Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit.

Europa Clipper faces budget overruns

NASA’s $4.25 billion dollar mission to orbit the Jupiter moon Europa now faces cost overruns that threaten its launch in 2023.

The management of NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, facing dwindling cost reserves while still years away from launch, is looking at cost saving options that would preserve the mission’s science.

In a Feb. 3 presentation at a meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group in Houston, Jan Chodas, project manager for Europa Clipper at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said she was looking for ways to restore cost reserves that had declined precipitously in the last year.

Chodas said that Europa Clipper had met a JPL recommendation of 25% cost reserves, known at the lab as unallocated future expenses (UFE), when it completed a final “delta” preliminary design review in June 2019. By November, though, those reserves had fallen to just 12%, a level deemed “unacceptably low” for a mission not scheduled for launch until at least 2023.

To save money, they are “streamlining hardware testing and scaling back work on flight spare hardware. The project has also reduced the frequency of meetings of the mission’s science team.”

When the reserves in a government budget get this low, it almost always guarantees that the budget will go over. When the reserves get this low this early in the project, it almost always guarantees that the budget will go over, by a lot.

There have been other indications that Europa Clipper’s budget is in trouble. In March NASA canceled one science instrument to save money.

Making matter worse has been our lovely Congress, which has required this mission fly on its bloated, over-budget, and behind schedule SLS rocket, a mandate that is also costing the project an additional $1.5 billion (for the launch) while threatening its launch date (because of SLS delays). NASA would rather have the option to launch Clipper on the more reliable commercial and already operational Falcon Heavy, for about $100 million, thereby saving more than a billion dollars while guaranteeing its launch date. Congress so far has refused to budge, and has in fact insisted that the mission be delayed several years if necessary for getting it on SLS.

Meanwhile, Clipper itself is doing what too many big NASA projects routinely do, go overbudget.

Our federal government. Doesn’t its management skills just warm your heart?

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  • V-Man

    In a sane world, space probes would be built assembly line-style on a standardized bus/sensor packages and would be launched by reusable boosters.

    Not enough opportunities for graft that way, though.

  • Richard M

    There have been other indications that Europa Clipper’s budget is in trouble. In March NASA canceled one science instrument to save money.

    Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by the decision to cancel the ICEMAG magnetometer last year. It was a sign that Zerbuchen was actually *trying* to keep a lid on the budget and prevent JWST-style inflation.

    I have to say that, as dysfunctional as NASA is, the planetary science programs have been….relatively tolerable in terms of cost containment and schedule. Still not good enough, but also not in JWST or SLS/Orion territory, either. I attribute this to better management at JPL and the relative lack of congressional kibitzing. Planetary science remains the one area where NASA (or at least its centers, primarily JPL) can claim some laurels.

    But yes (:sigh:) there is the launcher question. I am praying that the sole good thing I saw in the HR 5666 bill, the directive to NASA to prepare a fast report on commercial launcher options for Europa Clipper, actually survives markup and reconciliation. (I have heard that it has a good chance.) If it does, NASA can at least save itself a billion dollars or so off the top by launching it on a Falcon Heavy with kick stage. Yes, it will take a few more years to get to Jupiter, but then as things are going now, it will end up sitting in a JPL clean room for that long anyway to wait for an SLS launcher to be ready to launch it.

    Now, if we can just cancel SLS altogether…

  • Richard M

    In a sane world, space probes would be built assembly line-style on a standardized bus/sensor packages and would be launched by reusable boosters.

    Not enough opportunities for graft that way, though.

    I think graft is only part of the problem.

    The other problem is, and we saw this with the grumbling from scientists about the ICEMAG cancellation, is that the science community insists on packing the most advanced possible instruments on these missions, even if their development is immature. “Tech greed.” This was a big problem with JWST, where there are so many bleeding edge components and instruments on the critical path. That kind of thing costs money, even when your contractor *isn’t* a grifter.

    I have often pondered your idea of late of some standardized sats that could be built and deployed en masse to various planetary destinations. I’ve had one engineer in the business tell me that’s not workable. But I simply don’t know enough about the practical aspects to make an assessment. But I do think that, one day, something like it *will* happen, as a byproduct of commercial activity.

    Jupiter, to be sure, would be a special case, because of the shielding needed against the enormous electromagnetic radiation. Europa Clipper has something like 150kg of titanium to shield its processors for just this reason.

  • Ray

    Think of all the great space science projects NASA could do with all the money going down the STS rathole

  • sippin_bourbon

    I will paraphrase a lot here, but in Buzz Aldrin’s book (Mission to Mars, I think), he points out the obvious that our Space Program will always suffer at the hands of politics. That if a Program cannot be completed in 4 or 8 years, the likely hood of its success is low.
    The issue of Congressional interference always looms. Look at what Proxmire and Mondale did to the programs.

    That reason alone is why I am a huge proponent of NASA’s role as a customer to commercial programs.
    There are others reasons too but being at the mercy of politicians is the reason why we are still waiting to go back to the moon, get to Mars, and other parts of the inner solar system.

  • Gary

    This kind of mismanagement raises the chances that if the probe ever gets to Europa it will have equipment failures from cutting corners that will limit the science.

  • M Puckett

    When you only fly to a planetary body every twenty years, the incentive is to pack it to the gills.

    I had a recent email exchange with a famous planetary scientist that devolved into shock and pearl clutching.

    I sent this individual a link to a story on Musk wanting to launch megatons of payload on an annual basis in ten years, on the possibility of a Starkicker upper stage sending hundreds of tons at a go to the outer planets, of probes being an assembly-line commodity not made of fragelium anymore. I asked this individual to envision what the possibilities would be freed from the limitations of the current paradigm and they had a seizure. This email exchange ended in condescension and an admonition to go ‘F’ myself. This soulless minion of orthodoxy couldn’t even have a civilized, adult discussion about the matter.

    This individual who had years ago hoped for an SLS to launch probes to the outer planets expressed horror that Musk would commit those resources toward space colonization.

    They were aghast at their monopoly being busted and their private playground becoming an everyman’s realm.

    The gatekeepers are starting to shift from denial to alarm.

    Beware Elon, if you read this, the planetary protection mafia are sighting-in their guns for you, they will not go into that long night without a fight. You represent a huge threat to the established order and the orcs are starting to stir…

    And most especially, beware any Ciclopsian hands extended your way, there is likely a knife in the other one.

  • Edward

    V-Man wrote: “In a sane world, space probes would be built assembly line-style on a standardized bus/sensor packages and would be launched by reusable boosters.

    It is a nice thought, but reusable boosters is a new concept and only one company has them, right now.

    As for assembly line production of space probes, that sounds nice when said fast, but when you slow down to think about it, each planet, moon, asteroid, or other object needs unique instrumentation and has other limitations.

    Pluto has a collapsing atmosphere that is the reason they sent a probe now, rather than a decade from now when the atmosphere is gone; it needs instruments to study that phenomenon under a very low light condition. Jupiter has a magnetic field that needs study. We want high resolution photographs from Mars orbit. Saturn has its own unique planets and a set of rings to study. Scientists want rovers on Mars, but not on Jupiter, and they want to return samples from asteroids, which works differently than returning samples from Mars. In addition, power sources for various destinations have to be different. Making a one-size-fits-all probe will not work for most of these differing missions. Too much mass would be wasted on low productivity instruments, and all that mass would require the largest rockets for not-so-distant destinations.

    Even on Mars there are different landers, rovers, and satellites used in order to search for different things. There has been some per-unit cost savings in the past by launching two Viking landers and later launching two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity (incorporating lessons from Pathfinder), but when each Mars 2020 rover costs so much, then only one is budgeted. Even the Mars 2020 rover is saving costs by using as much of the Curiosity rover design as possible.

    As for the use of the latest technology, someone has to fly the newest tech in order to prove that it is ready for prime-time use in space. Otherwise we would still be flying 1960s era technology and getting more data that we already have from the 1960s.

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