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MSL illustration
Cost increases and schedule slips for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory have had an effect on the overall Mars exploration program. (credit: NASA/JPL)

MSL and the NASA Mars Exploration Program: Where we’ve been, where we’re going

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NASA’s one-tonne Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is now on its way to Gale Crater. Barring any complications, on August 5th at 10:31pm Pacific Daylight Time, it will land on the surface of the deepest crater on the edge of the famous Martian dichotomy between the southern highlands and northern basins.

I would argue that the chief objective of the NASA Mars Exploration Program is to open human hearts to the Martian frontier and focus the efforts of our best and brightest minds on the goal of exploring the nearest inhabitable planet in our Universe.

But just as MSL faces a physical Martian dichotomy at Gale Crater, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP) faces its own dichotomy of sorts: how will it cope with the success of the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) and keep producing compelling science results in the face of stark budget cuts?

How did the MEP get to this point? What is the best way forward? This article will examine the recent history and accomplishments of the NASA Mars Program through the prism of the Mars Science Laboratory mission: the largest and most expensive instrument to be sent to the surface of another planet.1, 2

Why do we need a Mars Exploration Program?

To many NASA observers, it may seem self evident that the Mars Rovers are a shining icon of our engineering prowess that all of humanity can be proud of, in the same way as we are proud of the achievements of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But scientifically and technically, what is the main aim of these missions? I would argue that the chief objective of the NASA Mars Exploration Program is to open human hearts to the Martian frontier and focus the efforts of our best and brightest minds on the goal of exploring the nearest inhabitable planet in our Universe.

For example, SpaceX was founded in 2002, in the midst of the excitement of the 2003 MER missions, Spirit and Opportunity. If these rovers had been cancelled or failed to launch, would Elon Musk and his 1,800 employees, some of the nation’s best and brightest, be around today working on spacecraft and launch vehicles that could one day take us to Mars?

A second example is relevant: if the Mars Exploration program is discontinued or defunded (or re-baselined) today, will the child who will be the first human to walk on Mars still be inspired by NASA to study physics and math at school?

These are just two example arguments for continued investment in the NASA Mars Exploration Program. This program is a sublime human technical achievement that generates public excitement and engagement that NASA desperately needs. To continue in its inspirational mission, NASA must continue to have a functioning, adequately funded, and efficiently run Mars Exploration Program.

Where we’ve been: the 2009 MSL launch delay

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, has been the lead institution for all of NASA’s missions to Mars, and MSL is no exception. The director of JPL is Dr. Charles Elachi, a highly decorated engineer and scientist. In 1996, JPL established a “Mars Exploration Directorate” to strengthen the management of their Mars exploration mission program. Dr. Fuk Li is the current director of this directorate. The project director of the Mars Science Laboratory is Peter Theisinger, and his deputy is Richard Cook.

The JPL engineers working on MSL are essentially responsible to the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. The NASA MEP is run by Doug McCuistion and chief scientist Dr. Michael Meyer, who report to Dr. James Green, the head of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. Dr. Green is responsible to the NASA Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, former Space Shuttle astronaut Dr. John Grunsfeld.

With the delay of the MSL launch from 2009 to 2011, about $400 million would need to be re-allocated to the MEP from other NASA Planetary Science programs.

When first envisioned, MSL was planned for a 2009 launch to the Red Planet. On December 4th, 2008, NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin announced at a press conference in Washington that he had authorized a delay of the launch to 2011. The fallout had cost the jobs of at least one NASA associate administrator, Dr. Alan Stern, who was reported to be in favor of axing the mission in order to send JPL and other contractors a message that budget overruns would no longer be acceptable in NASA planetary missions.

To examine the budget and technical challenges that led up to this decision to delay the mission, one may refer to two previous articles on the subject, one focused on technical issues (see “Mars Science Laboratory: the technical reasons behind its delay”, The Space Review, March 2, 2009) and one devoted to budget issues (see “Mars Science Laboratory: the budgetary reasons behind its delay”, The Space Review, March 2, 2009). These articles described the state of the MSL program up until April 2009, where our story left off. This third Phillipic will pick the story back up again in June 2009.

The Mars Science Laboratory program timeline from June 2009 to landing in August 2012

June 2009 : NASA Agency Program Management Council (APMC) approves $432 million budget increase for MSL

As reported in the previous article here on the budgetary reasons for MSL’s delay, it was realized in March 2009 that with the delay of the MSL launch from 2009 to 2011, about $400 million would need to be re-allocated to the MEP from other NASA Planetary Science programs. It was stipulated that this money would eventually be paid back by the MEP. This figure was crystallized to $432 million and approved by the APMC in June. A Congressional Rebaseline report submitted soon thereafter committed to NASA to spending no more than $495 million on MSL without further congressional approval.

November 18–19, 2009: Readiness to Proceed Review to Standing Review Board (SRB)

The MSL Standing Review Board, led by Orlando Figueroa, reviewed the status of the MSL Project over two days in November 2009. Based on reports from NASA Headquarters and JPL, they concluded that the project was technically and financially viable and adequate planning had been done to close all open issues before MSL launch in 2011. They raised the concern that the budget reserves (including the project’s June request for $432 million) were inadequate, and requested that the reserves be moderately increased.

The only open technical issues reported to the SRB at this time were issues with the wide range pump on the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, a failure in the Landing Radar Transmit/Receive Module (one of six failed in test and required replacement) and a power shortfall in the radioisotope thermal generator.

March 2011: Final cancellation of James Cameron’s 3D camera

The MSL rover is equipped with a MastCam built by Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS). James Cameron is the public engagement Co-Investigator on MastCam. In 2007, before the MastCam had been built, the zoom functionality of the MastCam instrument was descoped by NASA Headquarters, perhaps in response to concerns raised by MSSS (which they had every expectation they could fix in actual assembly and test). A fixed focal length MastCam was delivered by MSSS for the 2009 launch and mounted on the rover.

When MSL was delayed in 2009, MSSS built three working examples of MastCams with zoom lenses. Testing in January 2011 revealed that the zoom lenses had slightly worse performance over the fixed focal length cameras for the telephoto part of their focal range. With the impending launch in August, the MSSS team decided to cancel further development of the zoom lenses. The fixed focal length cameras are unable to give a wide field of view with comparable eye stereo. The Cinematic 3D video sequences that the zoom MastCam would have provided are not possible.3

June 2011: OIG 2011 Report into MSL

On June 8, 2011, the NASA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued their audit report, titled “NASA’s Management of the Mars Science Laboratory Project”. The report was the result of a year-long investigation into NASA and JPL’s management of the MSL project.

The OIG report focuses on the conduct of the MSL program, specifically taking interest in remaining risks for the MSL spacecraft prior to launch. The OIG report focused attention on JPL-managed “Problem/Failure Reports” (PFRs). PFRs are raised by anybody working on a JPL project when they become aware of a fault or technical issue. JPL Project Guidelines (described in the JPL Rules Manual) state that a preliminary review of all PFRs is to be conducted within ten days. At the time of writing the report, there were 71 unopened PFRs that may have contained significant unassessed risk and 1,213 PFRs remained open (up from 983 open a year earlier).

The OIG report made three recommendations. The first two recommendations required the NASA Associate Administrator for Science, Dr. Ed Weiler, ensure that all necessary resources were devoted to closing MSL PFRs and required that a plan be developed to address all remaining open and unopened PFRs.

The OIG report also noted that JPL had underestimated costs right up until the time the report was written. The third and final recommendation suggested the agency should reassess the MSL projects reserves and adjust funding accordingly.

Increasing costs and OIG Recommendation 3

In November 2010, the MSL project at JPL requested from NASA HQ a final additional $36 million, with a reserve of $35 million to complete the project. This brought the total life-cycle cost of MSL to $2.5 billion.

The OIG report cites the JPL “Flight Project Practices” as requiring only 20% reserve based on total estimated future development costs (of $175 million from November 2010 to launch). This led JPL to request the $35 million reserve estimate.

In light of previous reserve and budget increases on MSL, OIG reworked this 20% reserve figure and recommended a further $44 million be added to the $35 million reserve request. In response to the OIG recommendation, Dr. Weiler went halfway by increasing the reserves by $22 million.

The directed nature of these 2012 Mars program cuts led some to speculate they were a response to the budget overruns of the MSL project.

In January 2012, NASA reported that MSL science operations costs (the cost of running the rover once it is at Mars) will increase by almost $68 million, including $8.7 million carried forward from the development phase and an additional $59 million to ensure achievement of mission success criteria and accommodate development of surface mobility flight software.

The OIG report identifies four technical subsystems as the most troublesome:

  1. The Sample Acquisition/Sample Processing and Handling subsystem (SA/SPaH), which required continual redesign throughout mission development. Design faults were found late in program development—in test routines, actuator oil contaminants were discovered in soil samples collected by the system.
  2. The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which is more than half the science payload by mass and complexity. The wide range pump for SAM had to be redesigned and rebuilt several times during development.
  3. Flight software for the spacecraft and rover and fault protection for backup operations in the case of a partial failure.
  4. The Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), which under testing was found to have undergone unexpected performance degradation. This power shortage caused the MSL project to reduce the Rover’s mission performance criteria to 4.5 kilometers, rather than 20-kilometer traverse previously planned, and 28 rather than 74 soil and rock samples for mission success.

November 26, 2011: MSL Launch

On November 26, 2011, MSL launched flawlessly on an Atlas 5 rocket from Kennedy Space Center on its nine month journey to Mars.

January 4, 2012: John Grunsfeld takes over from Ed Weiler as SMD head

In September 2011, MSL appeared to be responsible for the resignation of a second NASA Associate Administrator, Ed Weiler. He was replaced by former shuttle astronaut and astronomer John Grunsfeld, who had most recently been the deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute. Dr. Weiler later stated that his resignation was prompted by continual battles with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) over funding for James Webb Space Telescope and support for the 2016 Mars Trace Gas Orbiter Mission and NASA’s involvement in the European Exomars Mission.

February 13, 2012: Directed budget cuts to the Mars program

On February 13, 2012, OMB released a fiscal year 2013 budget proposal in which NASA Planetary Science had been cut by $300 million for FY2012. This news was met with great dismay within the NASA and space communities. In response, John Grunsfeld announced the next NASA Mars Mission (the 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter) and US involvement in the European ExoMars mission were being cancelled. Clearly, the White House and OMB were operating in an extremely uncertain economy and budgets are generally headed in a downward direction, but the directed nature of these cuts led some to speculate they were a response to the budget overruns of the MSL project.4

April 19, 2012: Congress reinstates 50% of the planetary cuts—with a catch

In response to the cuts to planetary acience in the FY2013 budget proposal, the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee approved a budget bill that reinstated half of the lost planetary exploration funds: $150 million. However, the bill carried a proviso that the money be spent on a Mars mission only if that mission is approved by the National Research Council (NRC) as being in line with the NRC Decadal Survey. This essentially means that the money must be spent on a mission that is part of a Mars Sample Return (MSR) program. If the money is not spent on MSR, the money will go to the NRC’s next priority, an astrobiology spacecraft to the ice-covered Jovian moon Europa.

On the same day, in a rare show of bipartisanship, the Senate approved its own version of the bill with $100 million extra for planetary science, but with the same stipulations—that NASA unflinchingly follow the NRC Decadal Survey.

February 27, 2012: Mars Program Planning Group headed by Orlando Figueroa

In February of 2012, John Grunsfeld named Orlando Figueroa the head of the new Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG). In May 2012, Figueroa announced there would be $700–800 million available for a 2018 Martian mission. He speculated that a landed stationary platform might be possible within this scope, but ruled out the possibility of a rover. This means MSL will be the only NASA rover to land on Mars between January 2004, when Opportunity landed, and at earliest October 2020, a period of over years.

June 12–14, 2012: “Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration” Workshop

To get Mars science community input in the light of budget cuts and requisite program re-baselining, the MPPG convened a Mars Science community meeting on June 12–14. Scientists were asked to submit abstracts, and from these submissions, around 200 scientists were chosen to attend the meeting in Houston.5

At the Concepts and Approaches workshop, a group of 52 scientists (including your correspondent) submitted an abstract suggesting that NASA should concentrate on smaller “Discovery-class” (i.e. $250–300 million) missions to Mars, perhaps revisiting the planet with MER-size rovers.6 The “Small is Beautiful” concept was highlighted in the workshop report.

There is an enormous amount riding on the wheelhubs of the MSL rover as it glides towards its landing near Gale Crater on Sunday night.

At the workshop, a team of scientists from NASA Ames Research Center discussed a program called “Red Dragon” that may land a small commercial rover on the surface of Mars in the next decade. 7 This program would make use of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which by mid-decade will have built up experience ferrying cargo to the International Space Station and perhaps be ready to transport crews as well. The October 2020 and December 2022 oppositions would present the earliest opportunities to send an unpiloted Dragon capsule to the Red Planet. A small rover would provide mobility for scientific investigations of the landing site, and SpaceX may then develop the in-house capability to deploy future commercial rovers to Mars, with potential payoffs for both science and human exploration.

A team of engineers from JPL are also seeking partnerships with SpaceX: an entry, descent, and landing concept was submitted by the MSL EDL team that would create a hybrid Dragon-MSL landing system capable of landing a 1,000-kilogram lander on the surface in 2018 8. They proposed that a system test could be conducted by NASA’s OCT, led by Mason Peck, in the near future to test the supersonic retropropulsion burns that would be required for the JPL-SpaceX EDL system.

August 5, 2012: MSL entry, descent, and landing

I think you’ll agree that there is an enormous amount riding on the wheelhubs of the MSL rover as it glides towards its landing near Gale Crater on Sunday night. Good luck, Curiosity, and for the sake of humanity’s Mars Exploration Program, let’s hope this rover hasn’t used up its nine lives yet.


1 A talk by Paul Mahaffy on the capabilities of SAM is here:

2 A talk by Jen Blank on the capailities of ChemCam is here:

3 See “MSSS Delivers Mast Camera Science Cameras To JPL For 2011 Mars Rover Mission, Restarts Work On Zoom Version Of ‘Mastcam‘” and “NASA Halts Work On Zoom Mastcams”.

4 For example, see the Planetary Society’s Bill Nye’s blog of February 13, 2012:

5 Reports and video from the workshop are available at:

6 Niles, P. B., and 52 others, 2012. Multiple Smaller Missions as a Direct Pathway to Mars Sample Return. Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration. Abstract #4234.

7 Karcz, J. et al., 2012 Red Dragon: Low-Cost access to the Surface of Mars Using Commercial Capabilities. Abstract #4315

8 Grover, M. R., et al., 2012. Red Dragon-MSL Hybrid Landing Architecture for 2018. Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration. Abstract #4216