NASA has cancelled its fourth planetary mission in the past two years. The latest is the "nanorover" that was to have been delivered to the surface of an asteroid by Japan's Muses-C asteroid sample return mission.
The cancellation was caused by a large growth in the development cost at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Originally priced at $21M, the current cost is estimated at $60M and rising.
The MUSES-C nanorover follows the DS-4/Champollion comet mission, the Mars 2001 Lander, and the Pluto Kuiper Express mission in being cancelled.
Large cost overruns were also the primary reasons for terminating the DS-4 and PKE missions, and cost overruns now threaten the Europa Orbiter mission.
This series of cancellations is unprecedented in the history of NASA's Space Science program. In addition, these cancellations follow on the heels of the three Mars mission failures in 1998-9.
The large number of mission cancellations and losses gives rise to serious concern for the future of the US planetary exploration program.
Since the recent losses at Mars, NASA has been endeavoring to restructure many of its programs to reflect more realistic costing. An overemphasis on "cheaper" of faster-cheaper-better, combined with a pattern of underbidding, has been a root cause of losses and overruns. We commend the agency for attacking these problems head-on.
However, NASA must guard against a return to performance-at-any-price and extreme fear of risk, as these will result in excessively reduced program content.
The large increases in development costs that have resulted from the recent failures suggest that the middle ground has not yet been found in seeking the proper trade between cost and performance.
The executive Committee of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) feels that increased competition and external peer review for all missions should be considered as a proven mechanism for seeking the most performance and return at reasonable cost.
The DPS is the world's largest organization of professional scientists devoted to exploring the planets and other bodies of the solar system.
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Chaos On The Frontiers Of Sol
Pasadena - Nov. 21, 2000
Efforts by the space science community to get NASA to not cancel Pluto Express appear to be falling on deaf ears. Senior agency officials have decided to ignore the advice of its own committees and the mounting support within the space science community which is in general agreement; that due to a fluke of orbital positions a mission to Pluto must be launch by 2004 in time to catch a gravity boost from Jupiter and out to Pluto before its atmosphere collapses for another 200 years.
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