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NASA “pauses” Mars Sample Return mission

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

Faced with a strong threat of major budget cuts from the Senate, NASA has decided to “pause” the Mars Sample Return mission (MSR) by ramping back some work to consider major changes to the project.

We brought Steve [Thibault] downtown to be the chief engineer in the Headquarters MSR program office … leading a team that consists of all the implementing centers and our European colleagues to stand back and take a look at the architecture with a fresh set of eyes and figure out not only just how to improve our technical margins and make the mission more robust, but also to see if there are ways to implement it in ways to potentially save costs. We’re also going off and listening to industry and seeing what ideas they have.

While the House had approved NASA’s budget request that exceeded $1 billion to complete the mission (more than double its original price tag), the Senate responded by only allocating one quarter of that, demanding NASA come up with a plan that would match its original budget number. This Senate pressure was enhanced by an independent review that harshly criticized the present design of the project, which involves three NASA centers, European participation, and multiple American companies, all building different components that must all interact perfectly.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • Tom

    “..listening to industry and seeing what ideas they have.” Industry will probably have people standing on Mars watching these robots puttering around just to haul back a miniscule amount of material for scientific study. When will the mindset at NASA change? Unfettered Industry is their path to success.

  • MDN

    I conjecture that if NASA had not forced SpaceX to abandon the Super Draco propulsive landing plan for the Dragon capsule (forcing them to uses parachutes instead) then we’d already have a perfectly suitable platform to build the Mars sample return mission around for free.

    SpaceX had already stated intentions to send some Dragon missions to Mars. And as they are designed to land with a substantial payload in a robust and stable hull that has all the power, comms, and avionics you’d need, it would have been pretty trivial to integrate a recovery drone, sample loading system, and return rocket stage into a Dragon based configuration compared to a From Scratch design. And in all likelihood such a mission could have been flying already for far less than even the original budget.

    MHO anyway.

  • Richard M

    It is amusing that the otherwise fiscally skinflint GOP-controlled House just opened up the money spigot for MSR, and it was the Democratic-controlled Senate that deployed the hammer. But the explanation seems to be porky in nature.

    Honestly, though, given the requirements for this mission, I don’t think that even the most aggressively commercial profile is going to get the cost down a whole lot. And then we will get to see which end of Congress is going to get its way.

  • Col Beausabre

    Ok, let’s think about the unthinkable (to quote Herman Kahn). Let’s get rid of NASA. What is the value of a Soviet style entity in space exploration? Sell off the facilities – the parts that make sense will be purchased. if there are no buyers, it shows what they are worth. Funding for research can come from the public. And yes it can work

    “The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation is the independent nonprofit technology transfer organization serving the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Morgridge Institute for Research. It provides significant research support, granting TENS OF MILLIONS (my emphasis) of dollars to the university each year and contributing to the university’s “margin of excellence”.”

    There is nothing to prevent organizations banding together in consortia to fund major projects.

    Some institutions can fund major projects by themself. Harvard is sitting on $41B, Yale $30B, Stanford $28B, Princeton, $26B, MIT $17B, Penn $15B, etc, etc. Consider the profits if Harvard’s $40B is making just average returns in the market…..

  • pzatchok

    The super Dracos are still used on the craft. They are the emergency escape system.

    To use them for landing on Mars would not require anything more than some Earth side testing and maybe a few adjustments.

  • Jerry Greenwood

    NASA’s plan should be to turn the entire project over to SpaceX and just let them run with it.

  • Questioner

    It seems possible that the US empire will be defeated by China when it comes to Mars samples!?

    Tianwen-3: China’s Mars sample return mission (present launch date target: 2031)

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