Casey DreierFeb 14, 2024

The path forward for Mars Sample Return

NASA’s Mars Sample Return program is in trouble. 

In 2023, an independent review board found that the project’s current schedule and budget are untenable. Originally planned to launch in 2026, challenges in management and design delays have pushed it back to 2030 at the earliest, with costs expected to reach upwards of $11 billion. NASA has put the program on pause as it re-evaluates its design, but in the meantime, a divided Congress has proposed sharply divergent budgets for MSR, leading to layoffs and work stoppages across NASA centers and the space industry, almost certainly further delaying the effort and increasing its total cost.

The science provided by Mars Sample Return remains extraordinarily compelling, and the scientific community has declared that a balanced approach to MSR should be NASA’s top robotic planetary priority in the coming decade. For these reasons, The Planetary Society supports the concept of Mars sample return, and has proposed a set of principles for how NASA should pursue the program. Below is a brief summary of our official principles for Mars Sample Return.

Principles for Mars Sample Return

Read the full document for more detail on how the Mars Sample Return program should best be reworked in order to succeed.

Briefly, they are: do the science, do it now, and do it with balance. That is:

  • Return the full suite of samples collected by the Perseverance rover, don’t leave precious samples on the surface to shave proverbial pennies off the project’s cost;

  • Don’t delay; pursue the project now while we have samples on the surface of Mars, an experienced Mars workforce (already threatened by layoffs), and buy-in from our European allies, which have made a billion-euro-plus commitment to the effort;

  • And do it with balance; we can’t let MSR consume NASA’s entire science directorate. There are other missions, such as the Habitable Worlds Observatory, which are important priorities in their own right that will advance our search for life in the Cosmos.

There is also a compelling connection to NASA’s long-term human exploration effort, which starts with Artemis and then points toward Mars. MSR would provide critical proofs-of-concept of critical technologies, such as precision landing, launch from the Martian surface, and automated in-orbit rendezvous. NASA should consider MSR within its broader scope of human exploration, and integrate its planning and outcomes affordably.

The technical, engineering, and management challenges facing MSR are ultimately the responsibility of NASA and its partners. The Planetary Society believes that as long as NASA follows the principles outlined above and incorporates the input from the recent independent review board, that MSR and other high-priority science missions can succeed in the next decade.

Principles for Mars Sample Return

Read The Planetary Society’s detailed policy principles and recommendations for Mars Sample Return.

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