Delays and Cost Overruns Epidemic at NASA, Former Official Charges
Credit: NASA

NASA's announcement yesterday to delay the planned October 2009 launch of its car-sized Mars Science Laboratory rover until 2011 is the latest example of a pervasive problem within the space agency to bail out missions that go over budget at the expense of other projects, one former NASA official says.

"It has gotten to be epidemic this decade" among NASA missions, said S. Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and the former associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate (from 2007 to 2008).

The jumbo rover and its cadre of instruments are geared to test the Martian surface for signs of past potential habitability, continuing the work of the now-lifeless Phoenix Mars Lander and the two Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, still trundling across the Martian surface.

A major review of MSL in October concluded that the rover had a good chance of making its 2009 launch window, but since then, technical issues and delivery delays have tossed that out of window. The delays won?t take two years to address, but because of the relative positions of Earth and Mars, the next opportunity to launch MSL won't come until 2011.

Those two years do, however, come with a price tag of around $400 million, NASA officials estimate. And that extra money to keep the already nearly $2 billion project up-and-running will likely come at the expense of other NASA Mars and planetary missions, though officials haven't decided exactly how they'll make room in the budget.

Testing, testing and more testing

The hardware for MSL, including the rover itself, its cruise stage and the shell that will protect it as it descends towards Mars' surface, are "largely assembled," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters during a press briefing on Thursday.

But a few technical issues remain to be solved, mainly with the rover's actuators, which control everything on the rover that moves, including the wheels and robotic arms.

All of the rover's components must also be put through rigorous testing to make sure that once MSL arrives on Mars, the mission can "hit the ground running," said MSL project manager Richard Cook of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "There's a lot of testing still ahead of us."

Cook said that MSL's complexity and novel landing system and science made it more of an engineering challenge than previous Mars missions, such as Pathfinder, which was a "babystep" on the path to "regaining our knowledge of how to send things to Mars."

"The number of new challenges were kind of really limited," Cook added. Compared even to Spirit and Opportunity, MSL is "an order of magnitude more complex," he told (meaning, about 10 times).

But Stern says that MSL's delay and cost overrun are prime examples of a pervasive problem within NASA to "reward" missions that go over-budget and punish those that don't.

"It is unhealthy" to the entire NASA program, Stern told, and is the reason he resigned earlier this year from his NASA job.

Sunk costs and overruns

Here is how it happened: NASA's first cost commitment to MSL came in August 2006 during the mission's "confirmation review" for $1.63 billion, McCuistion said during the briefing. Problems in the middle of 2007 bumped the cost up to $1.88 billion. The extra $400 million from the mission delay, which will cover operations costs through 2014, will bump the lifetime cost of the mission into the $2.2 billion to $2.3 billion range, he said.

This cost is far beyond the original price tag the mission was given, Stern said, with NASA and Congress always upping the ante when asked. And "it's not just MSL" that keeps raising its price-tag, he said.

NASA officials say the reason for the ever-increasing costs is the new ground being broken by flagship missions like this, which are attempting things no one has ever tried before.

"We have not been very good at cost estimates, and I take responsibility for that," said Charles Elachi, the JPL director. "This has been just a very complicated mission." Costs were extrapolated from past experience, but the newness of the mission meant that extrapolation didn't work well.

Stern acknowledges the difficulties in estimating mission costs and that often problems can be unforeseen.

"There's always reasons these things go off track," he said. "Sometimes they're not even bad reasons."

The problem comes when you "coddle missions that are always over-price." This creates a "psychology" where deadlines and budgets aren't taken as seriously, Stern said.

McCuistion, Elachi and other NASA officials cite the importance of the mission science-wise and the investment already made as reasons to keep MSL going at the potential expense of other projects.

"A mission like this ranks just behind a manned mission in importance," said NASA administrator Michael Griffin during Thursday's briefing.

"The investment of American taxes payers compels us" to continue funding the mission, added Ed Weiler, the current associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

But Stern said that "sunk cost is a poor argument to make because it doesn't change behavior." He added: "You can only look to the future cost and its benefit."


The extra $400 million tacked on to the MSL mission will likely have impacts on other Mars missions, possibly spilling over to other planetary projects, though what that impact will be is currently uncertain.

"We obviously haven't had enough time to fully evaluate that," Weiler said during the press briefing.

"We think we can get by without canceling anything," Griffin said. Instead, the agency will likely delay other missions.

Money will first come from other Mars programs, but if enough can't be found there, which Stern suspects will be the case, other planetary programs will be impacted.

"There will be some pain in planetary and Mars [programs] to help us get through this," McCuistion said.

Stern said that the options in the Mars program were limited: data analysis of completed missions (such as the Phoenix Mars Lander, the first so-called Scout mission) could be delayed; operations of the two MER rovers could be cancelled; MAVEN, the next Scout mission could be put on hold. But these options won't free up $400 million, he said.

Mark Lemmon, a planetary scientist at Texas A&M University who worked on Spirit and Pathfinder, said the he hoped NASA "would protect the integrity of the missions" currently in operation.

He added that cutting off MAVEN right now would cripple the Scout program: "It's only the second Scout mission, and if you start trying to save money there, you effectively destroy the Scout program."

One option to fill the costs of MSL would be to put off development of instruments that aren't tied to a particular mission. These projects "aren't a huge amount of money but can sometimes be easy targets when the budget gets tight," Lemmon said.

Budget cuts have hit smaller programs hard before, Lemmon noted, particularly in Earth sciences, where satellites aimed at studying issues such as global climate change have been grounded, even though they are built, because it is cheaper to maintain them here than launch them.

New missions could also be affected, pushing them off to "the indefinite future," which could delay the relatively rapid pace of Mars discoveries in recent years, Lemmon said, potentially setting up another lapse in Mars study like the 20-year gap between the Viking and Pathfinder missions.

Cook is optimistic though that "the momentum [of Mars science] will continue." "Mars will be there for us," whenever we get there again, he noted.

Any options will be taken to NASA advisory committees so the scientific community can vote on which missions they would prefer to defer.

"This is math that we'll be doing in public, we just don't have the answers for you yet," Griffin said. "We?re going to find the least damaging way that we can."

Stern said that this choice should have been presented to the scientific community earlier, as soon as the mission topped the $1 billion mark. The choice should also have been presented only to the Mars community, keeping the cost to those scientists who most support the mission (the same would go for an astronomy or lunar mission, he noted).

Above all, what needs to happen is a wholesale change in the handling of over-budget missions to preserve the integrity of NASA science missions and roadmaps, Stern said. But it will take a number of changes ? simply giving NASA more money or better cost-estimating won't do it alone.

"There's no magic bullet," Stern said.