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Emily LakdawallaDecember 21, 2007

NASA announces delay of Mars Scout launch until 2013

The second mission in the Mars Scout program hasn't even been selected yet, and its launch -- whether it's MAVEN or Great Escape -- is already being delayed, from 2011 to 2013. That means that 2011 will be the first Mars launch opportunity without a mission since 1994, the gap between Mars Observer and Mars Global Surveyor. That's what NASA announced today, on the Friday before what is, for many people, a two-week holiday, just to make sure the announcement gets the press attention it deserves (NOT!)

Here's the explanation for the delay, such as it is:

The schedule slip is because of an organizational conflict of interest that was discovered in one of the mission proposal team's Phase A Concept Study. This was the shortest delay for the mission possible because opportunities to send spacecraft to Mars occur only once every 26 months.

In November, NASA postponed the Scout mission's evaluation, selection, and announcement so the agency could resolve an organizational conflict of interest. The conflict of interest was discovered shortly after the concept study reports were received.

The extent of the conflict was severe enough that NASA determined its only recourse was to stop the evaluation and reconstitute the entire review panel that provides the technical and cost analyses for mission selections.

The delay in selection, resulting from reconstituting the entire review team and replanning the evaluation schedule, is approximately four months. Because of the delay, proposers would be left an unacceptable schedule, and schedule reserve, to meet a targeted launch date of 2011. Changing the launch date to the next Mars opportunity in 2013 reestablishes an acceptable and achievable schedule for the mission.

"We regret the delay, but NASA is taking this step to be proactive in preventing problems early on," said Mars Exploration Program Director Doug McCuistion, NASA Headquarters. "Because these are cost-capped missions, it is better to address the schedule risk now rather than put the winning proposer at a cost and schedule disadvantage from the start. Delaying the next Scout mission and allowing the mission teams to replan their proposed missions for 2013 reestablishes an acceptable schedule to meet a Mars launch date. It will also reduce the risk of cost overruns driven by the tight mission schedule that would have resulted if launch had remained in 2011."

Since I was not at all sure what to make of this, I had to call my boss, Executive Director Lou Friedman, and find out what he thought. He said he didn't have a full understanding yet of what was behind the decision but he deplored, he said, the flouting of Congressional will that had just been expressed on Tuesday; Congress expressed to NASA that Mars missions should be launched at every opportunity. And to wait to make the announcment until after Congress went home for the holidays -- that seems designed to try to make the announcement fly under the radar. He also seemed a bit disgusted that the delay should be for such a bureaucratic reason. I'm sure you'll be hearing more from him on this once we all have a better idea what happened.

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Emily Lakdawalla

Solar System Specialist for The Planetary Society
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