OpEd: The Value of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory

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NASA announced Dec. 4 a launch date slip for its Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project. NASA formally approved this flagship science mission at its August 2006 project confirmation review with a life-cycle budget of $1.6 billion and a 2009 launch date. Since that time, technical problems, late requirement changes, and hardware delivery and integration challenges have driven cost growth, pushing the life-cycle budget estimate above $2 billion. NASA reacted to this cost overrun by convening a series of independent technical, schedule and cost reviews that weighed funding options, a potential launch date slip, and implementation risk. The Dec. 4 announcement of an MSL launch date slip means that the budget overruns associated with this flagship mission will continue to grow. The extent of this additional cost growth is currently under review; however, it will be measured in hundreds of millions of dollars. Barring a NASA funding augmentation, the additional development cost allocated to MSL will undoubtedly delay implementation of other planetary science missions. Unfortunately, NASA’s only other available option is cancellation of MSL, its first flagship science mission in more than a decade. To understand the context of the MSL cost overrun and schedule slip, and to make a rational judgment regarding these difficult management decisions, one must objectively assess the scientific, technical, and strategic value of the MSL mission to the agency and our nation.

From a scientific perspective, the Mars Science Laboratory addresses fundamental questions in our understanding of Mars as a place that may once have and may still harbor life. MSL will determine the nature of organic compounds on Mars, inventory the chemical building blocks of life and identify surface features that may have resulted from biological processes. The Mars missions of the past decade have deliberately led us to the point where we are scientifically able and technologically equipped to search for habitable environments beyond Earth. As the first flagship science mission to Mars in more than 30 years, MSL will open a major new habitability pathway while laying the scientific foundation for future sample return and life detection missions.

MSL will deliver to Mars a radioisotope-powered rover the size of a small car, laden with a new generation of advanced planetary science instruments. The rover’s design lifetime is approximately two Earth years, and based on the success of the Mars Exploration Rovers, a longer duration surface science mission with even greater operational flexibility can be reasonably expected. The challenge of safely decelerating this 900-kilogram rover – more than five times the mass of each Mars Exploration Rover – through Mars’ thin atmosphere and onto the Mars surface is no small feat. In fact, while accomplishing this science mission, the MSL project is also advancing some of the very technologies needed by future robotic and human exploration missions. The most obvious of these engineering links is the MSL project’s development of a 4.5-meter-diameter guided entry system that will for the first time allow a precise landing on the Mars surface. The payload will be protected from atmospheric heating by a newly developed tiled-Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) heatshield. This is the largest blunt-body entry system NASA has ever developed, and a system with direct relevance to NASA’s Constellation Program Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle.

The strategic value of the MSL mission to NASA’s future cannot be overstated. While small, lower-cost missions offer a diversity of science goals and a means to spread implementation risk, they simply do not accomplish the fundamental breakthroughs characteristic of flagship science missions. NASA must not be reduced to an agency that solely picks the lowest-risk, lowest-cost mission for fear of an eventual cost overrun. In human exploration, astrophysics, aeronautics and planetary science, NASA has always been about pushing the frontier. Flagship science missions like the Hubble Space Telescope, Viking, Galileo and Cassini have allowed the agency to do just that. By design, flagship missions are hard. They require one-of-a-kind spacecraft with cutting-edge technology and must overcome steep technical challenges. When implementing flagship missions, cost and schedule overruns are not uncommon, but history shows that the mission return often eclipses the expenditure. The Hubble Space Telescope experienced a development cost overrun several times its approved project budget and was launched much later than originally planned. In hindsight, would any rational space scientist not concede that the return from Hubble was worth the investment?

MSL is NASA’s first planetary science flagship mission in more than a decade. The agency has plans to follow MSL with flagship science missions to either the Jupiter or Saturn system, and subsequently to Venus. Through MSL, a flagship-class flight project management and systems engineering experience base is being built that will be directly applicable to these subsequent missions. In addition, many of these flagship mission concepts require landing system, surface mobility, sample acquisition and handling, and other advanced technology analogous to that being developed by the MSL project. MSL is also a critical engineering precursor to NASA’s future plans for even more complex sample return and eventual human exploration missions to Mars. If NASA canceled the MSL mission, would anyone seriously believe that development of these future Mars missions, or the related Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, is possible?

There is certainly plenty of blame to share across the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA and the Mars community for MSL’s cost overrun and schedule slip. There are also important lessons to be learned about the formulation, management and cost estimation process for flagship science missions. Slipping the MSL launch date will further increase the project’s life-cycle cost and have an adverse impact on other planned planetary science missions and the teams of people working diligently on them. However, outright cancellation of the MSL project at this late juncture would have an even greater impact on the agency, prompting fundamental questions about NASA’s ability to carry out its core mission of exploration and discovery. Rather than becoming divisive or fragmented, planetary science community now needs to come together, rationally review the program impacts caused by the MSL schedule slip, and work to maximize the integrated return across NASA’s planetary science portfolio. It is time to move forward and complete the development of MSL as efficiently as possible. While challenging, MSL is precisely the kind of mission for which the agency was established. Its successful completion will allow for further advances across our nation’s robotic and human exploration program.
Robert D. Braun currently serves as the David and Andrew Lewis Associate Professor of Space Technology in the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. From 1989 to 2003, he worked at the NASA Langley Research Center