Really Expensive Mothballs

There's a little squib in the New York Times today about the return of the Dawn mission to visit a couple of asteroids, one of their little not-quite-a-full-story things in the "Week in Review" section of the print edition (we get the Sunday Times delivered, because I find it much more civilized to spend a lazy Sunday morning reading a physical newspaper than staring at a computer monitor). The mission was suspended several months ago due to cost overruns, and general budget tightness at NASA these days.

Following an appeal, it's been reinstated, with the launch date pushed back a year (which won't affect the mission timetable, thanks to a "fortuitous coincidence" of orbital mechanics). The RSS summary promised an exploration of what happens to mothballed space missions, but the short length of the piece doesn't allow much-- about the only information we get is that most of the people assigned to the project initially had been re-assigned, and will now be re-re-assigned.

It's a pity, because what happens to these multi-million-dollar spacecraft when the mission gets cancelled is actually an interesting question. These probes are frightfully expensive to build, which means nobody wants to just throw them away, but they're also highly customized, so they can't always be scavanged for parts to use in other experiments. They seem to sit in some sort of extremely high-tech storage facility somewhere, in a kind of space-qualified limbo.

(Anecdote below the fold.)

Back at Boskone, I went to a panel about Mars missions that featured SF author and honest-to-God-rocket-scientist Geoff Landis, who talked about the fate of a Mars mission from a few years back that got shut down after one of the high-profile Mars disasters. He said that NASA mothballed the project, but when the next mission cycle came up (Mars and Earth make close approaches every few years, so launches are all timed to coincide with one of those), they put out a request for bids for a new probe, with a ridiculously low cost ceiling for the science the mission was supposed to accomplish.

It was essentially impossible to fly a new mission for the money they were offering (said Landis), but they tacked on an additional qualification: If the bidders could figure out a way to use the existing probe that was in storage, they could have it for next to nothing. So, of course, the mission that was launched (or is scheduled to be launched-- I'm too lazy to Google up which set of Mars probes he was talking about) was basically the old probe, with a different set of instruments (no longer including Landis's experiment, to his annoyance...).

So, award some ingenuity points to the stodgy bureaucrats of NASA. But dock a couple from the Times, for wasting an opportunity for a more interesting science article.

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I know several people who were working on the JIMO project before it got cancelled. It neve actually got built though it was still in the engineering phase.