April 13, 2024

Mission problems are not

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Huge cost overruns. Important deadlines are slipping out of reach. Problems of unprecedented complexity and the scientific progress of a generation dependent on their resolution.

That’s the current state of Mars Sample Return, NASA’s ambitious but endangered mission, whose rapidly growing budget has cost jobs at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge and drawn threats of cancellation from lawmakers.

But not long ago, these same dire circumstances described the James Webb Space Telescope, the pioneering infrared telescope launched on Christmas Day 2021.

The largest space telescope ever proved to be a scientific and public relations victory for NASA. The telescope’s performance exceeded all expectations, the project’s senior scientist, Jane Rigby, recently said at a meeting.

Its first images were so eagerly awaited that the White House seized on NASA’s announcement, releasing a stunning view of thousands of galaxies a day before the space agency shared the first batch of images. Since then, thousands of researchers have requested observation time.

“The world has been rooting for this telescope to succeed,” Rigby told the National Academies’ astronomy and astrophysics committee.

However, in the years leading up to its release, the success and acclaim Webb now enjoys was far from guaranteed.

The telescope cost twice as much as originally planned and was launched seven years behind the original schedule. Some members of Congress attempted to withdraw funding from the project. Even the diary Nature referred to it at the time as the “telescope that ate astronomy”.

After a thorough assessment of the project’s needs and flaws, NASA was able to turn the problematic undertaking around. Mars Sample Return advocates are hopeful the mission will follow a similar trajectory.

“A lot of great science will come out of the” Mars Sample Return, said Garth Illingworth, UC Santa Cruz astronomer emeritus and former deputy director of the project that is now the James Webb Space Telescope. “But they need to get real about how to manage this.”

Last year was a crisis point for Mars Sample Return, which aims to collect rocks from the Red Planet’s Jezero Crater and bring them back to Earth for study.

In July, the US Senate presented NASA with an ultimatum in its budget proposal: either present a plan to complete the mission within the budgeted $5.3 billion, or risk cancellation. A serious independent review found in September that there was “almost zero likelihood” of Mars Sample Return reaching its proposed 2028 launch date and “no credible way” of accomplishing the mission within its current budget. NASA is expected to respond to that report this month.

The James Webb Space Telescope was further along in its development journey when it reached a similar crossroads in 2010, six years after construction began. Frustrated with the budget increase and the constant postponement of the launch date, the US House of Representatives did not include any funding for the telescope in its budget proposal, which would have ended the project if the Senate had agreed.

In a statement, lawmakers castigated the mission as “billions of dollars over budget and plagued by mismanagement,” foreshadowing the criticism that would be leveled at Mars Sample Return more than a decade later.

To avoid cancellation, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) ordered an independent review of the project, which was under construction in her state.

The board determined that Webb’s problems stemmed from a “very flawed” initial budget. All the technical knowledge needed to complete this ambitious project was present, the evaluators concluded. But doing so with the amount of money currently set aside would be virtually impossible.

Illingworth was reminded of this review when he read the Mars Sample Return review, which offered a similarly harsh conclusion.

“Some of the words are very familiar,” he said with a laugh.

When Mikulski’s review was published in 2010, Illingworth was deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which later became the James Webb Space Telescope.

He was sympathetic to the challenges faced by Mars sample return managers, though disappointed that the hard-learned lessons from the James Webb Space Telescope had seemingly disappeared so quickly — especially the importance of having a realistic budget from the start.

NASA missions are managed by very smart people with an established track record of doing very difficult things. How is it that something as earthly mundane as the budget continually confuses them?

“The problem is that the models that you have as a cost estimator – and they have very complex proprietary software models that try to understand this kind of thing – are all built on things that have happened, in the past,” said Casey Dreier, head of Planetary Society space policy.

“By definition, when you’re trying something completely new, it’s very difficult to estimate in advance how much something unprecedented will cost,” Dreier said. “This happened with Apollo, this happened with the space shuttle, it happened with James Webb and it’s happening now with Mars Sample Return.”

Mars Sample Return also has some mission-specific challenges that Webb didn’t have to face. For one thing, it’s happening at the same time as Artemis, NASA’s hugely expensive mission to return people to the Moon.

With a predicted cost of $93 billion by 2025, Artemis achieved a 27% increase in its budget compared to the previous year, while Mars Sample Return’s guaranteed funding is 63% lower than last year’s spending.

And although NASA’s ambitions are growing, its congressional funding, adjusted for inflation, has been essentially flat for decades. This leaves little room for unexpected extras.

“We are tasking the space agency with the most ambitious set of space programs since the Apollo era, but instead of Apollo-era budgets, it has a third of 1% of U.S. spending to work with,” Dreier said. “If you stumble now, the wolves will come after you. And that’s what’s happening with Mars Sample Return.”

Not all ambitious scientific efforts survive the kind of scrutiny that sample return faces. In 1993, Congress canceled the U.S. Department of Energy’s Superconducting Super Collider, an underground particle accelerator, citing concerns about rising costs and fiscal mismanagement. The government had already spent US$2 billion on the project and dug 22 kilometers of tunnel.

But in the same week that Congress put an end to the supercollider, it agreed – by a margin of a single vote – to continue funding the International Space Station, an equally expensive project whose excessive costs had been widely criticized. The ISS launched in November 1998 and is still going strong. (For now, at least — NASA will intentionally dump it at sea in 2030.)

The space station’s future was never seriously threatened again after that painfully close vote, just as Webb’s future was never seriously questioned after the 2010 cancellation threat.

JPL, the institution that manages the Mars Sample Return, has already paid dearly for the mission’s initial setbacks, laying off more than 600 employees and 40 contractors after NASA ordered it to reduce its spending.

But projects that survive this type of assessment often emerge “stronger and more resilient,” Dreier said. “They know the eyes of the nation and NASA and Congress are on them, so you have to act.”

NASA is expected to reveal this month how it plans to move forward with Mars Sample Return. Those familiar with the mission say they believe it can still happen — and that it’s still worth doing.

“Do I have faith in NASA, JPL and everyone involved to be able to carry out the Mars sample return mission with the attention and technical integrity it demands? Absolutely,” said Orlando Figueroa, chair of the review team. regardless of the mission. and former NASA “Mars Czar.”

“This will require very difficult decisions and levels of commitment, including from Congress, NASA and the administration, [and] a recognition of the importance, as was the case with James Webb, of what this mission means for space science.”

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