– NASA expects to learn by late January just how far over budget the Mars Phoenix Lander is expected to be by the time the nearly completed spacecraft launches this August.


Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said in an interview here Jan. 10 that the Mars Phoenix Lander appears to be on a sound technical footing following a series of setbacks that had mission officials scrambling for most of 2006 to keep the spacecraft on track to launch this summer.


To keep the mission on schedule, the Mars Phoenix Lander team burned through all of last year’s budget as well as a good part of this year’s budget. As a result of the overrun, the Mars Phoenix Lander team will not be able to complete the spacecraft and make it through the end of the year without additional funding.


NASA first learned last autumn that the
lander team had overrun its budget trying to overcome a number of setbacks. The problems they encountered included having to make more modifications than expected to the
‘s commercially purchased radar altimeter and finding out that the landing site they had been banking on was not such a great place to touch down after all.


When NASA ordered a formal program review last autumn, the future of the
program was not looking too bright. Not only were the spacecraft’s technical issues unresolved, but further reconnaissance of the Phoenix team’s favored landing site revealed it to be a dangerous place to try to touch down. As McCuistion summed up the situation, “the landing radar didn’t work; we had no place to land and we had a cost overrun.”


Although the technical problems and the landing site dilemma appear largely behind the program at this point, McCuisition said the team needs more money to complete the spacecraft and conduct the mission.


McCuistion would not discuss ahead of a late January program review how much money he expects the Mars Phoenix Lander team to request. But he did say that the overrun is large enough that it would adversely impact other activities funded under the Mars Exploration Program this year.


overrun is going to have some effect on us,” he said.


The Mars Phoenix Lander, picked in 2003 as the first of a planned series of competitively-selected Mars Scout missions, uses much of the same hardware as the failed 1998 Mars Polar Lander, including a radar altimeter used in commercial aviation. Drop tests last year revealed that the radar altimeter needed more software and firmware modifications for use as a spacecraft landing radar than previously assumed.


“We did a drop test nearly a year ago to test for radar performance and radar performance was not adequate for our mission,” Peter Smith, the
principle investigator for the Mars Phoenix Lander mission, said Jan. 9 during a presentation at the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group Meeting here.


Smith said a “red team” was brought in to diagnose and fix the problem. The radar’s final test is scheduled for the end of January and Smith said he is “very confident” that the radar will perform as expected.


At the time of Mars Phoenix Lander’s selection, NASA announced that the mission would cost no more than $325 million to complete. In an interview late last year, Edward Sedivy, the Phoenix Flight System program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, priced the mission at $386 million, but did not say if that estimate was inclusive of the latest cost overruns.