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Independent review: NASA’s Mars sample return mission is in big trouble

Perseverance's first set of core samples, placed on the floor of Jezero Crater
Perseverance’s first set of core samples,
placed on the floor of Jezero Crater

An independent review of NASA’s Mars sample return mission (MSR) to pick up the core samples being collected by the rover Perseverance has concluded that the project has serious fundamental problems that will likely cause it to be years late and billions over-budget, assuming it ever flies at all.

You can read the report here [pdf]. After thirteen pages touting the wonders and importance of the mission to get those samples back to Earth, the report finally gets to its main point:

However, MSR was established with unrealistic budget and schedule expectations from the beginning. MSR was also organized under an unwieldy structure. As a result, there is currently no credible, congruent technical, nor properly margined schedule, cost, and technical baseline that can be accomplished with the likely available funding.

Technical issues, risks, and performance-to-date indicate a near zero probability of [the European Mars orbiter intended to bring the sample back to Earth] or [the Earth sample facility] or [the Mars ascent vehicle] meeting the 2027/2028 Launch Readiness Dates (LRDs). Potential LRDs exist in 2030, given adequate funding and timely resolution of issues.

• The projected overall budget for MSR in the FY24 President’s Budget Request is not adequate to accomplish the current program of record.

• A 2030 LRD for both [the sample return lander] and [the Mars orbiter] is estimated to require ~$8.0-9.6B, with funding in excess of $1B per year to be required for three or more years starting in 2025.

Based on this report, a mission launch in 2030 is only “potentially” possible, but only wild-eyed dreamers would believe that. It also indicates that the budget for each component listed above requires several billion dollars, suggesting the total amount needed to achieve this mission could easily exceed in the $30 to $40 billion, far more than the initial proposed total budget for the U.S. of $3 billion.

None of this is really a surprise. Since 2022 I have been reporting the confused, haphazard, and ever changing design of the mission as well as its ballooning budgets. This report underlines the problems, and also suggests, if one reads between the lines, that the mission won’t happen, at least as presently designed.

The report does suggest NASA consider “alternate architectures in combination with later [launch readiness dates].” Can you guess what might be an alternate architecture? I can, and its called Starship. Unlike the proposed helicopters and ascent rocket and Mars Orbiter, all of which are only in their initial design phases, Starship is already doing flight tests (or would be if the government would get out of the way). It is designed with Mars in mind, and can be adapted relatively quickly for getting those Perservance core samples back.

Otherwise, expect nothing to happen for years, even decades. In February 2022 I predicted this mission would be delayed from five to ten years from its then proposed ’26 launch date. A more realistic prediction, based on this new report, is ten to twenty years, unless NASA takes drastic action, and the Biden administration stops blocking Starship testing.

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  • Ray Van Dune

    As mentioned before, instead of MSR, just let the first SpaceX astronauts bring the samples back in their carry-on luggage. Assuming TSA won’t insist on opening them, that is.

  • Michael

    There will never be a Mars sample return mission. I always felt the NASA would get their samples by having Elon stomp his boots on fly paper when he returns.

    Some of the samples that are being put by for return may end up in some museum in Mars City as a curiosity of early exploration efforts but that is about all.

  • GeorgeC

    JPL developed that great technique for landing a rover. Seems a shame to not use that with an automated lab, a kind of generic framework that can fit modules from dozens of other institutions. Buy whatever launch platform that works. No budget risk. Up the cadence to 1 a year. Use robot dogs to fetch the samples and/or helicopters.

    Thing is there are good earth spin offs to innovations in minaturizing and automating all sorts of diagnostic lab stuff. So the whole concept of sample return may be passe.

  • Jhon B

    I have not doubt that NASA can pull this off. They are great with their probes, landers and such. Most of the stuff they send into space works very well and they have been doing it right for years. What they won’t get right is the price. If they say 10 billion, it will cost 100 to 300 billion. They need to gut that organization and get it right. But politics as it is, they will probably give the job to Pete Buttigieg. If Washington changes hands next year and he is out a job. (This is the true part)

    But before you criticize a move like that, you have to remember, he was the secretary of transportation so he should know how to transport stuff. And the current admin has done a great job to keep the budget under control. But that might cause a delay, as they will need to set up charging stations between here and Mars so the new electric rocket can recharge. But let’s hope that regular rockets don’t ICE them out and block the charging outlets. (This is me getting angrier as I type)
    I’m done

  • It seems to me that commercial space is transitioning from the cradle to the unsteady first steps, but even at this tender stage, I would put more credit, and money, on a commercial Mars sample return mission. Sources give the original MSR at $4B, now ranging to $6B, and expected to go north of $8B. Even today, that is real money. I would wager large sums that commercial space could accomplish the objective at 10%, and not all solutions would be named ‘X’.

  • pzatchok

    Since NASA dropped them all over the place and left them unattended could they be recovered as scrap and sold back to NASA?

  • Edward

    pzatchok asked: Since NASA dropped them all over the place and left them unattended could they be recovered as scrap and sold back to NASA?

    Since NASA is prepared to spend $4 billion to retrieve them, it seems that someone who finds another way to retrieve them could get NASA to pay this much for them. It may be worth a Starship flight to the area, and it may pay for development of a manned rover to go around collecting them. The rover and others of the same design could then be used elsewhere on Mars for other purposes, such as exploration.

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