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MSL components
Components of MSL being assembled at JPL in May 2008. (credit: J. Foust)

Mars Science Laboratory: the budgetary reasons behind its delay

On December 4, 2008, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin joined Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), and Mars Exploration Program (MEP) chief Doug McCuistion in a public announcement of the delay of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) for two years because they no longer had confidence JPL could deliver and launch the mission safely to Mars by the intended 2009 launch date.

How did we get to this point? Why had the mission overrun its approved budget and still missed the launch date? And how was the agency going to cover the continuing costs of supporting MSL at least two years after it was meant to be off the books? This article attempts to record some of the lessons learned from the MSL mission and the apparent price for the planetary science community. (A companion article covers the technical issues with MSL.)

MSL: the budget story

In 2003, the National Academies published the “Decadal Survey” document titled New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy. The document outlined a plan for future Mars missions, and the Mars Science Laboratory was described in the following way:

The Mars Exploration Program (MEP) projects development of a Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) presumably a moderate-cost mission, for launch in 2009. Its instrument payload has been stated in only the most general terms. The mission may be important, indeed essential, as a technology-demonstration precursor mission to MSR.1

The Decadal Survey document used three categories to classify missions by cost: small (<$325 million), medium ($325–650 million), and large (>$650 million). MSL was classified as a medium-cost mission.2 The Decadal Survey was put together by a panel of planetary scientists, working in 2003 on limited information, and not engineers or cost management professionals. It is worth noting that the MER rovers ended up getting launched for just over $800 million3 (the operations cost of MER of approximately $40 million per year increased that total to beyond $1 billion by 2009).

NASA first put a reliable figure of the cost of the MSL mission at the “Phase A/Phase B transition”, after a preliminary design review (PDR) that approved instruments, design and engineering of the whole mission. That was in August 2006—and the Congress-approved figure was $1.63 billion.4

Why had the mission overrun its approved budget and still missed the launch date? And how was the agency going to cover the continuing costs of supporting MSL at least two years after it was meant to be off the books?

Soon after the PDR, in the first quarter of fiscal year 2007, JPL was making its first “new funds request” to NASA HQ. JPL estimated they needed a further $100 million to complete the launch of MSL in two years.4 However, only $36 million of this request made it to JPL from August to November of 2007: $68 million was given to Phoenix4 as part of an effort to thoroughly test its descent radar system—money that was probably well spent in the light of Phoenix’s successful landing on Mars. Work that didn’t get done on MSL as a result of this funding shortfall was pushed to the right on the schedule.

Dr. Alan Stern took over as Associate Administrator for SMD in April 2007 after the departure of Dr. Mary Cleave. When Stern arrived at SMD, he was in charge of its four divisions: Planetary Science, Heliophysics, Astrophysics, and Earth Science. Stern believed Earth Science had been neglected in the years since 2000, and he required that Planetary Science give up some funding to help Earth Science missions. In order to get that money from planetary science, the President’s fiscal year 2008 budget moved the money from the Maven mission (a small Mars orbital mission) to 2013, but also moved the money out of the Mars Exploration Program, and out of Doug McCusition’s reach. This Mars Program money could no longer be used to offset MSL costs. McCuistion found himself with a wildly varying budget from year to year, making it even more difficult to handle the MSL budget rollercoaster.

The critical design review (CDR) for MSL was held in June 2007, and Stern quickly became concerned about the apparent direction of expenditure on MSL. In August to November 2007, Stern initiated a descope effort on MSL to try to contain costs. This effort was largely unsuccessful, borne out by the fact that in December 2007 JPL came back to NASA HQ and reported that they had carried out a further study (euphemistically called an “initial overguide” study) and estimated they were short of completion by $91 million dollars.4

Mistrustful of JPL’s accounting and cost estimation practices, Stern immediately tasked Doug McCuistion with carrying out an independent cost analysis of the entire MSL program. In February 2008, the independent cost analysis said JPL’s $91 million estimate was approximately $40 million short of reality. Stern sought to buy himself something extra on top of that: NASA HQ set aside $190 million to “solve” their MSL budget problem.4

On February 21, 2008, Stern outlined his concerns to the Mars Payload Advisory Group (MEPAG), a meeting of the community of Mars scientists showing that he had not yet seen a decrease (tipping point) in MSL costs less than 18 month before launch.

Stern unexpectedly resigned in March 2008 after disagreements with Griffin, perhaps in part due to their differing approaches to solving the cost problems caused by MSL. Given that Stern was less than 12 months in the job, his sudden departure has raised much conjecture about the nature of the Griffin-Stern personal dynamic—although both men have continued to express their admiration for the others professional ability.

The vacuum left by Stern was filled by Ed Weiler, who had previously been in charge of what is now SMD from 1998 to 2004. Weiler was a veteran of the Hubble Space Telescope, and had thus seen that great missions sometimes required herculean efforts to achieve their goals, including herculean spending.

Weiler was initially reluctant to move MSL’s launch date because of the extra costs that would be involved in supporting MSL for two years longer than planned. NASA had allocated a reduced budget of about $60 million per year to operate MSL after launch during the cruise phase to Mars and about $40 million per year to operate on the surface until 2012.4 After that, MSL would be off the books and other missions would have money to spend. This would not be the case if MSL needed two more years to launch. In October 2008, however, events forced Weiler to take the first steps in this direction.

In October 2008, the results of a JPL “grassroots cost estimate” arrived at Doug McCuistion’s office. He reported them to Ed Weiler: JPL requested a further $165 million to get MSL launched in 2009.4 This went over and above the amount Stern had earlier set aside by about $110 million. With this request, the MSL budget had reached $1.9 billion.

Because MSL had gone 30 percent over budget, this triggered an immediate report to Congress to give the opportunity for Congressional cancellation of the project. This “breach” protocol is not unprecedented: it has happened on previous SMD missions, including GLAST/FERMI, NPOESS Preparatory Project, and Glory.

The planetary science community largely had one big question: who was going to feel the hurt for the MSL delay?

Weiler and McCuistion immediately set in place a list of metrics4, based on known mission shortcomings, upon which continuation of the mission was contingent (these involved the delivery of actuators to JPL for the rover, as noted in the companion article). It wasn’t long before JPL failed to meet those metrics, and in late November 2008, Weiler, in an effort to stop more fiscal year 2009 money from being spent, determined to announce the delay of the MSL mission.

Effective immediately, JPL staff working on MSL were sent on leave in an order to maintain project budget reserves.

What next: where the hurt will be felt

As they watched the NASA press conference on December 4th, the planetary science community largely had one big question: who was going to feel the hurt for the MSL delay?

NASA HQ requested JPL prepare an assessment of costs to complete the construction of MSL by the next launch opportunity (in October 2011). This figure came in around $300 million, and NASA HQ has estimated this will translate to at least $400 million (assuming reserves will be required), to launch MSL and operate it on the surface of Mars from 2012 through 2014.5,6

Where is that $400 million going to come from? The man in charge of finding the money is the Planetary Science Division chief, Jim Green. He has been instructed to find the money within his division, which has an annual budget of $1.3 billion, and Green has directed that the Mars program should pay first before other planetary projects are touched.7

The plan Green now has in hand will not cancel any missions—only delay them, in order to make money available in the right years for MSL. Green has stated that the NASA Research and Analysis (R&A) budget, which supports many scientists directly throughout the nation, will not be touched.6 Also, the Mars 2013 Maven orbital mission will escape unscathed since it is “part of the essential infrastructure” for future Mars exploration (it carries telecommunications equipment that will augment the facilities on the aging Odyssey and MRO satellites).6

The pain will be felt in the Mars Exploration Program. All science technology efforts that were planned for inclusion in the Mars 2016 mission have been cancelled.6 These would have included a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) technology test for Mars Sample Return in the post-2020 period. The Mars 2016 mission has not been entirely cancelled yet, but has been downgraded to “Scout” status (reducing its cost in half to $250 million)8 meaning it will likely not be able to continue the heritage of landers and reuse the skycrane landing system to be pioneered by MSL. The 2016 mission may become a NASA-ESA cooperative mission in order to bring it back at close to full capability.8

The next bucket to be raided was other ongoing Mars missions, including the MERs, Odyssey, and MRO. JPL sometimes carries “continuing costs” on these missions to carry over between financial years—these will be reassessed and reallocated.7

That’s it for Mars sources of funding in the 2012–2014 time period, so this is where the pain spreads beyond the Red Planet. The launch date for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission has been slipping already, and this will be allowed to happen, meaning that some of its reserves can be diverted to MSL with no real pain.

Ed Weiler stated that, in retrospect, he would have liked his predecessor to have delayed MSL 12 months before he eventually was forced to.

The Outer Planets Flagship (OPF) mission to Europa is currently in early study mode. Ed Weiler recently announced that this mission will be moved to 2020, in order to better suit cooperation with the ESA, who requires the delay in order to request the money for their part in OPF through the European Union funding cycle. Therefore, funding for studies of the OPF mission have been delayed, and this has freed some more money for MSL.8

All the resources mentioned above sum to about $353 million, so if MSL requires $400 million as expected, Jim Green needs to find $47 million more.8 There are several options on the table, each of which might be the source of $47 million, and Green has sought the help of the Planetary Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Committee, a group of experienced planetary scientists, to prioritize where the $47 million might come from.9 The current options are:

  1. Headquarters reserves for the Juno mission to Jupiter to be depleted (this would not effect the Juno mission unless is suffered unforeseen problems),
  2. Delay of the next Discovery mission announcement of opportunity by one financial year, and
  3. Delay of the International Lunar Network mission by one financial year.8

All these proposals are being discussed at the time of writing.

In March, Weiler and McCuistion will be working up on Capitol Hill to speak to Congress about why MSL should not be cancelled despite budget overruns. We all wish them the very best, because nobody wants to see MSL cancelled.

Lessons learned

[The following comments are of a personal nature, and should not be construed as NASA official policy.]

It’s tough to land on Mars. As Administrator Griffin remarked at the December 4 press conference, NASA is in the business of cutting-edge science, and that carries risks. Almost everything NASA does is the first time it has been attempted by humanity. But now is the time to record why MSL has been delayed and start asking if the system needs review. In an effort to spark some enquiry and debate throughout the wider NASA science community, a few of these questions for review are raised below.

Could MSL have been delayed earlier? At the Planetary Science Subcommittee meeting on January 9, 2009, Ed Weiler has stated that, in retrospect, he would have liked his predecessor to have delayed MSL 12 months before he eventually was forced to.10 This would have saved NASA money. Stern has been a strong supporter of cost cutting (see “Imagine reconnecting NASA”, The Space Review, November 24, 2008). So why didn’t this happen?

Should anyone be punished and why? There is a feeling that JPL should pay for this overrun because their poor cost estimates and management of the project have contributed to the delay decision. However, it is not possible to simply withhold funds from JPL, and besides, this would simply hurt an excellent engineering team at JPL who have worked extremely hard on an incredibly ambitious project and only just came up short. JPL will be “punished” in the sense that the Mars 2016 opportunity, which was envisioned as a lander built by JPL, will now no longer go ahead. But will this “punishment” inspire JPL to improve its cost estimation processes? This remains to be seen.

In order for unmanned space flight to remain effective in the Obama years, its most prestigious laboratory may have to undergo some difficult reorganization to once again become a lean and cost-effective engineering facility capable of launching NASA into the 21st century.

Why did JPL cost estimation underestimate true costs? It is readily apparent that building the most sophisticated rovers in the world requires some level of extrapolation of costs. It does seem clear, however, that an investigation of some kind into cost estimation is required internally at JPL, especially since they are the biggest resource of engineering manpower that the Science Mission Directorate of NASA has and the leading institution for unmanned spaceflight missions. They are especially critical to the planetary science program and will likely have responsibility for planetary science flagship missions, including the next outer planets mission to the Jupiter system. These missions must be better served by JPL, otherwise delays as catastrophic as MSL (which has gutted the Mars Exploration program for the next decade) will be repeated. Nobody wants this to happen.

What systemic changes are necessary? Former NASA Administrator Griffin became familiar with JPL operations through the course of the MSL project. But with Griffin now gone, how will the next administrator manage the relationship with JPL? The new administrator will surely face a huge set of challenges in manned spaceflight with the Shuttle retirement and the development of Constellation program. At the same time, in order for unmanned space flight to remain effective in the Obama years, its most prestigious laboratory may have to undergo some difficult reorganization to once again become a lean and cost-effective engineering facility capable of launching NASA into the 21st century.

References

1. Space Studies Board, National Academies (2003) New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy, page 84. Available online at http://books.nap.edu/

2. ibid., Table 8.1, page 194.

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Exploration_Rover

4. From page 2 of a Powerpoint presentation entitled “MSL Budget” presented at the PSS Special Meeting on 9 Jan 2009 by Doug McCuistion, available at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/pss/jan92009/

5. ibid., page 3

6. From page 6 of a Powerpoint presentation entitled “Options for Accommodating MSL Launch Slip” presented at the PSS Special Meeting on 9 Jan 2009 by Jim Green, available at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/pss/jan92009/

7. ibid., page 3

8. ibid., page 7

9. From pages 2-5 of the “Report of the Planetary Sciences Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council Science Committee”, available at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/pss/jan92009/

10. Ed Weiler addressing the Planetary Sciences Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council Science Committee on 9 Jan 2009.


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