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.

NASA: Europa Clipper’s cost rise; Mars sample return delayed

At a meeting this week NASA officials admitted that the cost of its Europa Clipper mission has risen by three quarters of a billion dollars, and that the sample return mission to bring back Perseverance’s core samples will be delayed, as well as now require two landers, not one.

NASA revealed significant changes to two of its flagship planetary science missions at today’s Space Science Week meeting at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The cost for Europa Clipper, which will gather data as it makes multiple swingbys of Jupiter’s moon Europa, has grown from $4.25 billion to $5 billion. Separately, NASA and ESA are replanning the Mars Sample Return mission. Two landers are needed instead of one to retrieve samples from the surface of Mars and boost them into orbit for their trip back to Earth. The launches will be in 2028 instead of 2026.

The sample return mission itself is also growing in complexity:

A Sample Fetch Rover will be sent to collect them and take them to a Mars Ascent Vehicle — a rocket — that will shoot them into Martian orbit where they will be transferred to an Earth Return Orbiter for the trip back to Earth.

Initially the plan was for the fetch rover and ascent vehicle to be launched together in 2026, and the Earth Return Orbiter in 2027. But Zurbuchen decided to convene an Independent Review Board in 2020 to get an impartial assessment of the plan by outside experts. The Board cautioned that 2026 was “not achieveable” with 2028 a more realistic date, and that the “program’s schedule and cost are not aligned with its scope.”

Consequently, NASA now has replanned the mission with two landers — one each for the fetch rover and ascent vehicle — instead of one. Both landers will launch in 2028. The Earth Return Orbiter will still launch in 2027. The samples will get back to Earth in 2033.

Prediction: The launch of this fleet of sample return spacecraft will be further delayed, and its overall cost will rise, by a lot. In fact, it is very possible that SpaceX’s Starship will have already returned samples from Mars before NASA’s mission gets off the ground.