NASA's Mars Sample Return Program struggles to get off the drawing board

The tech just isn't ready and clunky collab with ESA isn't helping, auditor finds

NASA's Office of Inspector General, the agency's auditor, has found that the Mars Sample Return Program is struggling to get off the drawing board, never mind the launchpad.

The program (MSR) requires three craft:

  • An Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) that will fly to Mars, and eventually back to Earth;
  • A Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) that will land on Mars and collect samples prepared by the Perseverance Rover – no small chore as they're not in a neat pile – before transferring them to a …
  • … Mars Ascent Vehicle that will take the samples to the ERO, before it returns to Earth.

None of the three are anywhere near being built, because designs aren't close to being finalized.

And as the OIG found in an audit [PDF] of the program issued late last week, MSR "is facing significant obstacles completing its Formulation Phase – establishing a stable design with realistic cost and schedule estimates – in a timely and effective manner."

The Formulation Phase is running at least seven months late, mostly due to known process problems that NASA has experienced on other flagship missions.

Those issues and other problems have seen mission budgets blow out from initial estimates of $2.5 billion to $7.4 billion. The OIG thinks that "raises questions about the affordability of the program."

One aspect of the MSR that was hoped to make it easier is collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) – but that's not going well.

The OIG found the two agencies "are experiencing issues related to schedule transparency, asynchronous design progress, and mass allocation, which appear to stem from differing operational approaches, acquisition strategies, and agency funding mechanisms."

The issues outlined above will come into harsh relief this month, as NASA is on the cusp of a Key Decision Point (KDP-C) – a review at which it will consider whether to proceed from formulation to development of the MSR.

The OIG isn't sure NASA should take that step, because it's not certain the aerospace agency will reach KDP-C with an accurate budget.

Even if NASA can come up with a good estimate, the OIG fears MSR's budget could be so large that it impacts other NASA missions.

The auditor therefore recommends that "To maximize the potential for MSR's success while also minimizing the risk of negative impacts outside of the MSR program, it is vital that NASA review the program as a comprehensive plan including a variety of mission scenarios and incorporate stakeholder interests."

Elsewhere in the review, the OIG spells that out as a suggestion to develop "a set of potential launch scenarios by KDP-C, including life-cycle cost and schedule estimates and an associated Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level for each," so that NASA management can consider options other than the current MSR plan.

"Only with a stable design and reliable cost and schedule estimates can NASA evaluate MSR and commit to a realistic path forward for this program with a full understanding of the potential requirements and consequences of its decision at KDP-C," the audit concludes.

NASA management largely concurred with the OIG's recommendations. With KDP-C scheduled for March 2024, it may therefore not be long before NASA's plans to retrieve rocks from Mars change … or are even scrubbed.

The latter would not stop Perseverance collecting samples. The rover has already collected 23 of 38 samples – and while they are scattered across a small patch of the Martian surface, they likely won't go anywhere in a hurry. ®

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