Mars Mission May Be In Jeopardy

NASA's inspector general issued a significant list Wednesday of items that need to be resolved before the next mission to Mars can be launched in November. Some say the challenges won't be resolved in time, causing the Mars team to miss their launch window. That's a problem because the next window for sending a craft to Mars isn't for two years — and the cost of rejiggering the program to fit that window might be too high for NASA to stomach. NPR's Joe Palca talks to Michele Norris.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

There are problems with NASA's latest mission to Mars and they may not be enough time to resolve them before the launch date this November. That's the conclusion of a report from NASA's inspector general. It was released today.

The mission involves a rover called Curiosity, and it is the most ambitious Mars project NASA has ever mounted. If Curiosity can't be launched later this year, it will mean a two-year delay in a mission that is already two years late.

NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is here to tell us more about this.

Joe, first, describe a little about this mission.

PALCA: Well, as you said, it's a rover, but it's much bigger. The ones that were - are there now were about the size of a coffee table. This is about the size of a small compact car. Its instruments are designed to not just look for signs of water, but look for places where life might have actually once been. And they have instruments that can look for certain chemical compounds that scientists think would be found if life had once existed.

And the part about the mission that I think is just crazy, wild, fun to look at is how it lands because it comes in - comes roaring in and it starts off like other missions with a heat shield and then a parachute. But then there's this rocket thing, you know, like the lunar landing, and it hovers over the surface. And when it finds the right place to land, it lowers the rover down on a tether, like it's holding it up from a crane. And then the tether gets cut and the Sky Crane flies away. It's hilarious, but it...

NORRIS: I wish our listeners could see you here in the studio describing all of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: No, it's wonderful. There's a video, I think, you can find on the website. You should watch it. It's great.

NORRIS: You mentioned the - or we mentioned the report from NASA's inspector general. Can you tell us a little bit more about the problems that he identified in that report?

PALCA: Well, the problems were - they identified 10 problems a couple of years ago that they said were responsible for the mission being delayed, and three of them are still out there, apparently. One has to do with the soil scooper thing that's going to put soil into the instruments, and the two - other two have to do with software issues, fault tolerance and things like that. NASA, you know, that's - those problems are still being worked on, apparently.

NORRIS: Has to be frustrating for the managers of the mission. What do they say about this report?

PALCA: Well, the managers are saying, look, we are down to the wire - it's true - but we think we have the margin and we think we have the time. And talking about this scooper thing, they said, we've figured that one out. It's now fixed since the inspector general came and talked to us. The inspector general found, like, 1,200 trouble tickets that hadn't been resolved. NASA people say, we resolved most of them and we'll have them all. But it is going to be down to the wire, and they are going to be tweaking the software on this mission all the way into landing.

So while it's cruising off to Mars, you know, in the eight and a half months after it launches in November, they're going to be working on the software. Now, that's not unheard of because they did that with the other rovers too. But it's, you know, it's getting there. It's getting to the edge.

NORRIS: What happens if it misses this window and doesn't launch in November?

PALCA: Very bad because it's - the way orbital mechanics work, you only get a launch window every 26 months. That's why it was a two-year delay. That's why if we miss this one, it's another two-year delay. And so not only is it going to cost more - and the costs have already gone up to $2.5 billion - we're talking about another half a billion and another two years waiting.

NORRIS: You mentioned some of the possible resolutions. In that inspector general report, did he spell out other specific things that can be done?

PALCA: Well, basically, he says it's going to be - you know, time is time. It's not going to be able to extend it past a few - into - past a few days into December. Money is going to solve the problem. Maybe if they can put some more people on it to fill these - fix these problems before the launch date, they'll make it.

NORRIS: Joe, thanks so much.

PALCA: You bet.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Joe Palca.

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