Dawn canceled

By Phil Plait | March 2, 2006 8:09 pm

Both The Planetary Society blog and NASAWatch are reporting that the Dawn mission has been canceled. Late January, NASA postponed Dawn, but word is that it is now canceled. This happens less than a year from launch, and is presumably due to technical difficulties and cost overruns. Dawn was an ambitious space probe that would orbit both Ceres and Vesta, two large asteroids.

What I find difficult to write is that I watched the Congressional hearings for two hours this morning, whose very focus was on canceling science missions. And yet, during all that time, not once did Mary Cleave, NASA Associate Administrator of science, mention that within minutes of getting back to her office she was canceling a science mission.’


Comments (20)

  1. Mary cleaves science. Fitting. :(

  2. P. Edward Murray

    Time to put an Amateur Astronomer into the White House…
    Vice President Al Gore,

    Then we can re start everything else!

  3. Michelle Rochon

    ….Must’ve slipped her mind. (Yea right.)

  4. Kaptain K

    I’m guessing that Mary Cleave is a political appointee. Typical Bushco reaction – retaliation against anyone who questions them (see Valerie Plame Wilson).

  5. Accept it, it was already in the horizon. Probably the only solution to such kind of “cancellations” would be to transfer all know-how to EU or even much better to Russia or China. Let them build and lunch the probes … I’m sure after such kind of news NASA will get “additional resources” to lunch the probes by themselves (Just an idea).

  6. Mike Ballantine

    NASA has become an expensive “standing army” that no longer serves a useful purpose. It may be that the best thing congress could do would be to slash NASA’s budget by 20% (of current budget) each year for 5 years. Let NASA wind itself down.
    The money value of the budget should then go into a prize pool for projects with payment only being made for demonstrated accomplishments, not endless studies that accomplish nothing. For more details on how it would/could work you can read Jerry Pournelle at http://www.jerrypournelle.com/index.html

  7. Christian Burnham

    Maybe the BA’s too modest to point this out- but his guest commentary on randi.org was published today on the internets.


  8. Damn thats crappy news :(

  9. DAWN CANCELLED!—For a minute I thought you meant there’ll be no tomorrow!
    Sorry to read the asteroid probe is cancelled. I already had appropriate terminology for the studies of asteroids Ceres & Vesta. In keeping with using Greek versions of Roman names for word bases, the study of Ceres is demeterology, & the study of Vesta is hestiology. Creres was the Roman goddess of agriculture & grain; her Greek version was demeter. The word cereal comes from her name. If Will Keith Kellog of Battle Creek, Michigan, had preferred Greek to Latin, we would be eating Rice Krispies demeteral for breakfast. Just being technical.

  10. squawky

    Let’s not confuse “NASA – manned exploration” with “NASA – science/unmanned exploration”. The latter is being cut to fund the former — data analysis, basic research, and unmanned missions are losing money so the space shuttle can fly a few dozen more times. While private companies might fund research into the next launch vehicle, I suspect there’s a much smaller market out there for determining the source of the methane in Mars’ atmosphere, for example.

    And as for Dawn, a screaming waste of money — they’ve already spent almost $400 million on the thing (money gone), but cannot find a mere $40 mill to launch it. Waste, waste, waste. Yes, the writing has been on the wall for some time now, but it really seems like a giant waste to spend all that money and not get what you paid for.

  11. That’s a shame. the more knowledge we have the better we can prepare for what’s out there. We need both manned missions and science missions
    to move us into the future. The earth won’t be here forever.

  12. Troy

    The same way building dikes in New Orleans to withstand a catagory 5 hurricane seemed like a waste of money in 2003, DAWN seems like a waste of money now; to the shortsighted like Bush and his brigade of morons. Asteroids research is actually the most practical space science there is, they have potential for raw materials as well as a very real chance to hit us. Someday Torino scale will be on everyone’s lips the way Richter scale is now…
    I knew previously ‘delay’ was just a euphemism for ‘cut’ when it was first announced a couple of months ago. Very unfortunate. Also unfortunate that the Planetary society did nothing (I emailed them asking them why they are doing nothing at the time). When TPS mobilizes they usually seem to have very good results, now they seem more interested in Optical SETI and solar sailing. Another beef with the planetary society, on fundraising letters (sent through conventional mail) the return envelope has a stamp on it. Let’s say 100,000 members x $0.39 that’s $39,000 per mailing and I seem to get about 4 per year that’s about $150,000/year. I suppose it takes money to make money but if someone is going to donate $5 $10 or $20 I think they can afford a stamp. Why not use business reply mail (and then invite them to use their own stamp)? The added step of plopping the stamp on the envelope and the postage will be saved. Better yet, let people opt out to save the society some money and get fundraising solicitations from email. At any rate I hate to see a noble cause squander money.

  13. Adam

    For a Shuttle mission we could have two Dawns!

    Note: edited for language by The Bad Astronomer

  14. icemith

    What strange goings-on re funding for NASA. As others have pointed out, it seems strange indeed to ‘waste’ $400mil, and then cancel the final 9%, $40mil. I mean somebody somewhere must be taking advantage of the situation otherwise it just would not be allowed to happen, or have been allowed to get started in the first place. Who stands to benifit most? And I don’t think the usual bleats that Hospitals or Veterans or Dog’s Homes should get more support. Sure they SHOULD do, there’s no question about that, but to not finalise a mission that may better our understanding of interplanetary space, I feel someone has decided to take their ball home and deny everybody satisfaction.

    As for the ‘waste’, in a sense there is no pure waste, as the money has been spent (however wisely or not), companies have been able to employ staff, produce equipment, build facilities, generate tax and increase expertise in general. That they did not reach the ultimate goal is disappointing, but there has been some gain for society. Whether that gain can be offset by fewer hospitals etc. can be debated separately.

    As for Troy’s mention above…” Someday Torino scale will be on everyone’s lips the way Richter scale is now…” I read that as ‘ Katrina ‘ not ‘ Torino ‘, or have I missed something completely? Otherwise I agree with him on his efforts to show just how crippling the Administration is, and it seems not only in regard to NASA, and DAWN, some sectors of government are feeling the effects, meanwhile others are enjoying extras, relatively speaking.

    Hopefully something can be done about it before it’s too late, maybe there is a knight in shining armour who will rescue the situation before DAWN breaks.


  15. DJ

    Great – fund 91% of a project and then pull the plug to “save” the last 9%.
    Sounds like the federal government, alright.

  16. Or in other words false economy and poor science.

    Is there any hope at all though? Is it only strongly rumoured or is it now official?

    Wasn’t ‘New Horizons’ Pluto missionnealy or even officiallycancelledonly to get running again. I really x lots to the power of even more hope so.

    If it has been cancelled then what a tragic, silly, wasteful, and plainwronmg decision ..

    As for NASA (ie. public) versus private enterprise alternatives , there’s a place for both and results wise NASA has the successful record. NASA put humanity (one gender @ least) on the moon, JPL has sent spaceprobes to all the planets of our solar system (ok, send-ing in Pluto’s case – & perhaps ‘Xena’s”) and beyond.

    Private enterprise, contrastingly, has only just had sub-orbital success so far (SpaceShip-1) and that over 50 years after Gagarin’s flight …

    I wouldn’t never scrap NASA or its offshoots. I’d advise reforming it sure, jazzing it up and co-operating with it and other national and private space agencies & co’s.

    I still think there’s aplace for enlightened governmet involvement in science and exploration to the benefit of all in society not just a few companies with their own agendas and own emphaisises.

    Fingers, toes & eyes crossed that DAWn can be reborn … Lets live in hope.

  17. oNe final comment that Ithink needs saying -a message weouht to wake your congress up to :

    If NASA is (wrongly) considered to be a waste of money then what about Iraq?

    How about the government funding peaceful exploration and international co-operation properly instead of throwing away money and lives in counter-productive & illegal invasions of othercountries and spending fortunes multipled witheven bigger fortunes on building up a military that can wipe out our civilisation and all othercontempoary civilisations thousands of times over?

    How about funding DAWN by changing foreign policy to one that asks first and shoots later … The United States of America could be a positive example to all the world again rather than, as many now see it (right or wrong), the bully of the global village.

    Why is it so hard to fund pure science that enlightens and improves lives and yet so easy to fund half-baked wars and stuff that kills people?

    Sorry I know this political and perhaps off track but for pity’s sake wake up and think people!

  18. Sorry about the typos – wrote in a hurry &, as you can probably guess, with some emotion.

    I stand by my points – I just wish there was the ability for me to edit my comments above, correcting the spelling and maybe toning down the merest smidgin.

    For example / clarification :

    “I wouldn’t never scrap NASA or its offshoots”

    – as in the 1st message above

    was intended to read : “I would NEVER scrap NASA or its offshoots.”

    In a nutshell –

    1) Dawn getting this far and then not being launched is bad economics and worse science -a tragic, wasteful and wrong decision.

    2) Lets hope its only rumour and not official or that it like ‘NewHorizons’ can somehow be revived .. Fingers crossed and desperately hoping ‘Dawn’ turns out to have a future after all.


    3) Priorities people – Its much, much better to put money into scientific research and adventure that increases understanding and helps the world rather than military intimidation and counter-productive invasions that harm it!

  19. Irishman

    icemith Said:
    >What strange goings-on re funding for NASA. As others have pointed out, it seems strange indeed to ‘waste’ $400mil, and then cancel the final 9%, $40mil. I mean somebody somewhere must be taking advantage of the situation otherwise it just would not be allowed to happen, or have been allowed to get started in the first place. Who stands to benifit most?

    Accusations of federal fiscal impropriety are unfounded. Here’s what we know.

    Dawn is a “Discovery” Mission. Discovery missions are supposed to be financially capped at $300M. That is how they are justified – they are relatively cheap. Do more cheap programs. Running over budget gets you cut. You didn’t stay in your budget, you don’t get to fly.

    Dawn already got one budget increase over the $300M. From a fiscal perspective, it could look like more and more money is being pumped into a project that should have been terminated already. That’s not fiscal malfeasance, that’s responsible accounting.

    Of course, that ignores the reality that some (if not all) of the cost impacts were due to upper management decisions to delay and cancel, then restart the program, causing impacts to hardware suppliers, cost increases from scheduling parts through third party vendors, plus cost hits for reassembling a team that has moved on to other things. You put something in a drawer, it takes time and money to pull it out of the drawer.

    The legitimate question is when do you pull the plug. From a fiscal perspective, at some point you have to cut your losses. This is exactly the argument used by some opponents of the ISS, who want to see it canceled immediately. In Dawn’s case, the science gained may be worth the additional 9% needed to cover the cost increases from program canceling and the hardware and system difficulties encountered. But that’s money that has to come from somewhere else, because it is over and beyond what was allotted for this mission. In a budget nightmare where the President and Congress and provided a substantial new goal but little additional funding, that money is already over-allotted. What gets cut to fund the additional work on Dawn? Which is more responsible, cutting Dawn now and fully funding something else, or giving Dawn the additional funds and not doing that other project?

  20. Economist

    To: waste of money comments


    The right question to ask: does present-valued expected benefit of Dawn exceed benefit of spending another $40M on the most promising alternative. Money already spent is irrelevant – always look on the margin. Of course, if we thought the benefit exceeded 300M before, it probably still does. But if our priorities changed significantly, it is plausible that it is no longer the case. For example, if benefit of Dawn is now estimated to be $100M but spending $40M on hospitals for some reason produces $101M of benefit. Perhaps, there is doubt that $40M will be enough to complete Dawn – maybe it will require $40M+50M+100M (slippery slope of increased funding).

    Also, what kind of precedent does it set? Will future budget guidelines ($300M in this case) be not followed more often? Will project managers willfully go over budget because they know they can count on additional money to bail them out (surely, everyone wants a bigger budget)? We send some people to jail primarily to increase expected cost of crime (not because we enjoy to provide criminals with free “housing” and “food”). Similarly, cancelling an over-budget project may be a worthwhile signal as a whole for others to economize – raising expected cost of squandering allocated money, even if we lose some benefit now.

    On the other hand, it may be that no one really considered expected net benefits of Dawn (at least qualitatively compared to other possible projects) and political rather than economic considerations cancelled it arbitrarily.


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