contributions from its French colleagues and by simplifying its work plan - Stern described it as "separating the icing from the cake in terms of the work to go."

The director of Los Alamos, meanwhile, agreed to back his principal investigator with about $600,000. "This left an unfunded amount of about $400,000," Stern said. "I declared victory. We had succeeded in eliminating over 80 percent of the problem."

Stern said he plans to cover the cost of Chem-Cam's integration out of some $2 million NASA's Science Mission Directorate saved by getting Phoenix off at the very start of its three-week launch window.

  • VIDEO: NASA's Phoenix Lander: Rising to the Red Planet
  • VIDEO: Mars Rover Team Ponders Mission's End
  • Mars Rover Special Report