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Saturday, October 6, 2007

Mars Science Laboratory: Tough Love, Mad Scientists

Not all mad scientists are evil or villains. Some are protagonists (or at least positive forces), such as Dexter in the animated series Dexter's Laboratory. Occasionaly there are self parodies of mad scientists making fun of the steriotype

The nuclear-powered Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) has escalated in cost. It's now an outlay of loot hovering at $1.7 billion.

NASA senior Mars management has directed the project to - among a suite of actions - expend no additional funds on a remote-sensing laser instrument called ChemCam, take off a descent imaging camera, and cost-cap a couple of other instruments at their current budgets.

The MSL "required some focused and prudent reductions in scope in order to better ensure project success," according to a NASA statement on the large Mars rover project.

From higher-ups at NASA Headquarters, the marching order is for the MSL project team to dig into their collective science and engineering pockets and cover the $75 million cost overrun to "clean up the mess" so as not to "slaughter the innocent," I've been advised.

Translation, and in tough love language: MSL gets no more money from NASA Headquarters.

Those actions have incensed some Mars scientists, particularly the implementation of measures so late in the launch game of the one-of-a-kind MSL - headed for liftoff in 2009.

"It's especially fMars, Science ,Laboratory:, Tough ,Love, Mad ,Scientistsrustrating to see such far-reaching cuts to the scientific payload made so late in the development process," notes Jim Bell, a space scientist and Mars exploration expert at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

"Many of the instruments that are being cut back or removed are nearly complete. NASA's planned cuts have a 'penny wise, pound foolish' feel to them, which is extremely frustrating and surprising," Bell told me.

Bell said that NASA officials discuss the MSL hits as relatively minor cuts that will only have small effects on science, but "the reality is that these proposed cuts will have a large and negative influence on Martian science and on the rover's ability to achieve mission success."

Bell added that "it's a sad situation that the next Mars rover appears to be getting cut back towards having less scientific capability than a single MER (Mars Exploration Rover - Spirit or Opportunity), but still at four times the price!"

Some scientists angrily point to a new add-on to the MSL - a sample cache device now being designed to be placed on the rover. That gear is being touted as a way to kick-start a larger effort to collect bits and pieces of Mars for return back to Earth by robotic means.

Cash for the cache hardware for MSL comes from a different pot of NASA money, not from the robotic Mars program. That device is under development at NASA Ames Research Center. Basically, it's a single chamber container with open mesh sides so that dust can fall out.

Initially, the add-on gear was priced at some $2 million, but sources now tell me that its cost has dropped substantially - down to roughly $1 million.

Bottom line to all of this - MSL now means Money, Sanity, and Leftovers. But stay tuned.


A mad scientist is generally a stock character of popular fiction, more specifically Science Fiction, either villainous, benign or neutral. Whether insane, eccentric, or simply bumbling, mad scientists are often working with fictional technology in order to forward their schemes. Alternatively, they fail to see the evil that will ensue from the hubris of "playing god". Not all mad scientists are evil or villains. Some are protagonists (or at least positive forces), such as Dexter in the animated series Dexter's Laboratory. Occasionaly there are self parodies of mad scientists making fun of the steriotype.

Though the archetypes often overlap, a mad scientist need not be an evil genius. A mad scientist is simply a scientist who has become obsessively involved with their studies and has begun to develop eccentricities by normal standards; an evil genius is a genius who uses their gift for explicitly, consciously evil purposes. For example, while a mad scientist would test the bounds of science to create an army of zombies, he may do it to see if - or prove that - he could, or out of boredom, to impress women, to help clean up his house, or many other such reasons. By contrast, an evil genius would construct his army with a purpose, such as taking over the world - in addition to being evil, such characters tend to have large-scale ambition (see Megalomania in fiction). A mad scientist may be a naive pawn of an evil genius, the evil genius often promising the scientist the funds and resources to conduct his research. Mad scientists also, whilst definitely being intelligent, usually fail to think things through to their conclusion while an evil genius is usually a clever planner and would have a diabolical use for the army of zombies as well as a plan to avoid being killed by them.

Occasionally a Mad Scientist may be an Evil Genius, using their creations for evil reasons. To quote one movie, the president asks "Why did we hire this insane homicidal maniac to develop our weapon system?" A general replies, "Because sane people don't create multibillion dollar death satellites capable of destroying entire countries."

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