Destination: Mars 2020

We have always found reading the reports of the NASA Inspector General to be consistently fascinating.  

Perhaps it is the subject matter (rarely do they concern themselves with the mundaneness of payroll) or the sheer size and societal importance of what they are reviewing.

A recent report on Mars 2020 did not disappoint.

As you read our summary and the attached report you will not struggle to appreciate the issues that are contained within are not unique to deep space exploration.  The report is relevant to any organisation that has a large project with a challenging deadline.

So what is Mars 2020:

NASA’s next robotic rover mission to the Red Planet – known as Mars 2020 – will be equipped with seven science instruments to further scientific understanding of Mars and demonstrate new technologies, including an experiment to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere that will support the Agency’s goal of sending humans to the planet in the 2030s.

The introduction to the report makes an interesting point that the project has not started from the proverbial blank sheet of paper:

While the $2.4 billion Mars 2020 Project will utilize new and modified technology, particularly with respect to its on-board instruments, the Project will also use a significant amount of heritage technology from MSL in an effort to reduce mission costs and risks.

So it is in that context that we read with interest some of the challenges facing Mars 2020 – not least the very small window of go live that it has:

The primary constraint and driver for Mars 2020 development is the Project’s planned July 2020 launch date. An optimal 20-day launch window for a trip from Earth to Mars occurs every 26 months. Missing the 2020 launch window would result in significant additional costs related to overhead, stand-by work force, replacement of degraded parts and components, and storage while waiting for the next launch opportunity.

And it is in that context that:

We identified several schedule-related issues that could indicate the Project is overly optimistic, including a condensed development schedule for five of the seven instruments, a shorter development timeframe than (NASA’s most recent rover mission to the planet which landed in August 2012 – the Mars Science Laboratory) MSL and less detailed Integrated Master Schedule for assigning timelines to all required tasks than MSL.

And in a fit for purpose challenge that is evident in many projects:

The largest risk to the Mars 2020 schedule is the Project’s Sample and Caching Subsystem (Sampling System), which will collect core samples of Martian rocks and soil and place them on the planet’s surface for retrieval by a future robotic or human mission. At Preliminary Design Review (PDR), three of the Sampling System’s critical technologies were below technology readiness level (TRL) 6, meaning the prototype had not yet demonstrated the capability to perform all the functions required.

As the report notes:

The immaturity of the critical technologies related to the Sampling System is concerning because, according to Mars 2020 Project managers, the Sampling System is the rover’s most complex new development component with delays likely to eat into the Project’s schedule reserve and, in the worst case scenario, could delay launch.

In Mars 2020 you have a project with (near) inflexible launch date; with schedule challenges presenting themselves three years out and a key technology that has not yet got past the proof of concept stage.

It would be a brave person to say that Mars 2020 won’t be launched on time – but until it does what a fascinating project to keep a close eye on and transfer the lessons to organisational projects of less galactic importance.


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