NASA gives budget-busting Mars probe a reprieve

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA needs more money to resolve problems with its next Mars mission and keep it on track for launch next year, and is gambling that the U.S. Congress will find the extra funds, officials said on Friday.

Exactly how much more cash will be needed to keep the Mars Science Laboratory on schedule, and where it will come from, officials with the U.S. space agency would not say.

“If we’re going to launch in 2009 or 2011, additional budget resources are going to be necessary,” Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters, said during a conference call with reporters.

Despite the uncertainty, NASA officials said they were forging ahead with plans to launch the roving chemistry station between September 15 and October 15 of next year, when Earth and Mars are favorably aligned. The planets sweep into optimal position every two years.

Costs for the probe, which is about the size of a sport utility vehicle and is designed to assess Mars’ suitability for life, already have swelled to $1.9 billion from $1.6 billion.

NASA has been launching probes at every opportunity in an attempt to learn if life ever took hold beyond Earth.

The Mars Science Lab is an ambitious follow-on program to the two small rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, currently exploring the equatorial regions of Mars for signs of past water.

“This is a really important scientific mission,” McCuistion said. “This is truly the push into the next decade for the Mars program and for the discovery for the potential for life on other planets.

“I fully believe that Congress will support us as we go forward on this because they recognize the importance of the mission as well,” he added.

In an attempt to make up time lost due to a host of technical challenges, including problems with materials and parachutes, Mars Science Lab contractors are working multiple shifts to deliver components so that testing can begin in late November or early December.

NASA plans to reassess the mission’s progress in January.

If the probe has to miss its 2009 launch date, keeping the contractor and science teams employed for another two years is estimated to cost $300 million.

In addition to seeking additional funding from Congress, NASA will assess other science programs to see if any money can be reallocated to the Mars Science Lab, said Ed Weiler, NASA’s lead scientist.

Editing by Jim Loney