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ASA is preparing to spend an additional $115 million this year and another $75 million to $85 million
next year to bail out the over budget 2009 Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), according to U.S. space agency sources.


The proposed cash infusion would come on top of the roughly $525 million NASA
already had budgeted for the project for 2008 and 2009, bringing the total projected life cycle cost for the mission to $1.9 billion – a figure that assumes the rover will spend only two years exploring the martian surface. Previous estimates had pegged total mission cost at closer to $1.7 billion.


The new figures are included in NASA’s latest operating plan for 2008, a document that must be approved by the space agency’s congressional oversight committees before the proposed budget changes can take effect.


Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, acknowledged that programs and projects would see their budgets reduced to deal with MSL’s cost growth, but said he could not publicly identify the specific cutbacks until NASA’s operating plan is formally approved.


“Funding will come from a number of various sources so as not to adversely affect any single area too significantly,” McCuistion told Space News in a May 29 e-mail. “The hierarchy of funding sources starts with the Mars Program itself, then Planetary Sciences Division and then other areas of the Science Mission Directorate.”


McCuistion also said “no operating or development mission will be cancel
ed or delayed to cover this overrun.”


NASA attributes MSL’s cost overrun to technical and production difficulties on several spacecraft systems, including instruments and actuators. “Production has been behind on some electronics and mechanical hardware as well, but launch in 2009 is still on track,” McCuistion said.


NASA’s former associate administrator for science, Alan Stern, warned the science community two weeks before his abrupt resignation in March that there would be tough choices to make in the face of MSL’s mushrooming price tag. During a March 12 presentation at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Stern said he was unsure what the ultimate bill for MSL would be, but said it appeared to be approaching $2 billion, noting that the cost-to-complete figure was rising monthly. He also raised the possibility of passing on MSL’s late 2009 launch opportunity in favor of launch dates in 2010 and 2011, a change of plans that would give the Jet Propulsion Laboratory more time to ensure the rover not end up a “$2 billion hole in the ground at Mars,” as Stern put it, but that also likely would further raise the mission’s total price tag.


Two weeks after warning scientists about the tough choices ahead, word leaked to the press that NASA was planning to turn off the popular Mars Exploration Rovers in order to save around $4 million. The decision was quickly countermanded by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. Stern resigned a few days later, complaining to colleagues about not being permitted to make the tough budgetary choices without being second-guessed.


McCuistion said NASA does not expect to see any additional cost growth on MSL this year or next.


“At this point the agency is planning on a cost solution that is based on independent cost estimates, which encompasses the project’s requested funding to complete development,” he said. “Therefore we expect no additional requests for funds from MSL in FY08 or FY09.”

Comments: bberger@space.com