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MSL Highlights NASA’s Cost Control Problems

Your Nov. 10 issue [page 14] contained a letter by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s chief scientist, Dr. Jim Garvin, which contained serious documentable errors which require response. I enumerate those errors here:

Dr. Garvin claims that the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project’s Cost to Go review team, chartered by the Science Mission Directorate, was not disbanded.

In point of fact it was disbanded by my superiors, over my objection and the objection of my deputy for flight projects. Although the Cost to Go review panel’s chair and one other member were then invited to join the MSL project’s Standing Review Board, neither agreed, citing the gutting of their review panel and their authority. Dr. Garvin’s Orwellian use of the word “consolidated” in describing this maneuver by the NASA associate administrator, who was intent on removing a committee whose results neither the Jet Propulsion Laboratory nor NASA senior management wanted to hear (ironically, despite its on-target assessment of how fiscal year 2008 and early fiscal year 2009 would unfold for MSL), is telling.

cost increases far exceed Dr. Garvin’s quoted 6.5 percent, based on his quoted confirmation cost of $1.55 billion.

Would it were that Dr. Garvin’s facts were only so, but they are not. It is documentable fact that the mission was confirmed at $1.4 billion. But even forgiving that error and using Garvin’s own $1.55 billion number, primary school arithmetic shows us the corresponding increase to today’s $2.1 billion price tag is $550 million, meaning an increase of over 26 percent. What new math corresponds to a 6.5 percent ($130 million) rise to the current $2.1 billion? And what conscience allows the cost to inflate more than a factor of two from the National Research Council’s approved $650 million level to the $1.4 billion confirmation level, or from there to today’s $2.1 billion level, without a revisit by the broadly based planetary science community who must bear the budget of these increases within their strained, fixed-level dollars effort?

Finally, Dr. Garvin claims that MSL’s original $650 million cost, assigned by the National Research Council’s Planetary Decadal Survey when it ranked the mission high enough to proceed in 2003, was nave.

I agree here: Any mildly experienced scientific program manager could have recognized this fact. Yet neither NASA Headquarters, nor the implementing NASA center (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), nor the Mars community, came forward then, pointing out this obvious disconnect. As a result, the community-based Planetary Decadal Survey ranked MSL highly at an advertised cost level of $650 million. Had they known its ultimate cost would be in excess of triple that, and the consequent damage that would result to the rest of the U.S. planetary program to fund such increases in a fixed-budget environment, I believe it is doubtful that MSL would have received the same high ranking. NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Mars community abused the National Research Council’s high recommendation for MSL by running away with the mission’s ambitions and cost after it received a high ranking at the $650 million level. When retailers employ such predatory practices, it is called “bait and switch.”

MSL is a fine scientific mission, and I hope it works, for the fate of the U.S. Mars program lies at its feet. But MSL has caused a great deal of damage to NASA’s broader planetary program: All that remains in hardware development are just one lunar and one outer planet mission; and by NASA’s own recent reckoning, even those two missions and portions of the planetary research and analysis programs which produce scientific discoveries are endangered now by MSL’s spiraling cost. The fact that talented NASA officials like Jim Garvin cannot even admit MSL project mistakes and honestly talk about lessons learned, instead substituting rationales for why projects that triple in cost should be continued as if there were no collateral damage and no consequences, speaks volumes about how severe the agency’s cost control problems have become.

Alan Stern is former associate administrator, NASA Science Mission Directorate