Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON

NASA is braced for further criticism of its "faster, better, cheaper" approach, with release of an independent review of recent Mars mission failures due this week. In response to the expected criticism, administrator Daniel Goldin has warned that "NASA will not change course."

The Mars Programme Independent Assessment Team, led by former Lockheed Martin executive Tom Young, is expected to amplify criticism of NASA's programme management contained in recent reports on the September loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter and on NASA's approach to its implementation of the "faster, better, cheaper" philosophy.

The Young committee was formed to investigate the December loss of the Mars Polar Lander, and to examine NASA's Mars programme. Its study is expected to be as far-reaching as the Rogers Commission findings after the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger accident.

The report is expected to trace the most likely cause of the Mars Polar Lander loss to microswitches on the landing legs, intended to shut off the hydrazine thrusters on touchdown. Analysis reveals that deployment of the legs could trigger the switches, causing thrusters to shut down in mid-descent.

NASA has denied press reports that it covered up prior knowledge of another design flaw. It says it publicly acknowledged that cooling of the hydrazine propellant during the flight to Mars could prevent the thrusters igniting. NASA says it changed procedures to warm the fuel before the lander was released.

The Young report's conclusions on "faster, better, cheaper" are likely to be more important to NASA. As a result of the previous reports, Goldin has initiated changes, "to remove the emphasis upon schedule", arguing that delays "are not a measure of failure". The agency is improving training for programme managers and introducing new system engineering tools.

Further trouble is waiting in the wings in the shape of the delayed report on the test failure of the composite tank for the Lockheed Martin X-33 reusable launch vehicle (RLV) technology demonstrator, now expected in April.

No new date has been set for the first flight of the X-33. NASA and Lockheed Martin are discussing the future of their partnership on the vehicle and the follow-on VentureStar single-stage-to-orbit RLV. The manufacturer wants NASA to bring forward funding to pay for work required to get the X-33 into the air.

Source: Flight International