NASA's Mars Sample Return mission is in danger of never launching
Review board: Mega project is way over budget, needs cash, and senators want it axed
NASA is delaying some of the components of its ultra ambitious Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission after receiving a problem-filled report from an Independent Review Board.
The NASA-commissioned IRB reckons the mission is suffering from a number of problems, including an unrealistic budget and schedule from the start of the program, and offered 20 findings and 59 recommendations to NASA to fix before it can even consider trying to retrieve Martian rock samples lying in the Jezero Crater waiting for a lift back to Earth.
For starters, "there is currently no credible, congruent technical, nor properly margined schedule, cost and technical baseline that can be accomplished with the likely available funding," the IRB said in its report [PDF], which was delivered to NASA earlier this month but only published at the end of last week.
"Mars Sample Return is a very complex program and campaign with multiple parallel developments, interfaces, and complexities," said Orlando Figueroa, chair of the independent review board.
NASA's Perseverance rover has explored the Jezero Crater region of the Red Planet since landing there in 2021. As part of its mission, Perseverance is gathering tubes of rocks and dirt and leaving them behind at "depots" for eventual recovery by the MSR's eventual Sample Retriever Lander and Sample Fetch Rover.
To get the retrieval mission ready to launch by 2030, the IRB said around $8 billion to $9.6 billion would be needed, with additional funding "in excess" of $1 billion per year starting in 2025. That, of course, would require the MSR team to address "technical issues, risks and performance-to-date" that make launch readiness by 2030 dependent on "adequate funding and timely resolution" of their concerns – all 20 of them and the 59 recommendations the IRB made to address them.
In other words, getting some dirt from a passing asteroid is one thing, but it's a whole other challenge trying to get it from the surface of another planet.
Can MSR get back on track?
In response to the IBR report, NASA said it is forming a team to review and respond to the findings, and until then will "delay its plans to confirm the official mission cost and schedule."
NASA's review team, which is being directed by NASA deputy administrator for science Sandra Connelly, will have until NASA's second fiscal quarter of 2024, which ends on March 31, to return its report "regarding a path forward for Mars Sample Return."
"Independent review boards like the one we commissioned for Mars Sample Return help review whether we're on the right track to meet our mission goals within the appropriate budget," said Connelly.
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- Curiosity finds evidence of wet and dry seasons on ancient Mars
The IRB said in its report that NASA has an imperative to continue the MSR program, describing it as a "critical next step" in humanity's plans to explore Mars and could answer key questions like whether Mars harbored life, as well as test systems for ensuring "backward planetary protection" from extraterrestrial contaminates.
Whether MSR can survive this cost overrun and the congressional scrutiny it's sure to bring is another thing altogether. In July when the Senate Appropriations Committee published NASA's budget recommendations they made significant cuts to NASA's request, and singled MSR out for criticism.
MSR, the Committee said, had ballooned well beyond the original $5.3 billion allotment it received as part of the 2022 Planetary Science Decadal Survey, demanding that NASA bring its cost back down from the aforementioned $8 to $9 billion - plus the extra yearly cash needs of $1 billion - NASA believes it will cost at this point.
"The committee has significant concerns about the technical challenges facing MSR and potential further impacts on confirmed missions," the Senators wrote in their appropriations bill [PDF]. The penalty for noncompliance is steep, too: "If NASA is unable to provide the Committee with a MSR lifecycle cost profile within the [$5.3 billion] budget profile, NASA is directed to either provide options to de-scope or rework MSR or face mission cancellation." ®