The sample return mission to Mars is starting to look expensive

We always say it here at UT: Getting into space is hard. It’s even harder to do new and interesting things in space. And when projects get difficult, it usually means they cost more. This is certainly the case with one of the most anticipated missions on NASA’s current record: the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any easier anytime soon.

A recent report by Casey Dreier, Chief of Space Policy at the Planetary Society, looks at some of the challenges facing the mission. The mission itself has probably already begun, with Perseverance busy capturing, analyzing and then delivering samples to be returned to laboratories on Earth. But three other major components of the mission still need to be completed for those samples to ever see the light of day (or the light of a sealed lab chamber) on Earth.

NASA is responsible for two of these components: the Sample Return Lander (SLR) and the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). Each is appropriately named, as the SLR is designed to land, collect the samples Perseverance has collected, and then return them to the MAV. The MAV is responsible for getting those samples back into orbit and out of Mars’ gravity well.

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UT video detailing the MSR.

This is where the third yet-to-be-designed component comes into play: the Earth Return Orbiter. ESA is responsible for its overall design, although NASA will help supply it with some components. He will be responsible for the rendezvous with the MAV and for the transfer to Earth of the samples contained therein.

Part of the project’s difficulties is that almost none of the phases have yet reached a design. The SLR alone went from having another rover to now containing two helicopters to collect samples, perhaps thanks to the extraordinary success of the Ingenuity helicopter that accompanied Perseverance. But, as any engineer will tell you, design iterations cost money. And it’s hard to get more money into a government project.

So much so that NASA recently convened a second independent review committee for the project, a step it has never taken for a mission before. That independent review board can approve, limit or even cancel the entire project. Part of his decision will be based on the nuances of NASA’s budget.

Part of NASA’s budget goes to education content and outreach — here’s the product of part of that spending — an article about how MSR will actually work.
Credit – NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory YouTube channel

The space agency itself is having a bit of a budget crisis. Policy needs, especially some related to spending, as Congress effectively limited discretionary spending (which includes NASA) as part of negotiating to avoid a debt default a few weeks ago. Rising inflation and supply chain snags are sure to create a recipe for disaster with a dwindling administrative budget trying to support a rising project budget.

Even more budgetary issues come from the Decadal Survey for Planetary Science. While the Decadal has “unequivocally” supported the MSR as the highest priority mission NASA should work on, it has suggested limiting the project’s budget to no more than 35 percent of the Planetary Science Division’s budget. Lawmakers typically take Decadal poll suggestions without question. And with the expected budgetary constraints, the MSR is already perilously close to the 35% mark in the coming years.

In the worst case, the project ends up as VERITAS, which has been suspended indefinitely, and the resources working on it are assigned to other projects. The Independent Review Board has the power to suggest such an outcome. However, they’ve been blown away as to what their anticipated suggestion is so far. Mars aficionados need to wait until late summer/early fall to read their recommendation.

Fraser also had a debate with Tim Dodds about what was the best use of NASA’s budget. Who won?
Credit – Everyday Astronaut YouTube channel

Meanwhile, as the Planetary Society’s report points out, Perseverance dutifully continues to collect samples, no matter what travails its compatriots may face. It remains a shining example of how effective planetary science missions can be when done right.

Learn more:
Planetary Society – What’s Happening With Mars Sample Return?
UT – We can only bring back 30 Mars samples to Earth. How do we decide?
UT – Samples returned from Mars will be protected by a micrometeorite shield
UT – The sample return mission to Mars will bring two helicopters to the red planet to help recover samples

Main picture:
Artist’s impression of the Mars Sample Return mission.
Credit – NASA/JPL-Caltech

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