NASA tells us that “Curiosity”, the new Mars mission, is A-OK and ready to go! Oh, and by the way, the much-touted rock sampler will probably be contaminating its samples with Teflon. This will register as carbon when the rock is analyzed – and the rover will be looking for carbon. How much of it will be from the sample, vs. the rover itself? NASA won’t be able to tell. Not to worry! NASA has workarounds – for example, they could just, y’know, not use the drill and roll over the rocks, crushing them beneath the wheels! Yeah, that’ll work!
OK, maybe they’ll be able to mitigate the problem, but what ticks me off is that it was entirely avoidable; an “unforced error” in baseball parlance. Space science is hard, no doubt about it, but this problem had nothing to do with long-duration operation in an extreme environment, or the hazards of the unknowns. I’m OK with those kinds of problems; they literally come with the territory. In this case they’re doing what – they’re banging a hammer on a rock. The hammer has Teflon seals. Teflon is soft and squishy, and might get on the rock. Teflon is made of 2/3’rds carbon, one of the elements for which they’re looking. Nobody noticed until now.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a problem inherent in the difficulty of “rocket science”. If nothing else this is a testing issue; but NASA will often skip tests and double-checks in order to shunt that money towards more science – or cost overruns. If they do their job right the first time it won’t make a difference, but if they don’t then – well, they say, “Oopsie, not to worry, we’ll figure it out and still do a lot of science!”
I don’t know if private industry would do so much better or cheaper than NASA. NASA, after all, relies on private industry to do a lot of their grunt work. Private industry doesn’t have much of an interest in finding life on Mars (nor does NASA , “officially” at least); there isn’t much of a market for it versus space tourism or supply runs to the space station. Still, NASA hasn’t covered themselves in glory in this instance, and it’s one of many, so I’d like to see if hungry competition might create better results.