GAO: Mars 2020 Mission on Track But Faces Technical, Schedule Problems

Artist’s concept of the Mars Science Laboratory entry into the Martian atmosphere. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is facing a number of technical challenges, but space agency officials say it is on track for launch two years from now, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

“In commenting on a draft of this assessment, Mars 2020 project officials stated the project matured all its new technologies to the appropriate level by critical design review,” the report stated. “Further, officials stated the project had backup technologies but none were required. Officials also stated the project has accommodated schedule delays within available schedule reserves and continues to maintain robust schedule reserve along the critical path.”

GAO identified the rover’s Sampling and Caching System (SCS) as experiencing technical and schedule challenges.

“All of the technologies for the Mars 2020 project were not mature until after the program’s critical design review,” the assessment stated. “Further, the project is concerned late hardware deliveries and unfavorable sample contamination test results might cause the Sampling and Caching System (SCS) — the project’s most challenging development that will collect and cache Martian soil and rock samples — to be delivered late to integration and test.

“Additionally, the project experienced technical issues with multiple components within an instrument that will search for organics and minerals that have been altered by water, which have negatively affected the instrument’s cost and schedule,” the report added.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is also conducting a series of tests to determine whether the mission can fly with parachutes utilized on previous martian missions.

“Officials said the project successfully tested its heritage design at supersonic speeds in October 2017, which reduces the risk that a new parachute design will be necessary,” the GAO reported. “However, if future tests do not successfully demonstrate that either the heritage or redesigned parachute inflate as intended, the project may have to conduct additional development and tests, which could consume all of Mars 2020’s available schedule reserve.”

The Mars 2020 program also has experience workforce shortages in several key areas. However, JPL officials say they have largely met the program’s personnel needs by prioritizing the mission.

The GAO’s assessment of the Mars 2020 program is below.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Government Accountability Office
May 1, 2018
Full Report

Mars 2020

Mars 2020 is part of the Mars Exploration Program, which seeks to further understand whether Mars was, is, or can be a habitable planet. Its rover and science instruments will explore Mars and conduct geological assessments, search for signs of ancient life, determine potential environmental habitability, and prepare soil and rock samples for potential future return to Earth. The rover will include a technology demonstration instrument designed to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Mars 2020 is based heavily on the Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012 and remains in operation.

Project Summary

The Mars 2020 project has encountered cost growth and schedule delays due to technical and design challenges for some components and subsystems — including a new and highly complex development — but these delays have not affected the project’s overall schedule.

The project did not mature all of its technologies until after the project’s critical design review, which is later than recommended by best practices. Further, the project’s new and complex developments continue to face technical challenges that could affect cost and schedule. Additionally, the project had an unstable design at its critical design review, with 72 percent of its drawings released. This is lower than recommended by best practices and new and highly complex developments were not stable at the time of the design review.

The project is working toward system integration review in February 2018, but the project is tracking several risks that may affect schedule. For example, the new Sampling and Caching System (SCS) that will collect and cache Martian soil and rock samples is facing technical and schedule challenges.

Cost and Schedule Status

Credit: GAO

The Mars 2020 project continues to meet its schedule baseline, but is not meeting the cost baseline established at its confirmation review in June 2016. The project experienced $14.7 million in cost growth due to technical challenges with a technology demonstration instrument and higher than expected integration costs for an entry, descent, and landing instrument.

In addition, the project has also experienced schedule delays for some of its new developments, but these delays have not affected the project’s overall schedule. For example, the project delayed its system integration review by about 3 months to February 2018 to allow for more time to build new development hardware, which were behind schedule due to technical and design challenges.

Credit: GAO

Even with this delay, project officials said they are confident in the schedule established at the confirmation review because the project is holding schedule reserves at about two times the level required by Jet Propulsion Laboratory policy. In addition, the project allocated a significant portion of cost reserves to the new development items. The project is not holding cost reserves at the level required by Jet Propulsion Laboratory policy, but expects to be meeting the policy once the project receives additional funds in February 2018.

Technology

The Mars 2020 project matured its technologies later than recommended by best practices and several new and highly complex developments continue to face significant technical challenges that could affect cost and schedule. Best practices recommend maturing technologies to a technology readiness level 6 by the project’s preliminary design review to help minimize risks for space systems entering product development.

However, all of the technologies for the Mars 2020 project were not mature until after the program’s critical design review. Further, the project is concerned late hardware deliveries and unfavorable sample contamination test results might cause the Sampling and Caching System (SCS) — the project’s most challenging development that will collect and cache Martian soil and rock samples — to be delivered late to integration and test.

Additionally, the project experienced technical issues with multiple components within an instrument that will search for organics and minerals that have been altered by water, which have negatively affected the instrument’s cost and schedule. To mitigate these challenges, the project allocated additional reserves and brought on additional expertise. Further, the project is utilizing existing SCS development models rather than build new ones to reduce cost and schedule risk.

Design

The Mars 2020 project held its critical design review before it had a stable design, which increases the project’s risk of cost growth and schedule delays during the integration and test phase. At this review, the project released about 72 percent of design drawings, which is less than the best practice of releasing 90 percent of design drawings at this review.

Project officials stated that they held the design review earlier than normal to avoid delaying progress on the development of heritage technologies, which make up a large percentage of the rover. As a result of holding the review early, new and highly complex developments, such as the SCS, were not stable at the time of the design review. The unstable design contributed to delays in fabricating parts for the SCS engineering unit. As a result, the project reduced the number of engineering models it will build to help meet schedule.

The project has a series of parachute tests underway to determine whether it can fly with its heritage parachute or needs to use a strengthened parachute. These tests are to help mitigate risks related, in part, to supersonic test failures observed on an unrelated project. Officials said the project successfully tested its heritage design at supersonic speeds in October 2017, which reduces the risk that a new parachute design will be necessary. However, if future tests do not successfully demonstrate that either the heritage or redesigned parachute inflate as intended, the project may have to conduct additional development and tests, which could consume all of Mars 2020’s available schedule reserve.

Other Issues to Be Monitored

The Mars 2020 project has experienced workforce shortages in several key areas, but, according to officials, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has largely been able to meet the project’s needs because it prioritized staffing for the Mars 2020 project. Other Jet Propulsion Laboratory projects have experienced workforce issues as well, which NASA attributes to the amount of work the laboratory is managing.

Project Office Comments

In commenting on a draft of this assessment, Mars 2020 project officials stated the project matured all its new technologies to the appropriate level by critical design review. Further, officials stated the project had backup technologies but none were required. Officials also stated the project has accommodated schedule delays within available schedule reserves and continues to maintain robust schedule reserve along the critical path. Project officials also provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate.