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Concerns Growing Around Mars Sample Return Mission

MAY 02, 2023
With NASA’s cost estimates for the Mars Sample Return mission rising, criticism is building in the scientific community and among members of Congress that it is siphoning money from other projects.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture

NASA’s Perseverance rover leaves behind a sample tube on Mars that will await retrieval by a helicopter arriving with the future Mars Sample Return mission.

NASA’s Perseverance rover leaves behind a sample tube on Mars that will await retrieval by a helicopter arriving with the future Mars Sample Return mission. (Image credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU / MSSS)

Costs are rising for Mars Sample Return, a mission to retrieve rock and soil that the Perseverance rover is collecting in the former lakebed of Jezero Crater so that it can be analyzed in laboratories on Earth.

The samples should provide unprecedented insight into Mars’ geological history and could even reveal evidence of past life. But the price is steep: NASA is poised to spend well over $5 billion on MSR and the mission is starting to pull funding from other efforts.

While agency leaders are calling for unity in the face of such developments, some members of the science community have been asking probing questions about MSR, and some lawmakers are starting to voice discontent as well.

Cracks showing in support for MSR

Last year, NASA cited MSR’s funding needs in delaying its Near-Earth Object Surveyor telescope by two years and withdrawing from an international group planning a Mars orbiter mission. This year, NASA shifted the burden beyond its planetary science portfolio, holding off on planning for future flagship astrophysics telescopes and proposing to “pause” the Geospace Dynamics Constellation, a high-priority heliophysics mission.

NASA Science Mission Directorate head Nicky Fox acknowledged at an online “town hall” meeting in March that such decisions can be difficult. However, in the face of constrained budgets, she urged the audience to remain focused on the common good. “Remember that we are stronger when we work together as a community,” she said.

At a another town hall in April, a number of audience questions concerned MSR’s costs and the tradeoffs the agency is making within its science portfolio. Fox vehemently rejected the premise of one question that referred to a “hyper-competition” between NASA’s science divisions, saying, “There really is not any competition, never mind hyper-competition, … between the divisions. It’s extremely collaborative.”

Notwithstanding NASA’s point of view, MSR’s demands, alongside the postponement of the VERITAS Venus probe following a delay on the Psyche asteroid mission, have stoked a sense it is unfair to divert funding from apparently on-track missions to fund missions facing problems. And now, such criticisms are making their way to Congress.

At the hearing on NASA’s budget on April 18, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) asserted that, to fund MSR, NASA had cut 20% from what it should have requested for the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan, which is being developed at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in his state. He further suggested Dragonfly has a stronger management record than MSR, an argument Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) echoed at a House hearing the next day as he questioned whether MSR should take priority.

House Science Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) likewise flagged MSR’s cost growth at a hearing on April 27, linking it to the delays of NEO Surveyor, the Geospace Dynamics Constellation, and VERITAS. “If this trend continues, then NASA may have to make difficult decisions to postpone or cancel future missions. This is unacceptable and we must do better,” he remarked.

Funding and cost expectations have risen quickly

MSR is a multi-vehicle project that NASA is pursuing in partnership with the European Space Agency, and its emergence as a behemoth in NASA’s science mission portfolio has been sudden. As recently as 2020, it did not have a dedicated budget line.

That year, while MSR was still in its earliest planning stage, NASA convened an independent review board to obtain an outside perspective on it. Reporting back, the board concluded the agency was underestimating the mission’s requirements. It rejected the roughly $3 billion cost estimate NASA was tentatively using and recommended assuming about $4.4 billion for mission development, which excludes launch and operations. The board also called for a swift ramp up in funding to avoid costs related to deferred work and to assure the feasibility of MSR’s launch schedule.

Subsequently, NASA and Congress raised the mission’s annual budget from an initial $242 million in fiscal year 2021 to $822 million this year, cumulatively providing $1.7 billion to date. This unusually aggressive push received important backing last year, when the National Academies’ latest planetary science decadal survey ranked it the highest-priority project for NASA this decade and urged completing it “as rapidly as possible.”

However, estimating that MSR would have a full lifecycle cost of $5.3 billion, the survey also warned the mission could unbalance NASA’s planetary science portfolio. It recommended MSR claim no more than 35% of the portfolio budget in any given year and that its total cost not exceed the survey’s estimate by more than about 20%. Should either threshold be breached, the survey recommended NASA “work with the administration and Congress to secure a budget augmentation to ensure the success of this strategic mission.”

NASA acknowledges current cost estimates are unstable

Bill Nelson

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson testifies before Senate appropriators on April 18. (Image credit – Bill Ingalls / NASA)

It is clear that early cost estimates for MSR will prove too optimistic, though by how much remains uncertain. NASA has not released internal estimates, but its latest budget request presents a notional budget profile that supposes $5.2 billion in expenditures through MSR’s target launch date in 2028, and mission operations will continue through at least 2033. Moreover, the request notes the figures given for future years will likely rise.

MSR Program Director Jeff Gramling addressed swelling costs at the March town hall, pointing to unexpected difficulties with procuring components that must be contracted for well in advance. He remarked, “We’re seeing growth in long-lead times, which means we’re having to execute contracts earlier. We’re seeing differences coming back in cost beyond what we’ve experienced in the past or beyond what our in-house estimates suggest they should cost. And our supplier base is contracted. And of course on top of that there’s also inflation.”

Such pressures may be squeezing MSR’s near-term budgets as well as driving up its overall cost. NASA Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze said at a National Academies meeting in late March she is most focused on not breaching the decadal survey’s 35% threshold, noting she discusses it with Gramling “almost every day.”

For the moment, MSR is within that limit. NASA is seeking $950 million for the mission in fiscal year 2024, which is 28% of the requested planetary science budget. However, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recounted at the Senate budget hearing that on a recent visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is developing MSR, he was told it needs more money.

“They’re saying they want another $250 million in this year — meaning in this year, the existing 2023 — and 2024,” Nelson remarked.

Contacted by FYI, a NASA spokesperson refrained from clarifying whether Nelson meant JPL wanted $250 million above the request for fiscal year 2024, which begins Oct. 1, or a total of $500 million across fiscal years 2023 and 2024. The spokesperson said the cited amount was not “official,” but rather “illustrative of supply-chain challenges with this and other NASA major projects,” and that the agency’s 2024 request remains unchanged.

Pressed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), the Senate’s lead appropriator for NASA, on how MSR’s costs can be controlled, Nelson replied, “Some of those costs are not going to be avoided and we’re going to have to make choices.” He said, unless Congress allocates more funding on its own accord, his options include stretching the mission’s schedule and reallocating money from other science missions.

New review to provide updated evaluation of NASA plans

An illustration of the current vehicle architecture for the Mars Sample Return mission

An illustration of the current vehicle architecture for the Mars Sample Return mission. From left: one of two sample-retrieval helicopters, the Perseverance rover already on Mars, an ESA-built orbiter that will transport samples back to Earth, a lander, and an ascent vehicle. (Image credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech)

In the past, NASA officials have denied that cost growth on the agency’s most expensive missions threatens other activities, explaining the policy is to contain overruns by downscaling the missions’ capabilities, delaying their launches, and deferring work on later large-scale missions.

Applying that policy may not be straightforward with MSR, though. The 2020 independent review observed that MSR’s mission architecture is tightly focused on sample return with little room for trimming capabilities. In addition, it deemed 2028 to be MSR’s last “viable” launch date because the next opportunity, in 2030, presented unfavorable conditions for Mars arrival.

Another issue is that last year NASA made major changes to the MSR architecture, so that it now differs markedly from what the 2020 review and the decadal survey considered.

The new plan disposes of a “fetch” rover ESA was to provide. Instead, Perseverance will deliver 30 sample tubes to MSR’s ascent vehicle itself. In case Perseverance cannot do so, the mission will carry two helicopters to retrieve 10 backup tubes Perseverance has already left at a “depot,” though NASA has indicated it might eliminate one helicopter to control costs.

To update the 2020 review, NASA is currently setting up a new independent board chaired by Orlando Figueroa, who led the agency’s work on the highly successful Spirit and Opportunity rovers in the wake of two failed Mars missions. Due in August, the board’s report will assess the feasibility of NASA’s plans for the mission and the risks and cost of the new architecture, potentially including whether the redesign will permit or require a delay past 2028.

NASA aims to commit to a baseline design, cost, and schedule for MSR late this year.

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