Editor's note: The following message was sent by NASA to the space science community late last week.
In early June 2007, the Mars Science Laboratory project completed its project-wide Critical Design Review (CDR), which marks the completion of the project's design phase and transition into the build up of flight hardware. A key component of the CDR process were technical risk, programmatic, and cost reviews, from which multiple independent cost assessments predicted that this technically challenging $1.7B planetary science rover mission's current content would cause it to exceed its budgeted development costs to launch by approximately $75M.
Scheduled to launch in the fall of 2009, Mars Science Laboratory is the next step of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the red planet. Mars Science Laboratory is a rover that will assess a variety of scientific objectives, including whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life. The rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface. Dozens of samples of Mars soil and rocks as the rover makes its travels will be analyzed by MSL to detect chemical building blocks of life as well as what the Martian environment was like in the past.
Because the success of MSL is of course of high importance to NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD), SMD, working with the MSL Project and Mars Program at JPL, concluded that the MSL project required some focused and prudent reductions in scope in order to better ensure project success. Furthermore, because all of the funds MSL requested were not available in the Mars Exploration Program reserves pool, and because SMD did not want to impact other current or future science missions to fund these new costs, the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters has been working closely with the MSL project and the science community to identify mission scope reductions to minimize the project's need for funds, while minimizing both technical risk and impacts to the mission's science return.
As a result of this careful process, a combination of low-impact mission scope reductions and some new funding from the Mars Program's reserves pool, has been agreed upon. Together these measures effectively resolve the MSL cost increase issues identified at its CDR.
Engineering changes to the mission include some reductions in design complexity, reductions in planned spares, some simplifications of flight software, and some ground test program changes. These changes were selected largely to help reduce mission risks. Changes in mission science content were limited to removal of the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI), the MASTCAM zoom capability from the mission, and a change from a rock grinding tool to a rock brushing tool. As noted by the science input NASA received, most of MARDI's capability can be provided by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRise camera now in orbit and working successfully. Furthermore, NASA has directed that the project expend no additional funds on ChemCam, and cost-cap SAM and CheMin at their current budgets. Future budget requests for these instruments cannot be funded. However none of the roving instruments were removed from the payload, and the science team also remains entirely intact.
"I am very pleased that we were able to resolve this challenge to the Mars Program without delaying or canceling any other mission in the Mars Program or other parts of SMD, and we avoided impacting Research and Analysis. We were also able to reduce some risks in MSL's development and flight." said Dr. Alan Stern, NASA's Associate Administrator for Science. "The MSL project, Mars Program, JPL and NASA HQ worked together to constrain the impacts to the Mars Program and keep MSL on schedule for its launch in 2009, and we all feel we succeeded." added Doug McCuistion, Mars Program Director.