NASA Sticks to 2009 Launch for Flagship Mars Mission

Mars Sample Return Proposal Stirs Excitement, Controversy
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. To be launched in 2009, MSL is now being eyed for sample caching duties on the red planet as part of a revived NASA Mars sample return initiative.
(Image: © NASA/JPL/Corby Waste.)

NASA willpush ahead with its plan for an October 2009 launch of the already over-budgetMars Science Laboratory (MSL) despite ongoing technical and scheduledifficulties all but certain to push the cost of the mission past $2 billion.

Officialsin charge of NASA?s Mars program made the announcement Friday following ameeting with NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to discuss what to do about themission in light of continued costgrowth. MSL?s price tag has risen $300 million since mid-2006 topping $1.9billion in NASA?s latest public estimate.

DougMcCuistion, the director of NASA?s Mars Exploration Program, said MSL will needmore than $1.9 billion whether it launchesas planned in October 2009 or is delayed two years until the next optimallaunch window opensin 2011. McCuistion said NASA was not at liberty to say how much additionalmoney MSL would need until it has a chance to square its budget needs with theWhite House and Congress.

NASA Marsofficials are due to meet with Griffin about MSL again in January. By thattime, McCuistion said, MSL officials expect to show that some keyhardware and software deliveries holding up the project have been made andthat testing has continued to go well.

While NASAcould still decide to cancel MSL, NASA?s associate administrator for science,Ed Weiler, described that as an unlikely scenario.

?It?s easyto say, ?let?s just cancel it and move on? but we?ve poured over abillion-and-half dollars into this,? Weiler said. ?The science is critical.It?s a flagship mission in theMars program and as long as we think we have a good technical chance tomake it we are going to do what we have to do.?

Weiler saidhe would look for additional money for MSL in the Mars budget before puttingthe pinch on the rest of NASA?s planetary science portfolio.

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