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Surprise! The cost for the Mars Sample Return mission is ballooning!

According to NASA, the cost for the Mars Sample Return mission could possibly rise to as high as $8 to $9 billion, more than double the $3.8 billion to $4.4 billion estimated by a 2020 review.

NASA itself has recently become very silent about the project’s expected cost.

NASA officials have been careful not to give any estimates of costs for MSR in recent presentations, stating that it will wait until a formal confirmation review for the program, scheduled for the fall, before providing an official cost and schedule baseline. That will come after a series of preliminary design reviews and a review by a second independent board led by Orlando Figueroa, a former director of NASA’s Mars exploration program.

Those earlier numbers were never realistic, based on NASA’s recent track record. The cost of its big projects — Webb, SLS, Orion, Roman Telescope — always grows exponentially, once the project gets going.

This cost increase however is a serious political problem for NASA and this sample return mission, as the House is demanding major real cuts in the budgets of almost all federal agencies. While I expect NASA to survive these cuts without great harm, a program that shows out-of-control budget growth might become a target by the House, which is likely why NASA scheduled its review of the sample return mission to occur in the fall, after the House approves its next budget. Better to announce bad news as late as possible.

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


  • David Reid Ross

    If there is to be any reform of NASA any budget beyond the skeletal must be tied to a reform of its accounting.
    JWST is barely worth it. SLS is not worth it. The Mars Sample Return mission is stupid.
    Same goes for the conjectured Saturn and Uranus missions honestly, at least until Princeton finishes that fusion drive.
    Our future in space should go around a lunar colony and the nearearth asteroids.

  • David Eastman

    And of course the elephant in the room of spending billions upon billions for an old school sample return, when Starship will almost certainly make it to Mars and back not long after. Even if you assume a ton of delays, I would bet SpaceX has samples back in far less than 20 years.

  • Gary H

    Nobody said that the first Starship to Mars must have a human crew. With Musk’s willingness to progress in leaps, it seems that the money would be better spent supporting a robotic Starship to Mars.

  • Col Beausabre

    It’s called low balling the estimate. Commonly used by crooks and shady operations

  • john hare

    I liken these missions to a 12 year old planning a road trip. Involves lots of roadblocks, planning, and persuasion to get anything done at all. But wait 7 or 8 years and it is a spontaneous thing that can go long distances at a whim.

    MSR now involves roadblocks, planning and persuasion that may be quant and unnecessary in a few years when(if) Starship, Neutron, Vulcan, New Glenn, Arianne 7, and more are competing for payloads. A hundred tons IMLEO for under $100M renders much of the concept much simpler. Higher mass can mean much lower cost.

  • pzatchok

    I will do it for a cheap 4 billion.

    They just have to wait for Musk to let me buy a seat on his manned Mars mission.

  • Edward

    Col Beausabre wrote: “It’s called low balling the estimate. Commonly used by crooks and shady operations

    It is also used by military and NASA contractors to get the contract, then when the government makes a change the contractor gets to add the difference of the underbid into the cost to change the design.

    Ah. Strike out the word “also,” because that word would seem to imply that these contractors do not fall under Beausabre’s original categories.

    The article linked in Robert’s post says that the high cost estimate is for “one scenario,” which tells me that NASA may still be pondering different mission architectures (methods and techniques) and the different ones have different costs. As far as I can tell, JPL will be building the spacecraft and the rover, as they have done with Mars missions in the past. This means that the increase in costs is coming from NASA and ESA themselves, not outside crooks or shady operators.

    Do not strike through the word “outside,” because it implies what I want to imply.

    There will be at least one contractor, to built the return rocket. I don’t think that the rocket is the reason for the cost increase.

  • Edward: So there is no doubt, “crooks and shady operations” describes perfectly the administrative swamp and everyone associated with it in Washington.

  • GaryMike

    The Chinese use that fact to their own advantage.

    Crack pipe, anyone?

    A lot of us out here are silent. We’re not dumb. We’re not unaware. We’re waiting for the moments.

    I’m not any of them, mostly. I’m risk averse. Too old, anywise. But I’m willing to speak up so they don’t have to. Mine is a small part. The rest will be louder than you’ve ever planned for.

    I don’t know it as fact, but as a non-discountable Suspicion.

  • Doubting Thomas

    NASA sites make it very difficult to find the weight of Martian samples being returned but finally found an undated paper from NASA Langley Research Center which said that the payload weight for a mission that was to launch in 2020 was 0.5 kilograms. So that’s $16 Billion a kilogram or $16 million a gram!!

    Cheaper to pay SpaceX $500 million down and $1 Billion on delivery for say 25 kilograms of Mars material with a delivery date specified for return NLT, say August 2029. That would let Musk launch a mission in November of 2026 to arrive July 2027 and launch for Earth October 2028 to arrive Earth side around July 2029. THAT would only be $600,000 per gram, a bargain!!!!

    Keep everything light enough and might (might) not need to refuel at Mars. Alternately be able to dump 70 tons on Mars and just used about 30 tons of solid fuel missile to loft the return sample mission.

  • Jeff Wright

    To David,

    Even with SLS costs—its lift capacity would allow a sample-return craft to be simpler and cheaper.

    SLS could have a wider hammerhead than even Falcon Heavy.

    Trying to fold things up a dozen different ways it what drives costs up.

  • Chris

    Why issue a contract for the mission at all? Instead issue a contract for the material – the Mars soil, rock ..etc. Make the contract with incentives for timeliness and mass – and number of sites collected for that matter. The winner gets paid when the verified material is delivered.

  • pzatchok

    Space X could send as many tanker ships to orbit or land on Mars that it wants years before any humans go.

    The Space X Starship is already built to land on Earth. Mars would be easier since its gravity is lower. Fuel could then be transferred from one Starship to another to make the return trip. Or it could be refueled in orbit.

  • Edward

    Crooks and shady operations, no doubt at all.
    Moving back to the Space News article:

    “Mars Sample Return costs are expected to increase beyond what is shown in the outyear profile in this budget,” the agency stated in its fiscal year 2024 budget request, which seeks $949.3 million for MSR. That budget proposal paused work on a heliophysics mission, the Geospace Dynamics Constellation, citing the “high budgetary requirements” of other missions like MSR.

    So even without slipped schedules and the associated cost increases, as happened with James Webb Space Telescope (and SLS, and cetera), Mars Sample Return is already adversely affecting other missions currently in progress. How many missions will never be started because of future MSR expenses? How much science will be lost all because someone wanted a few dozen tiny samples?

    We have been relying upon NASA to give us a lot of exploration of space at a reasonable price. The Space Shuttle was supposed to drastically reduce the cost of access to space while simultaneously dramatically increasing that access, not just for man but for materiel, such as satellites and deep space probes. The Shuttle failed to deliver the low cost. It failed to deliver the increased access. Not much exploration yet the price was high. The Space Station was supposed to provide a place to do a lot of science, but in the end it costs three times the amount that Congress had rejected, somewhere around 1990, and the science is less than half the amount originally promised.

    JWST cost twenty times as much as the original budget and took twice as long to launch. The science is nice, but it would have been so much palatable had it not cost so much and had it had ten more years of coordinated science with the Hubble Telescope.

    The Orion-SLS story is similar, costing far more and taking twice as long as originally projected. The Artemis mission to put a sustainable, continuously manned outpost on the Moon is also a pipe dream, as it costs as much per mission as Apollo (adjusted for inflation) but launches about 1/8th as often. Apollo couldn’t produce enough science per dollar for Congress’s liking, and Congress wasn’t impressed with the Apollo Application Program (APP), so why would we expect Artemis to satisfy Congress?

    Doubting Thomas’s cost analysis shows us that the science per dollar for the MSR project is likewise low. How much did it cost us to return samples from a couple of asteroids, and how much sample mass did we get for that cost? I’m too lazy to do the research, right now, so let’s just make that a rhetorical question. Returning samples must be much more valuable science than more than just remotely sensed science but insitu-analyzed science, too. My recollection is that Europe, the U.S., and Japan all returned some asteroid samples. The priority for returned samples must be high.

    “We have existing policies and processes in place” if the costs of MSR do grow, particularly after its confirmation review, [Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division] said. However, there may be few options other than accept the cost increase or cancel MSR entirely.

    With Perseverance’s samples already sitting on the surface of Mars, what is the likelihood that Congress would cancel an overpriced Mars Sample Return mission?

    The latest planetary science decadal survey endorsed MSR as a top priority among large missions, but recommended that NASA keep the cost of MSR to no more than 35% of the overall planetary science budget in any fiscal year.

    The latest planetary science decadal survey believes that the importance of returning two or three dozen samples of Mars’s soils and rocks is worth 1/3 of the next few year’s planetary budgets. Doubting Thomas is right that Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) can make a fortune bringing back samples of materials from around the solar system, easily making back the Starship development cost. At that rate of value, the Apollo Moon missions were well worth their cost. It is too bad that Congress cancelled them and most of the proposed APP projects. Think of how much further along we would be in space exploration today if Congress had been as curious then as they are today.

  • pawn

    With SpaceX taking over the launch business, this mission gives NASA something to do.

    They need to administer another giant chunk of money allocated by Congress.

    Hand it out to the most “deserving”.

    Saving money is not the point.

    NASA has a lot of mouths to feed.

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