WASHINGTON (CNN) — NASA’s launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, hampered by technical difficulties and cost overruns, has been delayed until fall 2011, NASA officials said at a news conference Thursday in Washington.
A photographic illustration of a laser-equipped vehicle that will be part of the Mars Science Laboratory.
The mission was scheduled to launch in the fall of 2009.
The Mars Science Lab is a large nuclear-powered vehicle 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 evaluate whether Mars has ever been, or still is, capable of supporting life. .
The launch delay, according to NASA, is due to a series of “testing and hardware challenges that (still) must be addressed to ensure mission success.”
“Progress in recent weeks has not been fast enough in resolving technical challenges and integrating hardware,” said Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The move to a 2011 launch “will allow for careful resolution of any remaining technical issues, adequate and thorough testing, and avoid a mad rush to launch,” NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler argued.
The total cost of Mars Science Lab is now expected 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 approximately $15 billion.
According to NASA, the Mars rover will use new technologies and will be designed to explore greater distances over more rugged terrain than previous missions to the planet. This will be done in part by employing a new surface propulsion system.
“Failure is not an option in this mission,” Weiler said. “Science is too important and investing American taxpayer dollars requires us to be absolutely certain that we have done everything possible to ensure the success of this iconic planetary mission.”
Weiler said that based on the agency’s preliminary assessments, additional costs related to the Science Lab launch delay would not result in the cancellation of other NASA programs in the next two years. However, he admitted that this would lead to other unspecified delays in the program.
Critics have claimed that the delays and cost overruns associated with the Mars Science Lab are indicative of an agency that is plagued by a lack of accountability and inefficiency in terms of managing both time and taxpayer money.
“The Mars Science Laboratory is just the latest symptom of a NASA culture that has lost control of spending,” wrote Alan Stern, former NASA associate administrator, in a Nov. 24 op-ed in the New York Times. “A cancer is taking over our space agency: routine acquiescence to huge project cost increases.”
Stern charged that the agency’s cost overruns are being driven by “managers disguising the size of cost increases missions incur” and “members of Congress accepting steep increases to protect local jobs.”
Browne responded in a written statement, saying NASA managers 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 reality of life at NASA, where we are charged with creating first-of-its-kind scientific discovery missions, is that estimating the costs of…science can be almost as difficult as doing science,” Browne said. .
NASA’s most recent Mars project, the Phoenix Mars Lander mission, came to an end last month after the solar-powered rover’s batteries died as a result of a dust storm and the onset of the Martian winter. It had operated two months beyond its initial three-month mission.
NASA officials had landed the rover on an Arctic plain after satellite observations indicated there were large amounts of frozen water in that area, most likely in the form of permafrost. They thought that 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 descending from the clouds, NASA said Thursday.
All about Mars Exploration • NASA