NASA chiefs to talk MSL

By Phil Plait | December 3, 2008 4:00 pm

[Update: There is a wet slippery snow falling here in Boulder, and I have to run an errand shortly before the press conference, so I might miss it. In case I do, check out Emily’s blog or Universe Today, as I’m sure they’ll have updates as well.]

The Mars Science Lab is NASA’s next big Mars mission, with a big rover and a fleet of scientific instruments to explore the planet. It’s hugely ambitious, but has suffered a series of massive budget overruns (see my previous MSL post for details). The blooming budget problem has impacted other Mars missions, and is causing a lot of stress and grief at NASA.

Tomorrow (Thursday), NASA will hold a press conference to discuss MSL. That’s interesting in and of itself, but the people giving the conference are even more interesting: NASA’s top guy Mike Griffin for one, Ed Weiler, who runs the Science Mission Directorate (after Alan Stern left, primarily due to MSL cost issues), Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA HQ, and Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where MSL is being built.

These are heavy hitters, and not your usual scientists who participate in such events. Obviously, they are bringing out the big guns because whatever they have to say, it’s important. I doubt they are canceling the mission, since it’s well under way and canceling it now would be wasting the money already spent. I suspect they will be making statements about the cost overruns, the impact on other missions, and trying to assuage fears that NASA has run amok with this mission. I cannot imagine that it’s a coincidence that this conference is being held a week after Alan Stern wrote a scathing editorial on this very topic in the New York Times.

I’ll be listening in, to be sure, and I’ll report what happens. The conference is at noon (Eastern time).


Comments (11)

  1. Can’t wait for the moment when someone asks directly:
    “Dr. Griffin, what do you think of Alan Stern’s remarks on this issue?”

  2. I guess my greatest fear about the MSL is that after the twin rovers incredible success this mission with its huge cost overuns had better perform for an extended period of time. Anytime the big guns of any agency come out before the mission, it’s probably damage control for the future if something does go wrong, and you how difficult Mars can be.

  3. Charles Boyer

    Could this have anything at all to do with the Presidential Transition Team, Phil? More clearly, is this more of a PR event to try to fortify support for this mission despite its problems and a new administration coming in and delaying/cancelling/modifying the mission?

  4. I’ll be stuck at a location where I can’t get to see the conference (unless they also transmit on the SIPR Net). I look forward to your updates!

  5. I hope Obama doesnt scrap any Lunar or Mars missions. It would be unbelievably disapointing. I hope he appoints constructive science advisors that can help NASA. And SpaceX (:

  6. I for one would love to see Nasa’s budget overruns run so deep that one day we may actually spend more on exploration than we spend on killing each other! (or making things to kill each other!)

  7. Of course I hope that MSL is neither cancelled nor delayed, but I feel bound to point out that:

    canceling it now would be wasting the money already spent

    is a fallacious (if very common) argument. It all depends on what is the best value to get from spending the money NASA has now.

  8. Charles Boyer

    For those who haven’t seen this on nasawatch.c0m:

    “Informed speculation is that NASA is going to announce that the launch date for MSL is going to be slipped. One option that has been under consideration would be to launch MSL in 2010, park the spacecraft in a solar orbit (1 AU), do an Earth flyby in 2011, and then send it on to Mars. The additional cost for this option was estimated by NASA to be around $300 million. Another option would be to wait to launch until 2011 (directly to Mars) at a cost a few tens of millions above the cost of launching in 2010.”

  9. Pat

    It’s the gravy train mentality.

    If you’re a contracting company, it’s in your best interest to not quite finish. If you perform well enough, you can press for a few more requirements that you could fill and make the mission more successful…if you only had a little more time and a little more money. I saw this as a government contractor plenty and often. It’s a system based on yearly disbursements, so you perform at 105% for 3/4 of the year, then pull back to about 90% near the year-end, lamenting that if you only had a little more time and budget you could more than make it up, and look how far we’ve come.

    Cost overruns can spiral this way, seemingly gradually but adding up over time. During the 105% part of the year, you’re ahead so you don’t see a problem (as the government) with adding one or two more geegaws because, after all, you want to get your money’s worth. Plus, if you’re government and know you’re going to be reassigned you want your “legacy” projects to reflect how good you are at getting resources or projects, since you’re probably going to go and work for the same contracting companies you originally worked with as a government employee.

    Nevermind that the bidding process encourages overestimates of work accomplishment and underestimates of cost, as well as encouraging companies to bill high and pay low when it comes to employees. All the profit is made up in “overhead” and low wages. One of my former managers even had a deal that he could keep the difference between the 50% overhead and the actual rate for the employee… (for instance, the employee is bid at rate (100%), and (50%) is overhead: if manager can get employee to work for 43%, manager keeps the 7% difference).

    Contracting is a sick and sordid business model as it currently exists, which is part of the reason I’m against yet more “privatization.” Contracting companies have been gaming this system for decades.

  10. Steve A

    “I cannot imagine that it’s a coincidence that this conference is being held a week after Alan Stern wrote a scathing editorial on this very topic in the New York Times.”

    It’s not just his letter, but the reaction to it as well. This has been getting a lot of press in space industry news, but the reaction is not necessarily supportive of his position. The New York Times on Dec 1 printed five letters from various people from the science and space industry reacting to the editorial. Most notable I thought was Zubrin, who blasted Stern’s idea, calling it “absurd.”

  11. Cheyenne

    2 year delay.

    Epic fail (and I don’t mean that against the engineers and scientists who are really smart and working their tails off- I mean that to the stupid bureacracy that is crafting NASA’s mission).

    To anybody that thinks we’re going to be launching humans to Mars and getting them back sometime soon just think about what the MSL portends. We can’t even send another small robot to the planet on a one way mission on time and on budget (which we have successfully done a few times before- so it’s known science).

    This mission was about real science and true discovery. This sucks. What is NASA doing? Have they figured out how to get people up to LEO and have them sit around looking at spider webs in zero g? Yes. mission accomplished. Woooooooopie….

    At least they didn’t outright cancel it though.


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