WASHINGTON — America's next daring adventure on Mars — a one-ton rolling science laboratory scheduled to launch next October — is in deep trouble.
Huge cost overruns and technical difficulties may cause the $2 billion dollar Mars Science Laboratory to be delayed or cancelled outright, members of a NASA advisory committee were warned last week.
"Our problem is enormous," said Jim Green, director of the space agency's Planetary Science Division, as project costs soar up to 40 percent above budget.
The successor to the wildly popular Spirit and Opportunity rovers, still toiling along on Mars, is supposed to check out a region on the planet's surface where conditions could support past or present life — one of science's highest goal.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin is to decide whether to cancel, delay or go ahead with the troubled mission on Friday.
It's also possible that Congress, grappling with massive budget deficits and the cost of a $700 billion financial rescue package, will terminate the mission on its own.
"Congress can stop us if they want to," Douglas McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, told the committee of planetary scientists.
The lander, a nine foot-long minivan packed with scientific instruments, four times heavier than Spirit and Opportunity, has already cost $1.5 billion. Poor management and inflation will add about $500 million to that sum, the panel was told.
"A lot of serious mistakes were made, McCuistion said. "Mars (the program) is out of money. We're laying people off."
"I'm not sure Congress will rescue MSL," said Ed Weiler, NASA's chief scientist. "We need to move mountains, and there are no more mountains to move."
"I'm less worried about the money than the technology," Weiler said. "My heart says go for it, but we can't afford to make a mistake," referring to two previous Mars landers that went astray in 1998.
Technological problems include the failure of a contractor to deliver dozens of complex parts on time, and concern that a hurry-up schedule could lead to human errors.
If the science lander is delayed, it could be launched in 2010 and parked in a solar orbit until 2011, when Mars is again in range of Earth, Green said. A launch delay until 2011 is more likely.
A delay would cost at least $300 million in extra expenses, and would interfere with other scheduled planetary missions, such as later flights to Mars, Jupiter or Saturn. But a delay is better than a cancellation, Green said.
"The cheapest thing to do is get it out in '09," McCuistion said.
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