Thursday, February 21, 2008

Red Alert!

At first blush it appears that the Red Planet is up to its old tricks again. Wreaking havoc with those that seek to unlock its mysteries. But this time, first impressions are incorrect. Mars is innocent.

The problem, of course, is one that we have become all too familiar with in reviewing the Emperor's enormous human space flight designs. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) suffers from issues of scale. A good idea gone too big. As we have learned over the last few months, instead of building a small chapel and using the remaining resources to improve living conditions for the poor, the Emperor's minions favor building large cathedrals at the expense of the impoverished.

MSL is so big that it requires a brand new "helicopter-like" rocket landing system to land safely on the red dirt, dispensing with the tried and true airbag system proved on Mars Pathfinder and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Instead of splitting MSL into two pieces, say a rover and a powerpack, landing both inside airbags, and giving the remaining funds to the next mission, JPL just had to go invent something new and expensive. And because they were so caught up in the thrill of their new development, they overlooked the mundane problem of atmospheric entry and heat shields.

Indeed, a year or so before launch, the SLA-561V material used to breech Mars' atmosphere previously has now been found to be inadequate for safely entering MSL. Kind of late to find this out, isn't it?

So now, JPL has a big problem that is extending beyond its walls in the San Gabriel mountains. This week, Constellation Viceroy Hanley dispatched several thermal engineers from his purview to Southern California to assess the use of Orion's heat shield material, called PICA, for MSL. Tens of millions dollars more will be spent creating this new shield. On top of the millions spent for the helicopter rockets. But, that's not all.

It is quite possible that this new heat shield might not be available in time for MSL's original launch date. Now a large share of the 800+ folks working this mission will either have to be kept around for up to two years (when the new launch opportunity comes around) or they will be walking the streets of Pasadena in short order. That's because MSL is consuming resources at an alarming rate from other missions that might have picked up the slack if not for MSL's ravenous appetite. We'll certainly be hearing soon about the impact to the Mars Exploration budget and the outcries from the Prinicipal Investigators whose missions will be delayed or cancelled as a result of this oversight and overrun.

So when will the lesson be learned? "Smaller and frequent" is always better than "bigger and far-between."

No comments: