In what has practically become a routine event, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is asking for a little extra cash. During a public presentation to the NASA Advisory Council’s planetary sciences subcommittee on 26 January, Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said that the mission must add $82.1 million to its $2.476 billion budget after exhausting program funding reserves.
“Most of us were aware that MSL was having some difficulties,” says Ronald Greeley, an astronomer at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona and chair of the subcommittee. “Still, it was a disappointment.”
After a two year delay, the mission, which will land a rover on the red planet to search for signs of life, is expected to launch in November of this year. The latest funding overrun is due to a number of factors, mainly pegged to increased costs in the mission’s avionics, radar system, and drill, says Greeley.
The funding increase comes only months after another high profile overrun on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, successor to Hubble Space Telescope. While the MSL overrun is significantly smaller, it also comes during a time of budgetary uncertainty for the agency. NASA has been working under a continuing resolution passed by Congress in September that freezes funding at FY2010 levels. Legislators have yet to pass a budget for 2011, which will need to be done before the continuing resolution runs out in March. As well, in February the agency will submit its plans for its 2012 budget, though President Obama has stated that he intends to freeze federal spending over the next five years (and some members of Congress are gunning for deep cuts in federal expenditures).
If possible, NASA plans for the extra money for MSL to come from within its Mars program, says Greeley. Depending on overall budget scenarios, though, it could potentially affect the entire planetary science division, he says.
If reductions need to be made, upcoming missions could be delayed or terminated, says James Bell, an astronomer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and member of the planetary science subcommittee. Though heartened that the latest overrun is relatively small, Bell says that it could come at the cost of investments in technology and basic research and analysis, which supports many graduate students and post docs.
“It won’t be fun to find out where the cuts are going to come from,” he says.