The Mars Sample Return Mission is Starting to Look Expensive

We say it all the time here at UT – getting to space is hard. It’s even more hard to do new and interesting things in space. And when projects get hard, that usually means they cost more money. That is certainly the case for one of the most anticipated missions on NASA’s current docket – the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission. And it’s not looking like it’s going to get any easier anytime soon.

A recent report from Casey Dreier, the Planetary Society’s Chief of Space Policy, looks at some of the challenges the mission faces. Arguably, the mission itself has already started, with Perseverance busily capturing, analyzing, and then dropping off samples to be returned to the laboratories on Earth. But three other main mission components still need to be completed for those samples ever to see the light of day (or the light of a sealed laboratory chamber) on Earth.

NASA is responsible for two of those components – the Sample Return Lander (SLR) and the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). Each is appropriately named, as the SLR is designed to land, collect the samples that Perseverance has been collecting, and then return them to the MAV. The MAV is responsible for getting those samples back up to orbit and out of Mars’ gravity well.

UT video describing the MSR in detail.

That’s where the third yet-to-be-designed component comes in – the Earth Return Orbiter. ESA is responsible for its overall design, though NASA will help provide some components to it. It will be responsible for rendezvousing with the MAV and getting the samples it contains back to Earth.

Part of the project’s struggles is that almost none of the stages have reached a file design yet. The SLR alone has gone from having another rover to now containing two helicopters to pick up samples, possibly thanks to the stunning success of the Ingenuity helicopter that accompanied Perseverance. But, as any engineer will tell you, design iterations cost money. And more money is hard to come by in a government project.

So much so that NASA recently convened a second independent review board for the project – a step it has never taken for a mission before. That independent review board can approve, limit, or even cancel the entire project. Part of its decision will be based on nuances of NASA’s budget.

Part of NASA’s budget goes to education content and outreach – here’s the product of some of that spending – an articles of how the MSR will actually work.
Credit – NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory YouTube Channel

The space agency itself is experiencing a bit of a budget crisis. Political exigencies, specifically some around spending, as Congress effectively capped discretionary spending (which includes NASA) as part of the negotiation to avoid a debt default a few weeks ago. Increasing inflation and supply chain snarl-ups are sure to create a recipe for disaster with a diminishing administration budget trying to support a ballooning project budget.

Even more budgetary woes come from the Decadal Survey for Planetary Science. While the Decadal “unequivocally” supported the MSR as the highest priority mission that NASA should work on, it suggested limiting the project’s budget to no more than 35% of the Planetary Science Division’s budget. Typically lawmakers accept the suggestions of the Decadal survey without asking any questions. And with the expected budget constraints, MSR is already reaching dangerously close to that 35% threshold over the next few years.

In the worst case, the project ends up like VERITAS, which has been indefinitely suspended, and the resources working on it are assigned to other projects. The independent review board does have the power to suggest such an outcome. However, they are being tight-lipped about what their expected suggestion is so far. Mars enthusiasts must wait until late summer / early fall to read about their recommendation. 

Fraser even had a debate with Tim Dodds about what the best use of NASA’s budget was. Who won?
Credit – Everyday Astronaut YouTube Channel

In the meantime, as the Planetary Society report points out, Perseverance is diligently continuing to collect samples, no matter the travails its compatriots might be going through. It remains a shining example of how effective planetary science missions can be when they’re done right.

Learn More:
Planetary Society – What’s going on with Mars Sample Return?
UT – We Can Only Bring 30 Samples of Mars Back to Earth. How Do We Decide?
UT – Samples Returned From Mars Will be Protected by a Micrometeorite Shield
UT – The Mars Sample Return Mission Will Take Two Helicopters to the Red Planet to Help Retrieve Samples

Lead Image:
Artist’s rendering of the Mars Sample Return mission.
Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech

One Reply to “The Mars Sample Return Mission is Starting to Look Expensive”

  1. It would be unfortunate if US reneges on yet another scientific collaboration agreement. As Ars puts it, there is political motivation: “However, Byrne said most planetary scientists think the mission has only a very low chance of actually finding definitive evidence of life. And if the sample return mission does not, he said, the general public is likely to ask why NASA spent $10 billion to study the geological history of Mars.” Eventually ESA will start asking why it is the only grownup in the room and demand legally binding contracts (if these are possible between such agencies!?) with enough penalty that these things don’t happen so easily as they historically have.

    One option is to unload the incapable JPL from designing a 7 meter (!) diameter lander by having a competition for the design contract. ““Why are we not putting out a call and having an industry competition for people like Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines, and whoever else?” one NASA source asked. “They’re already building landers. Why can’t we ask them what they could do? JPL hasn’t even asked. We should be using a commercial, milestone-based approach.” Zurbuchen said that NASA’s current administration should be seriously considering this alternative if the Mars Sample Return mission is to continue. “If I were in charge, I would develop a commercial option for the lander and seriously consider taking it away from JPL,” he said. “Recall, this would be the first stationary lander done out of JPL. All others were built by Lockheed and that was before new capabilities by SpaceX and others.””

    Another is to risk ditching the glitzy backup options. “But most likely Perseverance will be plenty healthy a decade from now, and adding two helicopters is akin to gold-plating the sample return mission while starving other missions like Veritas.”

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