Save the Mars Sample Return mission, plead Congresscritters

Letter: Budget cuts will 'essentially cancel' daring multi vehicle project unless reversed

Members of the US Congress have signed a letter calling for a reversal of cuts made to the budget of NASA's Mars Sample Return (MSR.)

In the President's FY2024 Budget request [PDF], $949.3 million was requested for the project's 2024 needs, but just $300 million was proposed for the program in the Senate appropriations bill [PDF] for Commerce, Justice, and Science.

NASA has since directed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), responsible for leading the MSR mission, to operate as though the budget has been cut to $300 million, according to the letter [PDF].

Although $300 million is not to be sniffed at, the letter warns that cut would essentially cancel the mission. The House Appropriations Committee leadership is working on a compromise position, yet the letter warns: "If not reversed, this decision would ensure that JPL will not be able to meet the next launch window and will force a dramatic reduction of billions of dollars in contracts as well as the termination of hundreds of highly skilled employees."

MSR is a problem child, as far as NASA is concerned. The flagship mission is intended to retrieve samples collected by the Perseverance rover and return them to Earth for analysis. The hope was that the retrieval mission would be ready for launch by 2030, but a NASA-appointed Independent Review Board (IRB) scoffed at the idea. In its report, the IRB reckoned between $8 billion and $9.6 billion would be needed in total, with additional funding "in excess" of $1 billion per year starting in 2025.

Essentially, $300 million will not touch the sides.

NASA's decision to move forward with budget cuts had already resulted in a November 2023 letter [PDF] from several in the US Congress, addressed to the agency's administrator, Bill Nelson, declaring such action as premature. The signatories were "mystified by NASA's rash decision."

Things have moved on since then, and NASA – like the rest of the US federal government – is under a resolution that will keep funding at 2023 levels. MSR was budgeted at $822 million in FY2023, and while the request for FY2024 is $949.3 million, should the Senate appropriations bill for Commerce, Justice, and Science stand, the agency would soon run out of money if it spent even at the lower FY2023 levels.

The Senate bill also warned that if NASA did not bring the cost of MSR back to within the $5.3 billion already budgeted, the mission would face cancellation, and the majority of the $300 million funding would be tipped into the gaping maw of the Artemis Moon exploration program. ®

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