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GAO Summary: Cost Overruns, Schedule Delays, Ongoing Technical Problems With Mars Science Laboratory

Status Report From: Government Accountability Office
Posted: Thursday, March 1, 2012

image Excerpt from "NASA: Assessments of Selected Large-Scale Projects" GAO-12-207SP, Mar 1, 2012

The Mars Science Laboratory successfully launched on November 26, 2011. The life cycle cost for the project has increased $881 million since its original baseline in 2008, which includes an 84 percent increase in development costs. The project launched with a risk that the rover's sample analysis drill will short circuit that could cause interference with the avionics systems and limit drill operations. In addition, the project did not complete all of the software for entry, descent, landing, and surface activities, which the project plans to complete during the spacecraft's cruise to Mars. Similarly, the project also plans to close out a number of Problem/Failure Reports identified during development and testing, during the cruise phase.

MSL successfully launched on November 26, 2011, and is currently en route to Mars, where it is scheduled to land in August 2012. Since the original project baseline in 2008, the life-cycle cost for the project has increased by over $881 million--including an 84 percent increase in development costs--and the launch was delayed from September 2009 until November 2011 since launch windows for Mars missions are optimally aligned every 26 months. These cost and schedule overruns were driven by design and technical problems.

Design Issues

Design issues leading up to the project's launch caused delays in testing and continues to threaten the project's operations. For example, problems with the sample analysis drill, which collects samples from the Martian rocks, were discovered late in the testing and verification of the rover and subsequently caused a rework of internal rover components, delaying the rover's test schedule by 5 weeks. To mitigate this and other problems, the project increased its workforce, which exhausted the project-held cost reserves. While these issues with the sample analysis drill were addressed in the redesign, the project identified additional issues with the drill after the rover had been delivered to Kennedy Space Center for launch processing. The project identified a risk that the sample analysis drill will short circuit to the drill framework--or chassis--when in percussion mode, causing interference from drilling operations that can affect the avionics systems. The project made modifications to the rover that will allow it to detect the short before the avionics hardware is damaged. The project is also able to use the drill in a rotary only mode. This issue could limit the operations of the drill and the project may have to process only softer rock samples, which may significantly increase the risk of not accomplishing mission science objectives.

The project has additional concerns regarding the spacecraft's software that enable its functionality once it arrives at the landing site. Project officials stated that the basic software for landing and traversing exists, but it needs to be upgraded in order to achieve full capability. The project plans to release updates and test its flight software for entry, descent, and landing (EDL) and software for surface operations during the spacecraft's 9-month cruise phase to Mars. The project reported that although this work has slipped into the operations phase after launch, the project believes it has adequate personnel and financial resources to successfully complete EDL, enter surface operations, and complete the mission. NASA headquarters officials, however, stressed the significant amount of work remaining in this area, disruption of which, according to these officials, could impact the project's ability to land safely on Mars. In January 2012, NASA reported that operations costs 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 project experienced a large number of Problem/ Failure Reports (PFR) identified during the development and testing of the rover. For example, the project had over 1,200 PFRs open in early 2011. In June 2011, the NASA Inspector General reported that it found that project managers did not consistently identify and assess the risks associated with the PFRs and, as a result, closing the large number of open PFRs became a point of emphasis for the project during 2011. Project officials said they made it a priority to close those PFRs related to flight and launch operations and then concentrate on those related to software. The project plans to close multiple unresolved software PFRs during the spacecraft's cruise phase. As of October 2011, the project had 392 PFRs still open, although many of those were in review or awaiting signature.

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