The findings from an independent review board suggest that NASA’s quest to return samples from Mars is riddled with challenges and seemingly impossible to accomplish under the current cost and schedule expectations.
NASA released the final report on Thursday and announced that it has set up its own team to review the Mars Sample Return (MSR) report and make a recommendation regarding a path forward for the mission by the second quarter of 2024. In the meantime, the space agency has paused its plans to confirm the official mission cost and schedule.
The report refers to the mission as a “highly constrained and challenging campaign,” with “unrealistic budget and schedule expectations from the beginning.”
Mars Sample Return is one of the most complex missions the space agency has ever attempted, it involves a fleet of spacecraft, including an orbiter, lander, two helicopters, and a rocket, that will be assembled and sent to the Red Planet by 2028. The report, however, states that there is a “a near zero probability” that the lander and orbiter would be ready for launch in 2028. Instead, the review board suggests aiming for launch readiness in 2030 instead.
NASA has been struggling with managing the budgeting and scheduling of its Mars Sample Return mission. The space agency set up the independent review board in May “to evaluate the technical, cost, and schedule plans prior to confirmation of the mission’s design,” NASA wrote.
“Independent review boards like the one we commissioned for Mars Sample Return help review whether we’re on the right track to meet our mission goals within the appropriate budget,” Sandra Connelly, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for science, said in a statement.
The space agency still hasn’t declared an official cost estimate for its sample return mission. In 2020, NASA and ESA estimated that the mission would require at least $7 billion in total but there are concerns that it will go over budget. The new report suggests that the mission’s full lifecycle cost will likely range between $8 billion and $11 billion.
The mission received $822.3 million in the 2023 spending bill and NASA requested $949.3 million for Mars Sample Return in its budget proposal for 2024. In April, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson revealed that the Mars Sample Return mission needs an additional $250 million in the current fiscal year, plus another $250 million in 2024, in order to stay on track for launch in 2028.
In its proposed 2024 budget for NASA, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee directed the space agency to submit a year-by-year funding profile for MSR within the $5.3 billion lifecycle cost outlined in the 2022 planetary science Decadal Survey. If NASA is unable to do so, it could face mission cancellation, the subcommittee wrote in its report in July.
“Mars Sample Return is a very complex program and campaign with multiple parallel developments, interfaces, and complexities,” Orlando Figueroa, chair of the independent review board, said in a statement. “The development of this historic effort follows many decades of strategic investment.”
The independent review board did highlight the importance of Mars Sample Return as a strategic step within the space agency’s Mars exploration program, which aims to one day land humans on Mars. The rocky samples currently being collected by the Perseverance rover may hold clues as to whether Mars ever hosted some form of life, which would ultimately answer the question of whether life exists beyond Earth.
In fact, the report urges NASA to better communicate the significance of its sample return mission. “The societal, technological, and scientific significance of MSR makes it a mission of the highest importance in NASA’s long-term exploration strategy, and this is not being communicated consistently and clearly with the public and stakeholders,” the report reads. “A successful MSR campaign will revolutionize our understanding of the history of Mars, the Solar System, and the potential for life beyond Earth.”
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