WASHINGTON — A two-year delay in launching NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover will divert $400 million from future planetary missions and underscores the U.S. space agency’s need to partner with its European counterpart on Mars exploration, said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for science.

NASA officials announced Dec. 4 that the nearly $2 billion MSL program was facing an extensive backlog of work it could not reasonably expect to complete in time for its scheduled October 2009 launch. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said it is likely MSL could be ready for launch a couple months later than planned, but Earth and Mars are only favorably aligned for the voyage every 26 months.

price tag has soared since it was proposed in 2000 as a $600 million mission. By the time the program was confirmed in 2006, its budget had swelled to $1.6 billion. NASA now expects MSL to cost $2.2 billion to $2.3 billion, about $200 million more than NASA would have spent rushing to make the 2009 window.

said NASA does not anticipate canceling any programs to cover MSL’s latest cost growth, but warned that there would be impacts. “The impact will come from Mars first and if there’s not enough in Mars, we’ll have to impact some planetary programs,” he said, later adding that a yet-to-be-identified major planetary mission likely would be delayed.

Weiler said the situation with MSL, and its likely impact on future Mars budgets, highlights the need for closer collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) on missions to the red planet.

“Nationalism is great. It’s nice to put our logos on our missions. But these missions are getting complex and expensive,” Weiler said. “We have the same scientific goals. They want to send rovers to Mars, they want to do sample return, they want to search for life. Not surprisingly, Western Europe and the United Statesseem to think alike when it comes to science on Mars.”

The European Space Agency currently is looking for a roughly $250 million contribution from the
United States
for a $1.5 billion Enhanced ExoMarslander mission targeted for a 2016 launch.

said collaborating with ESA might be NASA’s best bet for making the most of the 2016 Mars launch opportunity. “Isn’t this the right time, especially now … considering that [our] 2016 mission ideas are up in the air, because those missions will be impacted,” he said. “ESA has some ideas for a mission in 2016. We could probably do a heck of a lot better mission if we did it together than if we continue to compete with each other.”

Meanwhile, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Pasadena, Calif., will spend the next two years rigorously testing MSL in preparation for its late 2011 launch. The main focus will be on identifying the source of a drag-torque problem, among others, on dozens of actuator motors needed to operate the rover’s wheels, robotic arm and sample handling devices, said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration program at NASA headquarters.

The actuators are “absolutely crucial to this mission,” McCuistion said. “If we get there and we can’t move, can’t put the arm out, can’t sample, we basically have a metric ton of junk on the surface.”

Only 20 of 105 engineering model and flight actuator motors built by Aeroflex Inc.’s Motion Control Division of Plainview, N.Y., have been delivered, and some of them had problems ranging from incorrectly placed bearings to more complex problems with the braking system that must be resolved for the rover to function, McCuistion said. Aeroflex’s $10 million contract with NASA called for all the actuator motors to be delivered by March 2008.

NASA officials said they did not want to place all of the blame on the actuator problems, and said Aeroflex is a small company that became overwhelmed by the MSL schedule and the complex nature and volume of actuators required by MSL. Some of the actuators have as many as 500 parts, said JPL Director Charles Elachi.

officials did not return a phone call to their
offices seeking comment.

The MSL delay was not a surprise to
, but the NASA administrator added that he had not considered canceling it altogether.

“Despite the delay, work on the mission really is progressing well, with the exception of the [actuator] motor problem, which we just do not fully understand,”
said. “We’ve determined that trying for ’09 would require us to assume too much risk, more than I think is appropriate for a flagship mission like Mars Science Laboratory.”

A major review of MSL conducted earlier this year concluded the mission had a solid chance of making a 2009 launch if the launch window was extended several weeks to mid-October and an additional $200 million was added to the project.

Upon deciding this fall to press ahead with a 2009 launch under those conditions, NASA scheduled a follow-up review for early January and set new weekly goals for the program in order to keep a close eye on its progress.

By December, Weiler said, it had become clear to everyone involved that MSL’s technical problems were persisting even as an already tight schedule continued to erode. NASA and JPL decided to postpone the mission two years.

Immediate reaction to NASA’s decision was supportive. The Planetary Society, a Pasadena, Calif.-based group founded by former JPL employees, said in a Dec. 4 statement that NASA and JPL had made “the right call.”

By delaying MSL’s launch to 2011, NASA avoids having to come up with an extra $200 million for the mission in 2009. Weiler said that would have been more painful than the budget challenge it now faces: finding the additional $400 million MSL will need between 2010 and 2014.

said the decision was based primarily on the technical issues, not budget concerns.

“The decision to slip to 2011 is not because we could not find the money, the decision is based … on a total amount of work left to go to get to the finish line,”
said. “But principally, if you had to pick out one thing that says, ‘I just don’t want to try to do this,’ we know these actuator motors must work on Mars and we’ve got some anomalies in some of them, not all of them, that we don’t understand.”