UPDATED at 5:52 p.m.
WASHINGTON — NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) needs a last-minute cash infusion of $44 million to make sure it gets off the ground by the end of the year, according to an internal agency watchdog.
MSL managers said in late 2010 they would need to spend $537 million this year getting the car-sized Curiosity rover ready for a launch that must happen by mid-December or be delayed until 2013. However, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said in a June 8 report that mission managers underestimated by $44 million the amount they will need to finish and launch MSL.
Without the extra $44 million, the inspector general said, MSL could miss its launch window and force a further two-year delay that could make the mission vulnerable to calls for its cancellation.
MSL is slated to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18. If it misses that window, NASA would have to wait 26 months for the Earth and Mars to be back in alignment for a favorable launch opportunity.
During a June 8 media teleconference to discuss the inspector general’s report, Dave Lavery, NASA’s MSL program executive, acknowledged that the mission needs more money than it projected a year out from launch, but not as much as the inspector general says.
MSL has access to about $22 million in backstop funding “for development cost growth prior to launch,” Lavery said. That money was set aside last December, when NASA delivered the cost-to-complete estimate the inspector general now disputes.
Lavery maintained that MSL will launch this year, but that the program will probably have to draw down all $22 million of its backstop funding to do so.
“The project is likely to burn through their entire reserves prior to the launch,” Lavery said. He added that the rover is scheduled to ship June 22 from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to Kennedy where it will undergo final preparations for launch aboard an Atlas 5 rocket.
MSL was supposed to have launched in 2009, but NASA decided at the end of 2008 that the rover would not be ready to go by then. Delaying the launch to 2011, coupled with the additional resources needed to resolve the underlying technical issues, caused the mission’s development cost to shoot up 86 percent to $1.8 billion. Missing the 2011 window would add at least $570 million on top of that, according to the inspector general.
MSL’s cradle-to-grave price tag is now $2.5 billion — 56 percent higher than the initial estimate of $1.6 billion in 2006. The price tag, also known as the life cycle cost, includes five years of development, the nine months MSL will spend en route to Mars, and two years of surface operations plus data analysis.
In reviewing the program, the inspector general’s auditors found that MSL has overcome the key technical issues that caused it to forfeit its 2009 launch window. However, the auditors flagged three potentially mission-compromising technical problems that remained unresolved as recently as March.
One of the problems — contamination found in the system Curiosity will use to collect and analyze martian rock and soil samples — has been traced to the process used to manufacture the rover’s sample-drilling bit. Lavery said the drill bit has since been replaced and that the contamination issue, “at this stage of the game, has been resolved.”
The inspector general’s report also cited concerns about the MSL rover’s flight software and fault protection systems.
Lavery said that certain components of MSL’s flight software could be updated and uploaded to the craft after the mission launches. Software updates necessary for liftoff would be completed in time to meet the launch deadline, he said.
“We will complete some of the software development efforts for [Mars] surface activities after we launch, and it will be uploaded to the rover while it’s in cruise from Earth to Mars,” Lavery said.
Likewise, fault protection work not essential to launch could be added while the spacecraft is en route to Mars, MSL project management said.
Fault protection refers to a subsystem’s capability to operate at reduced capacity rather than shut down entirely if it is damaged or otherwise not operating as intended