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Inspector General: Mars Sample Return mission in big trouble

The present plan for Mars Sample Return

Though the audit published today [pdf] by NASA’s inspector general of the NASA/ESA Mars Sample Return mission partnership tries to couch its language positively, the conclusion one reaches by reading the report is that the project is a mess and will almost certainly not fly when scheduled in 2029, and might even get delayed so much that the Perseverance rover on Mars — an essential component of the mission plan — might no longer be operational at that time.

First the budget wildly out of control.

The trajectory of the MSR Program’s life-cycle cost estimate, which has grown from $2.5 to $3 billion in July 2020, to $6.2 billion at KDP-B in September 2022, to an unofficial estimate of $7.4 billion as of June 2023 raises questions about the affordability of the Program.

In addition, the audit noted that this is not the end, and that based on another independent review the budget could balloon to $8 to $11 billion before all is said and done. (I will predict that as presently designed, that budget will likely reach $15 billion.)

Second, the mission is not only overally complex, requiring 1) a European-built Mars orbiter that also includes a return capsule, 2) a NASA lander, 3) two helicopters, and 4) a NASA ascent vehicle, it requires what the audit counts at least nine “first-of-a-kind” major tasks to work. These include the first ever launch from another world, the first rendezvous and docking in Mars orbit, the first robotic transfer of the samples from one spacecraft to another (without contaminating them), and both the largest lander and orbiters ever sent to another planet.

Third, this complexity has been underlined by the lack of stable design in the project as well as some major coordination and communication issues with NASA’s European Space Agency partners.

Fourth, these problems have raised questions in Congress, which has shown reluctance to fund the project as NASA has requested, adding further uncertainty to the project.

Despite all these issues, the audit’s recommendations are mostly bureaucratic in nature, suggesting essentially that management “work harder” in solving these problems.

Though it likely wasn’t the responsibility of the inspector general to offer any technical solutions, it is still amazing that no where in the report is the option of Starship or Superheavy mentioned, even though audit includes a section noting that Europe’s Ariane-6 rocket does not appear powerful enough to launch Europe’s orbiter and sample return capsule.

Don’t expect this report to force any real rethinking in Washington however. Instead, expect this report to be used as proof that more money is needed, and needed now. The project wil grow, and grow, and grow. And I still think it likely that Starship will arrive first, on its own, for a tenth the cost.

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  • Jason Lewis

    I would have made an example of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). It would have been a shame to cancel JWST, but we would have been much better off in the long run. The message would have been: “You’ll get cancelled if you can’t manage your budget,” and the company’s and CEO’s reputations would have suffered much more. The JWST actually taught them that you can be 20x over budget ($500M to $10B) and you’ll be rewarded for being late and over budget. SLS is a similar story

  • James Street

    More money is no problem. We got tons.*

    “America’s GDP “Grew” by $334 Billion in Q4 and All It Cost Was an Additional $834 Billion in Debt!”
    “But where did this growth come from? Why debt of course, and a lot of it.”
    “In other words, it cost $834.2 billion in debt during Q3 to grow the US economy by $334.5 billion, or exactly $2.50 in debt for every $1 in GDP ‘growth.'”

    * I’m not sure if the best analogy is “printing money”, “writing bad checks”, “dine & dash”, “stealing from your kids piggy bank”…

  • Col Beausabre

    Rube Goldberg and Heath Robinson, call your offices.

    As I think everyone knows, I am a retired Army officer. As a cadet, I learned that the US military recognizes nine Principles of War – one of which is SIMPLICITY. If teenagers can be taught its value, why wasn’t the management of NASA?

    ” Instead, expect this report to be used as proof that more money is needed, and needed now. The project wil grow, and grow, and grow. ”

    See “The Mythical Man-Month”

    “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering is a book on software engineering and project management by Fred Brooks first published in 1975, with subsequent editions in 1982 and 1995. Its central theme is that adding manpower to a software project that is behind schedule delays it even longer. This idea is known as Brooks’s law and is presented along with the second-system effect and advocacy of prototyping.

    Brooks’s observations are based on his experiences at IBM while managing the development of OS/360. He had added more programmers to a project falling behind schedule, a decision that he would later conclude had, counter-intuitively, delayed the project even further. He also made the mistake of asserting that one project—involved in writing an ALGOL compiler—would require six months, regardless of the number of workers involved (it required longer).”

  • pzatchok

    They could just offer someone 5 billion to bring back all they can for public sciences.

    In the end they would save billions in cash and millions of hours of manpower,

  • Edward

    From the report:

    To simplify the CCRS’s [Earth Return Orbiter’s Capture, Containment, and Return System] design, changes were made to its sample container sterilization system; however, the new system’s effectiveness must be studied, and the technology matured, before it can be used in space.

    Getting the technologies to mature was a major reason why JWST cost so much and slipped its schedule so badly. Since they are still studying the MSR CCRS system’s effectiveness, there is yet another red flag going up.

    These schedule and design issues, adding about $200 million to the budget and resulting in one year of lost schedule, can be attributed in part to inadequate guidance during the Pre-Formulation Phase, a problem experienced by several NASA large flagship missions. NASA completed a Large Mission Study in October 2020 that noted while large missions require greater priority, resources, and attention during pre-formulation when key architecture decisions are made, little guidance exists to guide activities during this period. NASA has yet to incorporate the study’s results into its practices for these missions.

    NASA’s Office of Inspector General is telling us that NASA knows there is a systemic management problem and knows a solution but has not implemented the solution in three and a half years. I think we can conclude that NASA’s management is not interested in that solution, or else it is not interested in solving this basic, fundamental, early-stage problem. This problem is adversely affecting several major projects. NASA knows how to do better but does not. This is a management problem. A problem that is costing major projects huge amounts of money and schedule time, and the added costs reduce the amount of other science that NASA can get done.

    If Congress is to set an example of any major project, Mars Sample Return is the most likely one. It is hardly started and it is already a huge mess. I had hoped that the Roman telescope would be the one, because it is also a mess and a mess from early on, but there has already been bad money spent on it, so Congress is likely to send more good money after that bad money spent on Roman. If they stop spending money on Roman now, then the money that they already spent will have been spent for nothing. The sunk cost fallacy.

    On the other hand, Congress spends huge amounts of money on nothing — literally — when they pay people to not work. Since they are willing to spend trillions of dollars keeping people out of the workplace and getting nothing for all that money, then they are even more likely to spend billions of dollars getting a little science. It employs the kinds of people that they want employed, and it keeps those workers from putting their efforts on other things, like commercial products that people are willing to buy.

    With the majority of taxpayer money already being completely wasted on counterproductive items, I don’t think we are likely to see a NASA science project cancelled for being wasteful, at least not any time soon.

    The trajectory of the MSR Program’s life-cycle cost estimate, which has grown from $2.5 to $3 billion in July 2020, to $6.2 billion at KDP-B in September 2022, to an unofficial estimate of $7.4 billion as of June 2023 raises questions about the affordability of the Program.

    Some people have argued in favor of robotic exploration rather than manned exploration of the Moon, Mars, and the rest of the solar system, claiming that the cost of sending robotic probes is less than the cost of sending humans. However, it seems that this particular sample return mission is more costly than the proposed Starship missions to Mars and back. MSR is already going to cost more than $7 billion in order to return a few grams of samples of martian soil and rock. Except for the development costs of Starship, SpaceX proposes to send manned missions to Mars for less than a tenth this cost, and each mission could send back hundreds or even thousands of kilograms of samples, not just grams. SpaceX plans hundreds of such expeditions, so amortizing the cost of development reduces that expense to a fraction of the cost of a single mission. Manned missions can perform many of the experiments and examinations that we would do on Earth, so less material would have to be sent back in order to get the same information from our explorations.

    In addition, humans can do more exploration faster and with far higher quality than our rovers have done over the past three decades.

    To add to the advantage of manned space exploration, it begins to look like humans could reach Mars before MSR will. With this much trouble at this early phase, MSR is likely to accumulate more problems as it proceeds, and it could make the JWST project look well run, inexpensive, and timely.

  • pzatchok

    A small group of humans on Mars would speed things up far faster than any robot could ever do.

    First off what if something breaks? Well humans could fix it right there.
    With a wagon train of supply ships going out to Mars to keep the humans happy and alive any new experiments could just be sent along and a the humans could do the new experiments right away. Well at least inside of 2 or 3 years shipping time.
    With scientists going to and from Mars constantly, or at least yearly, they could train and or practice the new experiments along the way.
    Plus they could send specialists along to build and maintain the facilities and let the scientists do their work without having to worry about fixing the plumbing.

    Sort of like that international research facility in Antarctica. It has grown quite big over the years.

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