Planetary Radio • Nov 03, 2023

Space Policy Edition: What went wrong with Mars Sample Return

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Orlando figueroa portrait

Orlando Figueroa

Founder of Orlando Leadership Enterprise

Jack kiraly portrait 2023

Jack Kiraly

Director of Government Relations for The Planetary Society

Casey dreier tps mars

Casey Dreier

Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society

NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission was supposed to be lean, fast, and focused — no extra science instruments, no dedicated communications systems, and launching in 2026. But the effort has foundered under its own complexity and mismanagement. MSR’s total cost is likely to double to $10 billion or more and not launch until 2030 at the earliest. This month’s guest, Orlando Figueroa, chaired an independent review board which recently evaluated this project and identified management failures, unexpected design complexities, and external events such as the war in Ukraine as contributing to MSR’s difficulties. We review the board’s conclusions and recommendations for how NASA can fix MSR’s problems and ensure a successful return of the samples already selected by the Perseverance rover.

Mars samples returning to Earth artist's concept
Mars samples returning to Earth artist's concept If it succeeds, Mars Sample Return would be the first time in human history that scientifically selected pieces of the red planet would arrive safely on Earth. This artist's concept shows Mars Sample Return Earth Entry System.Image: NASA / ESA / JPL-Caltech / GSFC


Casey Dreier: Welcome to the Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio. I am Casey Dreier, the Chief of Space Policy here at The Planetary Society, joined by my colleague Jack Kiraly, our DC representative and director of DC Operations. Jack. Hey, it's nice to be here.

Jack Kiraly: Hey Casey, it's really good to see you. How's everything going on your side of the world?

Casey Dreier: I'm back. So I don't know what's been happening outside of my house in the last three months, I assume nothing much of consequence, but on my end, I am returning from paternity leave. I have currently a healthy baby girl that I'm super excited about, as you might imagine. Does make podcasting a bit challenging in terms of recording quality, but we're finding a way to work that out. But it has been a really wonderful three months. And as I said at the end of my last recording, it's been watching star stuff manifest itself and begin to assert consciousness and engagement with the world, it's spectacular. Words truly fail me. But it also, it's fun to be back. I'm finally back at work and able to do this podcast again and start doing space again, which is, again, considering of the world right now, a really nice thing to focus on, this space.

Jack Kiraly: It sure is. It sure is. Well, congratulations Casey, and we're glad that you're back and very excited to see the bundle of star stuff grow into a great space advocate.

Casey Dreier: That's true. Yeah. Their predestination definitely applies in this situation. She will be a future space advocate, damn it, which I'm sure is setting me up for some issues in their teen years. But Jack, before we go-

Jack Kiraly: I don't care about Mars, Dad.

Casey Dreier: Exactly. Her mother is a Mars scientist and her dad's a space advocate, no way, she's... it's like she's going to be, I don't know, what's the opposite of a space advocate? Internal geophysics, earth geocentric physicist, I don't know.

Jack Kiraly: Something like that.

Casey Dreier: Jack, before we go much further, I have to say our guest this week, I am very excited to talk about, really jumping into things into the deep end here, catching back up in my three months is Orlando Figueroa. Served many roles in NASA over the years, former program director for the Mars Exploration Program, former deputy associate administrator for the science mission directorate, other engineering roles and has been an aerospace consultant for many years. Recently led and released independent review board assessment of the Mars sample-return program, which, spoiler alert, didn't have the best news for this program. A lot of issues identified. And Orlando has graciously agreed to talk about what his committee did and the issues that they saw and their recommendations to get this truly critical and exciting program back on track. So Orlando will be joining us in just a few minutes. But before we get to him, Jack, I know I've been on paternity leave, but you notably have not and have been really running the show here at The Planetary Society and I've just heard wonderful, amazing things about the work that you've been able to do in the last few months. There's one thing in particular that I'd love to hear about, which a number of our members joined you for, which is the Day of Action happened in the fall in-person in Washington DC this year. How did that go?

Jack Kiraly: The Day of Action this year was a phenomenal return to in-person. We made a huge, significant impact on the conversation that's happening on the Hill right now about the federal budget priorities in fiscal year 2024, which I think in the last episode that we talked about this, we were in fiscal year 2023. We are technically in fiscal year 2024, and lo and behold, we do have a government still, albeit under a continuing resolution. The government's heading towards this November 17th cliff, we'll call it.

Casey Dreier: Another one, yeah.

Jack Kiraly: Another one. But yeah, the Day of Action could not have been better timed. I guess it could have been better timed if Casey, you were able to make it to it, but otherwise, it was a phenomenal experience. Had over a hundred members join us over 160 meetings on Capitol Hill, both scheduled and unplanned. Our members took up the mantle to take some of the materials that we were distributing and go to offices that hold significance in leadership positions on the Hill, whether that be in the appropriations committee, the science committee within congressional leadership. We met with majority leader, Chuck Schumer, to talk about our priorities including Mars sample-return and Veritas and Dragonfly and all these exciting missions that we talk about and get excited about and bringing that enthusiasm to Capitol Hill. Was over 160 meetings, overall an incredible response from our colleagues on the Hill. I think it was something like 92% of the meetings were positive, with I think that remaining 8% were just opportunities to engage and educate lawmakers on the importance of this subject to their district and to the nation, and to the world. And I'm really excited for the next one coming up early next year because of this one that we just had in September. It was as my first Day of Action on this side of the desk, running it was a fantastic experience. Thank you to all the members who came out to DC who spent their own money to fly, to drive, to train up to DC, to put themselves in a hotel room, come to all of our events, to the briefings and meetings that we had on Capitol Hill. It was truly an amazing experience and is the reason why we do this work as space advocates is to engage and empower the world's citizen ring to take action and support space science and exploration.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, well said, Jack. And again, I just heard wonderful things about it and so congratulations on taking that. For someone who's done this, I know exactly how much work it is. It is not an easy thing to put together. It's also, and I wonder if you found the same experience, which is just meeting our members and seeing their dedication and commitment, and passion on display is just the most inspiring experience. For me, when you put it on, just seeing that it's like, wow, it just reminds me how great our membership is at The Planetary Society and how dedicated they are.

Jack Kiraly: Yeah, I mean it's energizing. It was a long few months leading up to the Day of Action. I don't think I worked on basically anything, though the world did not cease while we were planning this event. A lot happened in July and August and September leading up to the event, but it felt like it was day in and day out working on this to make sure that we could perform this needed activity, our flagship advocacy event. And it really was amazing coming into our training and on the day of for the Day of Action, it was really energizing to see the enthusiasm, the energy that people brought, the positivity in a time where that is lacking on Capitol Hill. It was great to have everybody in one place that regardless of ideology, partisan, affiliation, where you came from, and what you do for a living, that everybody came together for this sole purpose of advancing space, science, and exploration. I mean, it was the best opportunity I've had to engage with society membership since starting early this year and I know that it's going to be one-upped by the Day of Action next year.

Casey Dreier: That's a great perspective and again, well-timed and the value of this, we just cannot overstate that going in person, the act of doing is itself demonstrates its importance. And I always like to present people, you're the tip of an... if people see you walking into their office, they assume you're the tip of an iceberg because you're representing the hundreds or thousands of people who didn't have the time or the financial ability or the just opportunity to spend many hours of their life and dollars to get to that office in Washington DC to represent them. And so that's just keeping space science, planetary science, Mars, in this conversation when so much else is going on, it's just the most essential advocacy thing we can do. So it's just again, kudos, Jack, to getting that done. And we are going to be reverting back to our original schedule four years after COVID disruption of our in-person. Next in-person Day of Action will be in the spring of next year. Exact date, TBD until we can see the congressional calendar. But there'll be many more opportunities to come with Jack and this time with me as well in-person maybe with my baby in tow. I don't know, she's got to start getting out to Congress eventually. And we'll be following up with more information in the new year about ways to participate.

Jack Kiraly: Absolutely. Let me just say, because I don't think that I could have planned this any better either, as we're talking, recording this, a message flashed across my screen from somebody who we were not connected with prior to the Day of Action asking to connect to talk about our priorities because we had members come here to DC to talk to this office in particular. I won't disclose their name, but to this office in particular who otherwise we have never engaged with before, but they just reached out to see if we could sit down and talk about our priorities for FY24, the serendipity at work right here.

Casey Dreier: And we're not making this up, this is legit real. That's perfect, Jack, what a great cap to this. And again, it's almost like it's crowdsourcing advocacy work, which is again the essence of what I think The Planetary Society can contribute here. Jack, you mentioned timing and at the time that you had the Day of Action, you did have a Speaker of the House of Representatives and one of the two branches of the US Congress, and not long after that we did not and we have a new one now. And so I wanted to touch base, how does our new speaker or even this disruption of getting to, I think it was almost three weeks, roughly three weeks between-

Jack Kiraly: About three weeks.

Casey Dreier: Basically, a paralysis in the House of Representatives that cannot do much without a speaker. How does that impact our goals in the advocacy work that we have done, particularly with budgets coming up and how do you see this moving forward in the next few months? As you point out, we have our current continuing resolution that's keeping the government including NASA funded, expires on November 17th, just a few weeks away at the time we're recording this, so something needs to happen. What path do you see forward or what can we at least look for absent some kind of clarity in outcomes?

Jack Kiraly: Well, thankfully... and thankfully with a caveat for, it's not thankfully for some people specifically the now former Speaker of the House, but thankfully we did get a continuing resolution passed and we avoided a government shutdown, which was all but guaranteed until really at that 11th hour a bipartisan deal came together that funded the federal government at fiscal year 2023 levels to November 17th. That resulted in Speaker McCarthy being ousted in a very contentious, very close vote of the House earlier this month and just last week, representative Mike Johnson from Louisiana, Louisiana's 4th district was elected the speaker after I believe it was like an additional five or six rounds of voting of multiple speakers, designate people that were supposed to be, that we're elected to be the speaker by the Republican Conference who's in the majority at this moment. Representative Johnson is a relatively new member to the Congress, first being elected in 2016, so does not have a significant space presence in his district. And from our perspective, we have not engaged with that member in any major way in previous years possibly-

Casey Dreier: Because of that lack of direct space.

Jack Kiraly: Because of that. Right.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. And we should point out Kevin McCarthy, former Speaker had the Mojave Space Port, at least in his district.

Jack Kiraly: Right. And I think at one point maybe had AIM's in a previous drawing of that district.

Casey Dreier: And that's again, we tend to focus on these parochial concerns because a very easy in terms of why they should care about it. But at least we have someone to run the House, right? I mean, the speaker doesn't write the appropriations bills that we're focused on. So you anticipate at least some action on these. I guess we only have three weeks. And we should just remind folks that the House has their version of appropriations bills, but so does the Senate and you can't pass two different versions and call it law. You eventually have to find some sort of agreed-upon consensus budget for the president to sign, that a president's willing to sign. And they seem pretty far away from that point.

Jack Kiraly: They do. However, I will say that Speaker Johnson in his bid to become speaker released a letter to his fellow colleagues called the Dear Colleague letter that went to all of the members of the Republican Conference. There's a version of it, I think an image or a screenshot of it floating around on social media that outlines his plan for passing appropriations for fiscal year 2024. And it includes a continuing resolution to continue government function as is under fiscal year 2023 levels from November 17th into early next year. And then taking up these full appropriations bills, all 12 of them, which all but two of them, CJS, the Commerce, Justice, and Science, which includes NASA, being one of the two that has not passed that chamber yet, that hasn't even gotten up the appropriations committee, being high on that list of bills that now Speaker Johnson wants to bring to the floor and have those debates. But as you said, Casey, there's a lot of daylight between the House versions and the Senate versions. The Senate is also moving expeditiously in the next couple of weeks to pass what they're calling minibuses, which is just groups of three bills at a time. So those 12 bills split into three, so four different groupings of bills. CJS, I think is in the later, in the third or fourth tranche of that strategy. So the Senate's going to have their version up in just the next couple of weeks, House is going to have their version up maybe as early as next week for CJS. And then we're going to go into what's called conference and trying to hash out that deal. And Speaker Johnson was very upfront in that letter to his colleagues in the House, saying that they need to have a strong bargaining stance, they need to get these bills out of committee so that they can make their case in conference with the Senate of what should be the priorities for fiscal year 2024. And that is why right now is such an opportune time for listeners of this show who live in the United States, whether you're a citizen or not, you have representatives in Washington that need to hear from you. So we have an action on our website. That space is not something that is contentious, it is a unifying issue area, but there are so many other issues on the docket and Washington space sometimes doesn't break through all the time, and that's where you come in. So go to There'll be an action there for you to send a letter to both of your US senators as well as your representative in the House to make sure that planetary science and space science is prioritized in whatever deal ends up on the table, whether it's January 15th or April 15th next year, want to make sure that planetary science is a priority, space science is a priority for the Congress in fiscal year 24. It is absolutely vital. And now is the time to take action. So as you're listening to this, Fill it out-

Casey Dreier: Pull the car over.

Jack Kiraly: Pull the car over. Get off at the next stop on the metro,

Casey Dreier: Get that letter out ASAP. It is a good time and thank you for bringing that up Jack at And again, we try not to overwhelm you with these opportunities, but now is a really good time to do this. And so when we do say these things, take us seriously. Now is the time to prioritize because the House and Senate budgets are pretty far apart. The House overall is proposing to spend a lot less money and to take from different pots of money of various NASA priorities, that Senates also has, the pretty rough language about our Mars sample-return in their budget for NASA really restricting the amount that the project can do until there's some clarity or even a budget cap that may according to IRB, not even be feasible at this point. And so there's a lot going on that is now's the time to weigh in. And again, I continue to emphasize that all of these things still occur and are still happening and whether or not you participate in them, so you might as well put your voice in the mix. Because if you don't, someone else will and you'd have no idea what they're saying. And so this is the opportunity to make sure even if it doesn't work out, that we didn't just acquiesce to it, right? We really push our priorities no matter what. And it's a nice thing to talk about. Everyone likes to take a moment and think about Mars at this point.

Jack Kiraly: Well, it's a good... pun intended, brings you down to earth, right? It reminds you of what's important.

Casey Dreier: How ironic, yeah.

Jack Kiraly: Right. Us exploring space is not so that... we're not sending that money to Mars, that money's being spent here on earth at universities and research facilities, here on earth in people's districts, providing good, well-paying jobs, supporting local economies, and unraveling the mysteries of the universe. What could be better? What could be more unifying than doing this as a nation, as a world, as a species, to understand the universe? Now is the time. And think of this as your precursor, right? If you've never taken civic action before on this level, this is your precursor, right? Because as we've talked about on this show before, as is readily apparent in the debates that are happening, fiscal year 24, this budget is tough to get through the Congress, fiscal year 25 is going to be even tougher. And we need to make sure that planetary science, space science, astrophysics, Heliophysics, all of this is well represented in these budgets, and now is the time to start that organizing, right? So if you've never done civic action before, if you've never written to your member of Congress, this is a great introduction because we're going to need you next year and the year after that and the year after that.

Casey Dreier: Jack, you sold me, I will write my member of Congress and continue that push. Thanks again, Jack, for the great work you're doing. And on just on top of all this, sending your messages out to members of Congress, just know that Jack is out in DC almost every day making this case and building on the work. Just a perfect example, building on the work that the members are doing. And so this is a part of our ongoing holistic effort to make sure that these priorities are considered and included and advanced, and so we can really see these beautiful opportunities. Next year we're going to watch the launch of the Europa Clipper. And that seemed like an impossible dream and a really rough budget situation 10 years ago, and that mission is almost a reality. So this can work. Jack, we should probably get to our interview with Orlando Figueroa. But before we do that, we'll be right back with the rest of our Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio after this short break.

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Casey Dreier: My guest, Orlando Figueroa has vast experience in NASA and Mars exploration during his more than three decades of experience in the aerospace industry. He was previously the director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, he was the Deputy Associated Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, and he's been an aerospace consultant contributing to various important reports for NASA to help guide the future of these programs over the past 10 years. Recently, he chaired the independent review board for the Mars sample-return project. We're going to talk to him about that report, But I wanted to touch on a few aspects first, just to set the stage. Just as a reminder, Mars sample-return is a multi-mission effort to retrieve the samples already being collected right now by Perseverance on the surface of Mars. It includes a sample-return Lander being built by JPL, a sample Fetch Rover or sample fetch helicopter, I should say, also being potentially built by JPL, a Mars Ascent vehicle being built by Marshall Space Flight Center, a containment and capture device to live inside of a European provided orbiter called the Earth Return orbiter that will bring back these samples launched from the surface of Mars to Earth sometime in the 2030s. Already, I've listed a number of highly complex and expensive missions in and of themselves, and that these all have to play together on a launch and return timeline directed not by budgetary availability, but by celestial mechanics. You can tell this is already a complicated program. The big outcome though of this project, of this review board was that this effort previously thought to cost in the order of 5 to $6 billion will now be something closer to $10 billion, $11 billion, and not likely to happen until the mid to maybe even late 2030s. This has caused quite a stir within NASA, and NASA has not formally responded to this report yet. We will see their response sometime in March of 2024. They have an official committee to respond to this independent review board already assembled and working right now. In the meantime, however, we've seen politics move forward and the Senate of the United States has released a budget draft that's not approved, but has outlined their official position, which is that if NASA cannot do more sample-return within its originally promised $5.3 billion budget priority window, that the program will be canceled by them. And notably, and I think this is really critical of that money that's left over that hasn't been spent, if that occurs, will not go back to planetary science or really a handful of other science missions, but the vast majority of it actually gets reassigned to Project Artemis, NASA's human effort to return to the moon. These are really important pieces of context that I think we should keep in mind as we listen to this discussion with Orlando and to say that this is a complex process that although the scientific community has officially stated that it's supporting in the Planetary Science Decadal survey, clearly has not built in a baseline of profound and unified support that prior big missions like the James Webb Space Telescope has. So please enjoy this upcoming interview with him on what went wrong with Mars sample-return and how his review board thinks NASA can fix it. Orlando Figueroa, welcome to the Space Policy Edition. I'm so glad you could join us today.

Orlando Figueroa: A pleasure to join you. Thanks for the opportunity.

Casey Dreier: I've read through the independent review board's report on Mars sample-return. And before we go into the details, I'd like you to just quickly summarize the key takeaways if you can, within a minute or so for our audience. What did you and your committee members or board members see when you looked at this mission?

Orlando Figueroa: Number one is that the importance of the Mars sample-return mission cannot be expressed in any stronger terms than we did. It is a very high priority for NASA, longstanding many decades in the making, and it is a mission that was carefully designed to continue to dig deeper into the search for life. And these are very carefully selected samples from a very special place in Mars. So we have a great opportunity as a nation to advance on one of the key goals of NASA with this mission. It is not easy. It is a very challenging and costly endeavor. Just like large flagship missions in the NASA lingo are comparable to a JWST in a different science division. So we ought to look at it as a nation as such, that is a key takeaway. And to do that and be successful in that endeavor, we need to not only invest is the best talent we can apply, the resources necessary in a way that leads to mission success.

Casey Dreier: The review board found, and I'm quoting here, that there is currently no credible, congruent technical nor properly margined schedule cost or technical baseline that can be accomplished at all with the likely available funding. The project's already spent $3 billion and we're looking at, I think nominally was a 2028 launch window. What happened? I guess I think that's been the reaction of a lot of people. And I mean, you kind of outline aspects of it, but let's talk about this at a high level first. What happened that we find ourselves in this position or NASA finds itself in this position? How could you have spent $3 billion and not been angling for a '28 launch window?

Orlando Figueroa: There are many angles to this, and as it turns out, one of the slides on the report that at the beginning we didn't think it was going to catch so much attention, but it really puts into perspective what we are dealing with in terms of the technical and programmatic challenge, but also the basic assumptions tied to the present architecture. And the report is emphatic in saying, you started this effort under unrealistic expectations. Expectations about time, when you launch the different elements, the amount of resources that would be required to do so, having adequate mass margins and so on that you could relate to a launch vehicle that was credible on either side, all of these things. And then in addition, the architecture because it's solar and it relies upon getting there quickly, grabbing the samples quickly, coming back up to the surface quickly to protect the ascend vehicle, and so on. So all of this creates an environment that is incredibly challenging. You also need to pay attention to the assets in Mars that are necessary to add robustness to the whole campaign. How do you capture the samples that are brought to orbit? How do you find it? How do you make sure you can know where they are if you miss the first opportunity? All these factors. So you're in that situation and an assumption that the budget on a yearly basis could go beyond what is customary even for flagship missions. Right? And then to us, the president's budget request didn't come close to anything that is what the mission required. So we said, this doesn't add up. You have too many variables, too many unknowns, too much uncertainty, the progress to date shows that everyone is working frantically dealing with a lot of challenges. The team, to be fair, dealt with the pandemic, they dealt with the Ukraine war that changed the equation for what Europe could contribute and when, and so on. So you keep adding to a set of unrealistic expectations from the beginning and then the yearly budget cannot support it. So the only conclusion we had arrived at was that you got to step back and revisit this to add schedule and budget resiliency under clearer guidelines because, without that, you're compromising a commitment to mission success.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, I mean, that seems to be the rub of it and something that I've grappled with is this isn't just something you can try again on. This has to work with the samples collected. You don't have the opportunity to recollect them, really. So every piece of this mission has to be however many 0.999% reliable or expect it to work in order... any failure in winning one of those points will completely fail this entire mission. And it seems like that level of mission assurance is at the core of a lot of this. Plus, I think you highlighted something that is really important, which is the timing. Just to restate what you said, very constrained windows of time in which you can not just get there, land, then take off, and then you have to do this whole orbital dance. But at the same time, and again, you highlighted in the review board's report, Mars sample-return has been under consideration in some form basically since the 1970s after Viking. I recall seeing a request in the NASA budget of, I think it was 1978 for early study money for a Mars sample-return project.

Orlando Figueroa: Yes.

Casey Dreier: So how could any of this, I guess, be a surprise to the people executing this at a certain point? Why do we find ourselves in this situation given how long Mars sample return has been a goal of not just NASA but the Mars Exploration Program itself?

Orlando Figueroa: It's a great question. I think that some of the, what I call checks and balances fail to act early enough or quickly enough. It is important. There is one of the slides in the report that talks about background, which we felt it was important. And this is where an acquisition strategy meeting led to proceeding and then later an IRB that came to inform the key decision point A, or when the agency decided to start formulation, informed by the first IRB, and then to be followed by a second acquisition strategy meeting. To me, those instances were opportunities for people to step back. Unfortunately, many circumstances just got in the way, Europe was going through their own planning, the pandemic hit on the US side. So all of a sudden, I think what could have created an environment for a step back, right, let's go and revisit all of this for all the reasons you said and the importance. And that didn't happen, right? It just did not happen. And I think part of it was that still unrealistic back then expectation that we're going to do it in the '28... originally, it was '26, the first IRB said, you can forget it, then it was '28. But they could never get past all of these challenges, technical, pandemic and otherwise to actually come back to a credible architecture. So a huge lesson is, which is not new, these are lessons. I always say lessons learned are not so until they are.

Casey Dreier: Right.

Orlando Figueroa: Because in the interest of trying to protect the window and getting the effort going, we started marching down a path that was not properly attended to, in my opinion.

Casey Dreier: I mean, you identify these exogenous issues, war in Ukraine, which threw off the timing of... I mean, Europe wasn't able to launch the Rosalind Franklin Rover with their Russian counterparts, and that took away their budget and also the reliability of their potential contribution of a fetch rover, talking about COVID obviously, which has huge consequences that we saw with Psyche that we're still dealing with. But at the same time, you identify, I think several internal areas of opportunities to review mistakes, however you want to characterize them. And I would kind of put them into two buckets. One is management problems and the other one is communication problems. And this management, you touched on a little bit about getting together early on and deciding the acquisition strategy. And I remember at the time when this concept, I think it was originally pitched as lean Mar sample-return for something like two and a half billion dollars, which now is this kind of delightful fantasy to think about. But the original plan was that almost every NASA center would have a piece in it, and the European Space Agency would have this huge contribution in not just the now defunct fetch rover, but still contributing the Earth Return Orbiter. And I saw Marshall has a piece, JPL has a piece, Goddard has a piece, originally, Glenn even had a piece to provide wheels for [inaudible 00:37:15] Rover. And it struck me as that this program seemed to be designed with a political optimization rather than efficiency optimization. Is that an accurate way to characterize how the fundamental structures of this program were put together?

Orlando Figueroa: Well, I think that it should be no secret that in our country, the United States of America, for investments of this magnitude, right, you need political support and fiscal support. So there was with the greatest of intentions, an architecture that counted on not only for NASA centers that could contribute, but contribute something visible, but also to have the resources necessary. So it becomes of a sudden a technical challenge, a programmatic challenge, a fiscal challenge, a political environment challenge. That's a reality, right, investments of this nature, that's just the way it works.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. I mean, I've written it at length about this, SLS is the essence of this, but it almost seems to me that they get the worst of both worlds where MSR is big enough relative to a science mission, it's huge for a science mission, but not big enough. In a sense, it's relatively modest by human space flight cost. And so it has all the burdens of this political spreading out and complex management structure. And I have yet, and maybe I'm wrong on this, but may have yet to see the benefits of this political investment pay off because it's relatively modest in terms of classic defense or even human space flight level of investments. And that's worried me, I guess, seeing who's stepped forward to really defend MSR in the past few months.

Orlando Figueroa: So actually let me add another piece to the equation that is not on the US side, but likewise in Europe is the way they operate, it has geopolitical implications, right? The member states make certain commitments, go down a certain path. And so what all of these points to which we highlight in the report is when NASA embarked down this path, even if you set aside the political environment, there are cultural challenges that were not properly accounted for in the whole distribution of work and the organization.

Casey Dreier: The culture of the institutions contributing.

Orlando Figueroa: Of the particular institutions. So even though we can argue that politically that we should have thought better, still the question about the cultures that were contributing to the effort and how the organization was created also created an environment that was unwieldy as we refer to in the report. And by the way, you need to really step back and even setting aside the layers of the pandemic and everything else, you step back and look at all of the pieces that are contributing to what we call the Mars sample-return mission, you can't help but to wonder how can we optimize this for success, where the cultures are aligned, where the organization is aligned, where the leadership is aligned. So you make best use of what every one of the contributors are good at as opposed to any one of them imposing on the other because no one likes to operate under that environment where the accountability all of a sudden is diluted. So in a sense, yes, perhaps... By the way, you made a comment that I think is important. Our board had representatives from commercial sector, technology sector, system engineering, program project management, expertise in human exploration as well as robotic exploration systems and management. And we included obviously like Admiral Mullen, who was even above that, that could see yet another dimension. So we had an opportunity and everyone, we said, this is really not quite the typical robotic nor quite the human exploration mission, it's unique.

Casey Dreier: It really fits into this mixed gray area in terms of its scope and its tight coupling that is... again, just seems like that would be almost human space flight would have more experience with this multi-center contribution model than science missions.

Orlando Figueroa: And it's reflected in one of our findings. We said you have to revisit how the agency views this and even how it reviews it in the independent review, because you can argue we were not properly armed to deal with something this unique. It's a long list of things that we hit on in the report to highlight all of the areas that you wish now looking back, someone has stepped in to do something about it much earlier.

Casey Dreier: I want to pick your brain a little bit on this concept of culture, because I've seen this discussed or at least mentioned a lot, particularly with MSR, and obviously, there's in the past with these different NASA centers, but you've worked at JPL, you were in management at JPL, you're in management at NASA headquarters, you've done this for more than three decades. Help me or our listeners understand what do you mean by culture. How could a NASA center possibly be so different from another NASA center? When we think about, and we talk about NASA as this unified entity, obviously it's 17,000 people plus tens of thousands of contractors. But what do you mean by culture? Is it really just literal culture in terms of what people share in common in terms of their backgrounds? Or are we talking about a work culture or bureaucratic culture? What do we really mean by this? And why is this so distinct among what nominally is a unified organization?

Orlando Figueroa: Culture in the broadest definition is the beliefs, the norms, the motivations behind everything any one organization does. And if you were to step back and map organizations such as JPL, to a large extent, the applied physics laboratory organizations of that ilk, they are driven largely a lot by technology. Right, there are cauldrons of technology, get the resources to continue to advance technology in magnificent ways. They're also, in the case of JPL, driven by planetary windows very often in one of their competencies. So you're operating under an environment where things turn very quickly and where programmatic discipline lags a little in time. It's not that they don't have it, but when you're moving so fast on technology and implementing technology and trying to match the launch window, the programmatic is usually a few months behind from where you are in the overall integration, right? ISA, for example, is on the other end of a spectrum where they are more conservative because of geopolitical implications of agreements with the member states, their state of readiness, their limited budgets, what have you. They're very, very methodical. They evaluate any movement, any whatever. They protect their schedule. They protect everything in ways that you could argue they are on the conservative side of the frame. That doesn't mean that they couldn't do technology, but their culture, it's like that NASA centers, Goddard, APL, elements of a PL are more towards the middle, perhaps a bit towards the technology side, but they're, let's say for the sake of argument that they're more or less in the middle. And there are centers like for example, Marshall, whose culture is the human exploration, right? So when you look at how they operate, how they think, agreements, your handshakes, and your flexibility to deal with issues, the leadership of a program needs to take these things into consideration because there could be a source for programmatic or technical risk if someone is not paying close attention to it. And that is a challenge to management and leadership. You cannot ignore it, especially if you're working towards a very relatively near-term window. Because we as humans then tend to drop things that often we come back to regret that we did in trying to stick to a very fast schedule. So this what you asked to the long list of things we identified that made this a very overly constrained and challenging campaign.

Casey Dreier: I mean, I think maybe a way to think of this or that I think of this is you can't just assemble these blocks mindlessly. Says, oh, Marsha will do this and JPL will do this, and Goddard does this, and then you walk away from that. You actually have to spend a lot of time making sure that integration actually happens and is successful. You can't just assume it will.

Orlando Figueroa: That's correct.

Casey Dreier: Okay. Yeah. So this brings me to, I mean, some of the quotes, again, just overall management of Mars sample-return. So going back when this program was established, we already had this thing called the Mars Exploration Program, which you were the director of in the early part of the 2000s, and had been basically every single Mars mission, with the exception of InSight, robotic Mars Mission since 2001 after its reformulation and including Perseverance. But MSR, which was such a big project, it seemed when it was established, it was pulled out. It was not part of the existing Mars Exploration Program. It was established as its own program independent of Mars Exploration, but kept within Planetary Science Division, but actually, I think reporting directly to the AA, the Associate Administrator of the Science Submission Directorate, not the head of the Planetary Science Division. And I think this was done because that's essentially what happened to the James Webb Space Telescope project. It was pulled out of astrophysics when it was troubled and established as its own program in order to have some level of managerial oversight or priority. It said something that this is such an important program, it can't just be a subprogram of astrophysics. This seems to be from your review board's analysis was the wrong decision in that it created this uncertainty. Because you still kept the Mars Exploration Program, which kind of interfaced with it, but it wasn't clear who was in charge. Was that true? Was that a mistake to establish this as an independent program?

Orlando Figueroa: I'm certain that the decision makers were making these decisions with the best of intentions, right, to protect, just like you described in comparing it to JWST, pull it out of the distraction of a division so that it can get the attention it deserves. Now, our argument, by the way, it's related, but a bit different, and I want to walk through this carefully. When you look at James Webb, you know that the community at large was alarmed by the cost growth. James Webb took close to 20 years from the moment it started to the moment it was deployed. But the astrophysics community never doubted the impact of such a machine, what it meant to the community, the community remained completely united in this. That's not to say that they wouldn't complain or showed concern over impact to other activities and so on. And as it turns out, JWSD proved to be worth every penny and more to come in very short order, right? I think you will agree with me.

Casey Dreier: No argument from me there. Yeah, absolutely.

Orlando Figueroa: Mars sample-return is of that ilk. That said, the Mars Exploration Program sample-return was always part of that. The Mars community as a whole must remain united behind the Mars Exploration Program and Mars sample-return within it. Because the communities at present are pulling in all directions, trying to protect this natural human reaction, their territory, planetary, Mars, Mars sample-return. It is very difficult to operate in that environment when the plans were always to lay the path for sample-return and then build from whatever is learned today, a continuum of a Mars exploration beyond that, which feeds into the agency's agenda for Moon to Mars and beyond, right? You look at those pieces and you said, in truth, until sample-return isn't successful as a mission, any other breakup is really artificial because there is the resources to allow any one of those to go in independent directions. It's a fallacy. And it's not to say that Mars should rate everything in SMD. It is to be realistic and, in our opinion, line things up behind a unified front. Focus the attention on the success of Mars sample-return and lay the path for what knock on wood hopefully will be a successful and continued Mars exploration program beyond that, that the nation can be proud of and truly tie it to the moon, to Mars, and beyond agency goals. So it is from that perspective, we said, keep the family together, keep the family all in support of this activity, and that support needs to be reflected at all levels; the government, NASA, you name it, everybody. And that has to be visible. There is no room to start pulling in different directions because people are concerned about things that they have little control over, or that at this moment in time make absolutely no difference to setting Mar sample-return on the right path. When you look at also the interfaces between the MEP, Mars Exploration Program, and Mars sample-return, they are significant and they're being managed in a way that is collegial and all of that stuff, but they are significant from Perseverance to the Lander, and Mars Ascent Vehicle and forward to the Earth Return vehicle and so on, and then the facility where samples are going to be delivered. So you got to look at this as a whole and how can you best make the program successful for the sake of the agency goals and the sake of the community. So that's where it was coming from.

Casey Dreier: That's an interesting and subtle, but really important point about this concept of unification. I mean, communication was my other big takeaway in terms of how NASA's communicating it to the community. But you bring up this really important distinction from JWST, which I frankly worry about as an advocate and policy analyst, which is I do not see a unified community behind MSR, and I also don't see a single entity taking ownership of it, the way that you had with... JWST had the Space Telescope Science Institute kind of being the lead force in saving that mission when it was at its worst time in 2010, 2011. But because of in a sense that MSR's distributed nature, but also this decision to make it this originally this lean concept of basically no in situ science at Mars, you've cut out most of the existing Mars science community from feeling like they have any sort of investment in this mission. And all that science return is kind of deferred until these samples come back. And clearly, and you highlight this, your board highlights this in the report that the communication about the relevancy of these samples to not just the Mars community, but the broad scientific planetary community has been woefully inadequate. And I worry without the scientific buy-in willing to stand behind this, that plowing forward with a billion-dollar-plus-a-year program is going to be really difficult. At what point can there be such a division between at least a noisy or loud part of the scientific planetary science community? And what is nominally the highest priority flagship mission of the planetary science division?

Orlando Figueroa: Yes. By the way, that unifying force and leadership must come from NASA, right? I mean, this cannot be relegated to any center, JPL or otherwise, to be the only voice speaking for the importance of sample-return to NASA, to the nation, to the future of Mars Exploration, and to the Moon to Mars initiative. Right, so it has to be a respected and powerful message. It is so critically important to unify the community because that community on its own is just going to tear itself apart if they lose focus on the importance of this mission. If you look at the [inaudible 00:56:55] plans, there are wonderful aspirations for visiting other worlds, and at some point also bring in samples from those worlds. And I tell whomever asks, if you think for example, that this is hard, imagine us trying to bring samples back from Venus or cryogenic samples from some other body, right? These things, just like the next generation of telescopes and what have you, are incredibly difficult one-of-a-kind endeavors. There is not a lot of investment where you build prototypes and test them and what have you, right? NASA jumps into these things because they're hard. They're one of a kind. And to me, that bigger context is incredibly important. That falls in my view, in the eyes of NASA, the National Academies, they already spoke, Congress, the administration, everyone aligned behind how important this is to the United States. We also highlight, of course, it wasn't a dominant message, but nevertheless, one that shouldn't be ignored, that other nations are stepping up to the plate; India, China, you name it. And China, we know, we confirmed that indeed has interest in '28 to '30, Tianwen 3 to go and grab samples. Credit to them, by the way, they were able to land safely on the first try. That's not-

Casey Dreier: That's very difficult.

Orlando Figueroa: It's huge. Right. It is. On a planet with an atmosphere, all the things that we said are incredibly difficult, they did it. Now, I would hate to see just that competition be the key driver, but we have already all the motivation, all the data, everything we need to say, we're ready to do this. This is important, let's do it right. And let's engage the world community in analyzing these samples to help us answer some of the most longstanding questions in NASA and for the nation.

Casey Dreier: You identify in the report though, that NASA has not been doing this, and has not been sending a consistent unified message and the strategic and scientific values not being communicated appropriately. You even highlight that MSR management doesn't even have access to the NASA's A-suite, the very top leadership, which again strikes me as extraordinary, given it was already a very big and expensive program going up to this point. Why? I mean, just like this, again, this strikes me as how did we get to this point where MSR was being almost by your characterization, functionally ignored or underappreciated by the agency that is requesting, at minimum at the time, 6 billion to do this?

Orlando Figueroa: I wouldn't jump as far as to say that it was ignored, but I can say is that definitely was not getting the attention it deserved and the communication of the importance to the nation that it deserved. Right. Now, to be fair, the agency, and I'm not here to defend them, I mean, they have big things in Artemis and everything else that are of concern, but missions of its nature, just like JWST was needs that kind of attention and community support, right? People rallying behind the best talent, a Nobel Prize-winning principal investigator, the program, the actions that were taken. he importance of JWST, and you mentioned the Space Telescope Institute, the importance was being repeated, communicated, amplified, reflected in images, in how everyone spoke about it. That wasn't the case here. And to us, this unified story that I described to you earlier, that the Mars Exploration sample-return and what it means for the future is critically important. And in our view, the agency wasn't quite connecting all those dots and sending a powerful message that this was important to us as an agency, us as a nation.

Casey Dreier: I mean, it seems like Artemis is the explanation for that, and Artemis kind of ticks off a lot of these similar argument, an international cooperation, it ticks off the multicenter broad effort, it's brand new, it's under development now, but it's just an order of magnitude larger in expenditures and scope. Does that just suck up all the oxygen from the leadership in terms of their attention? And we almost saw this from Congress where even though NASA budget was frozen in both versions that we've seen, Artemis actually is the only program that consistently grows between House and Senate next year, even within a flat NASA budget. So it seems like maybe they made the argument for Artemis, but no one else was able to receive that level of attention. Can NASA do both at the same time? Have they both kind of hit these similar areas?

Orlando Figueroa: In my opinion, there is no reason why they couldn't do both. There is a human exploration side of the house and the science side of the house, and they both have the special role in what they contribute to NASA and the nation. It's just that the message needs to be communicated, repeated, underscored constantly. There will be not only sample-return, but others that fall in the same category, just like JWST did, that has to be reflected as such at all levels of the leadership of the agency. And that wasn't happening, which that's one of the points we make. We were in no position to point fingers because the fact that Artemis is getting a lot of attention is no secret. So we just said, you got to elevate this to the same, at least to be in the same line of communication. And there are other ambitious agendas within every one of the science divisions that it would behoove for the agency to think about how those are being communicated.

Casey Dreier: I just want to go back to the scientific community division here and communication about how they're thinking about Mars sample-return. They look at the fiscal year '24 NASA budget, which literally states, we're not going to do your priority mission in Heliophysics. We're not going to do your priority mission in astrophysics because of Mars sample-return. So NASA itself, via its budget requests, seems to be explicitly dividing the scientific community in this zero-sum game. And I mean almost casting blame on MSR. And this was before your independent review panel up to the total budget expectation, almost doubling it. Where is this coming from? How is the community supposed to respond to situations like that when NASA itself is casting this blame?

Orlando Figueroa: Well, to be fair, there are flagship missions and then there are flagships, right? There are missions in the 2 billion to 5 billion category. Incredibly difficult. I don't mean to minimize their challenges. Roman Space Telescope, Europa Clipper, fall as two examples of that ilk. Or past, HST fell sort of in that territory. Perseverance, Curiosity, you name it. Right? And then there are missions that programmatically and technically are at the upper end. JWSD and MSR. SMD in any incarnation of SMD in the past never dealt with missions of this magnitude and complexity. Not to take away from the complexities of the others, but this is big. And the yearly budget, and in particular driven by a launch window, it's an incredible challenge for NASA and SMD to deal with because, in the end, it's a zero-sum game, at the agency level and then on the different directorate levels and divisions. So this is one of the reasons why we also highlighted this is unprecedented for how you do business. The yearly budget being requested is more than JWST ever requested in any given year. And we know from experience how hard that was for you to deal with. Now JWST had an escape path, which was move the schedule. Cost more, but you can move it.

Casey Dreier: Right? It wasn't tied to an alignment of planet. You could launch it pretty much whenever you wanted to.

Orlando Figueroa: You can go whenever you wanted to and in this case is a different equation. And thus why we also say you have to look at robustness and resiliency, taking into consideration that at any given year a hiccup, right, whether it is fiscal or technical or something else may put you in a situation where all of a sudden it makes it even more difficult for the agency to deal with. So why we are saying you need to revisit this. I mean, it's to assume that you can be way above a billion dollars on any given year, it's hard for NASA to deal with. Part of the whole narrative on how in our view the agency would be well-served by stepping back... and I think they are, by the way, I have every indication. I don't have insights into what they're doing, the specifics, but I get the impression that they're paying a great deal of attention to all of those recommendations.

Casey Dreier: Well, I would too, given what the Senate has already done prior to your release. I want to talk about a few things that I didn't see in the report and if they are you, correct me, and I may have just missed them. Because I wonder if this was part of the discussion and some of the things that you evaluated and considered. First, I just want to go back to the scientific aspect. You mentioned again that JWST had a Nobel Prize PI, principal investigator, for that mission. There's no PI for MSR. And again, the scientific community has been functionally cut out of the mission until the samples come back. There's no instrumentation plan now on it. Was there ever a discussion to say in order to bring the Mars community into this mission, should we add some scientific instruments? So something no matter what happens if something goes wrong with the launch, we have something on the sample-return Lander, we have something, we have a helicopter, we have anything that we can get some science out of? Was that part of this discussion and is that something NASA should consider going forward?

Orlando Figueroa: No, we did not look at adding any other instrumentation or science. And that is a bigger conversation by the way, in the context of the overall Mars program because there are multiple ways to look at that. You have aging assets where it's more than just telecommunications for us was critical to support sample-return, but there are aging assets in all other aspects. So this is one of the reasons why we also say you have to integrate this program so that the community feels that their interests are being listened to and recognizing that sample-return is in the middle of that mix. So you optimize your budgets. Now there are project scientists supporting the effort and there is a program scientist at NASA headquarters, but not a fully unified voice that says this is what we are all about in Mars sample-return. And for the community to believe that their interests are not being ignored, to truly believe it. And by the way, in the present fiscal environment, that is hard to do. It's very hard to do because everyone is pulling in different directions out of concern for what the budgets may bring. And that hasn't been fully addressed just yet. We won't know until later this year. Right?

Casey Dreier: Yeah. If even. Yeah. Did you consider the role of commercial or private contributions to a reformulation of this project? And I've seen that discussed. Like, why can't a commercial lander be built? Why can't we do a fixed cost contribution? Why are we doing cost-plus contracts from these large NASA centers? Is that the core of this cost increase that we're looking at? So was that part of the conversation and if not, why isn't that appropriate in Mars sample-return?

Orlando Figueroa: Two things that are alluded to in the report. One is that there are many large contracts already in place with the commercial sector. So in the plans whomever looks at it needs to be careful that you consider what happens if you cancel any of those to go into any direction. So it's not that there isn't commercial participation, there is a significant amount of commercial participation.

Casey Dreier: We're talking about with classic aerospace contractors though, correct?

Orlando Figueroa: Correct.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, so it's like Lockheed and Northrop and others.

Orlando Figueroa: [inaudible 01:11:22].

Casey Dreier: Yeah. But not necessarily how, I'd say maybe a more a layperson would consider what commercial is these days, there's no fixed price or there's no companies putting their own skin in the game. This is kind of standard contracting methods.

Orlando Figueroa: That is correct. That is correct. We said now if you look at who is participating, government or otherwise, there are people that have a lot of experience doing this kind of thing. They have done this before, they know the risk, they know how to manage it, et cetera. We said, however, you look at the architecture alternatives, you could consider whether there is a point of entry for others to participate, but you need to be careful that they have the experience and expertise to do what you may think about asking them to do because this is very hard. And if a goal is to bring some commercial providers along, you need to prepare yourselves for the risk and uncertainties associated with it. We have plenty of experience to show how hard it is to get in this business. This is a very unforgiving business and that should not be taken as a negative into the commercial sector, it is that you need to recognize that they have to be brought along on a path that is different. Not to assume that they can do it and we're going to launch in 2029, 2030, whatever, because you're setting yourself up for failure, programmatic or technical. So it was just NASA, we understand what you did with this, we understand the risks. The risks are reflected in how evaluated the programmatic. If you choose other architectures, it may warrant for you to look at other possibilities, but be aware and prepare yourselves for how you go about it. Right-

Casey Dreier: Just to build on what you're saying, I think you're talking about both technical and financial risk in terms of, will company be around in 15 years still ready to do this one thing? And I think that's the key that I see is that we look at things like clips or other commercial things that are just experiments that are getting going, they need lots of shots on goal. You need lots of opportunities to try and practice and commercial seems to do really well fixed price in providing the same thing lots of times. And this is a bespoke one-off mission with no... there's no long-term future of Mars sample-return missions. This is it. And as we discussed earlier, it has to work. It's like this level, you're paying the money in a sense for that assurance that this is going to work or at least as much as you possibly can in advance.

Orlando Figueroa: Absolutely. And the best talent you could possibly imagine from a US and ISA to support it. By the way, when you think in terms of the investment on the moon right now and the interest from the commercial sector and the things that they're going to get to practice on and knock on wood, we will get there, we as a nation will get there, you can imagine that being extended to the Mars environment. But we're not quite there yet and they are two different beasts. So it has to be part of a longer-term agenda that says we're going to also start bringing along a community. And by the way, the Mars Exploration Program had these things as their goals for the future. Bring the commercial sector, they can provide communication infrastructure. There are many other things that they can graduate to if you want to open it more broadly than the present classical, I should say not typical, there's nothing typical about them, but classical aerospace communities that we know.

Casey Dreier: Did your review board ever just consider saying this isn't worth it? And it's not worth it, the opportunity cost is too high? Or at least in the scope of this, was this an open part of that conversation, or did you always go in assuming this would go forward?

Orlando Figueroa: That's a great question. The board you may have noticed was very diverse. I mentioned you had technology, commercial sector, private sector, system engineers, managers, political backgrounds, you name it. We ended up with an incredibly competent and diverse board. One of the things that I asked them to do, because I was sensing this tensions within the community, not within the board itself to do the homework so that we as members could convince ourselves as to the importance and challenge of this mission. And the national academies and our internal discussions brought along a lot of material that rebuilt the history of why this is so important. Because we felt that if you're going to invest any sums of money in the territory, even about $5 billion, 5 to 10, what have you, we have to be convinced that this was worth doing, right? What worried us was that if people did not recognize the resources in human capital in dollars required to do it under clear guidelines and do it right, you're setting yourself up for failure. Those discussions we did have, right? It was not that this isn't worth doing. It is that this is not worth doing if you're not going to do it right. If you're not going to be committed to this all in, we are all in on this, that is a formula for potential disasters.

Casey Dreier: Don't half-ass your way to Mars sample-return?

Orlando Figueroa: Exactly, right, don't-

Casey Dreier: Kennedy challenged Congress basically with that formulation of Apollo, either we do this all the way or we don't try. And I need to know you're with me to do this.

Orlando Figueroa: And that's exactly the comparison is somewhat uneven, but it is that kind of conversation. We know what it takes, we know that this is going to be an end-to-end effort. By the way, we know that the story doesn't end with samples landing. The story begins, a new stage begins with the samples landing just like OSIRIS-REx and the Bennu samples. And just recently in fact, even from the moon where now with new instrumentation on technology are uncovering things that were not possible 10, 20 years ago. So that whole story is going to evolve and I have every expectation that we're going to be blown away by what we learn as a world community. But as you said it, you are all in or you're not.

Casey Dreier: I have two more questions before we wrap up. One I think is an important point that I've seen you bring up multiple times in discussions and that's in terms of again, this idea of opportunity cost, and we've seen people in the community say, well, this is too expensive. If we don't do Mars sample-return, then some other mission can be done instead. Mars sample-return right now in the last budget approved by Congress received around $850 million. That's larger than the Heliophysics division. But if this project was canceled, and this is something your report discusses, you don't anticipate that this money flows back into planetary science or even the science mission directorate.

Orlando Figueroa: Yes. I mean, anyone that has taken the time to familiarize themselves with the fiscal environment and how NASA and the government works, things don't work that way. It's not rob Peter to pay Paul. It has to be some context. And so those that are assuming that just take it out of sample-return and distribute it equally among your children, it just doesn't work that way.

Casey Dreier: Well, I guess we've seen a test of this theory, which again is that Senate budget that has been moving through the Senate side where they say, if you can't do Mars sample-return under this arbitrary cap, then consider yourself canceled and the unallocated funds doesn't go back to science mission. All of it moves into Artemis. So right there I think is a perfect example of what you're talking about. It is in the language. It is in plain language saying if Mars sample-return doesn't happen, it leaves the science mission directorate. And I think that's really important to remember that sometimes doing big things can actually help coalesce bigger budgets or coerce bigger budgets. Because you're ambitious and pushing for something new, but that's not like a preexisting pot of money that is then divvied up in the sense they look at what NASA wants to do and then tries to get the money to do it.

Orlando Figueroa: Yes, and that is why it is worrisome to see a community divided, right? And the present fiscal environment just doesn't help because it amplifies the fears in the eyes of the community. But this is where I once again emphasize that this is where agency leadership needs to step in and be consistent and unified in a message. This is what this is all about, why it's so important to us as a nation, to ISA, our partner, for now and for the future, and we are either in or we are not.

Casey Dreier: The last kind of question to close this out, given everything you saw in this effort that you and your board members reviewed, which is by the way was a lot of work, I just want to emphasize, you spent about a year-

Orlando Figueroa: Tell me about it.

Casey Dreier: Not just communicating it but doing it, and you have a nice list of your schedule. You really looked under the hood of this project. Given the problems you saw, given the management mistakes that were made, given the divided community you just mentioned, can NASA do this if they want to? Do you have confidence with or without changes in management that NASA can do this, and how many of your recommendations do you think they need to embrace in order to make this successful?

Orlando Figueroa: My view is that they need to take every one of the recommendations darn seriously, number one. Number two, do I have confidence in NASA being able to pull off big things like this? Absolutely. I lived it. I know what it means. We've been in situations like this before. But this is where actually the leadership needs to be visible, step in, continue repeating the message over and over and over. The moment they relax in that responsibility, we start falling back behind.

Casey Dreier: That's great. Orlando Figueroa, you've done many things with NASA over the years, director of the Mars Program Exploration Program, deputy of SMD, you're an aerospace consultant now, but we're here as you were the chair of the Mars sample-return second independent review board. I want to thank you for the time but also thank you and your whole board for the great work you did on this report. I really do recommend everyone read it. It is comprehensive, it is fascinating, frustrating at times, but I think very important. And I hope it is the kick in the pants that NASA needs to get this mission done and done right. And I guess we can revisit this in a year or two and see how things are going. But until then, Orlando, thank you very much for being here with us this month.

Orlando Figueroa: Thank you for the opportunity.

Casey Dreier: That was Orlando Figueroa. I appreciate him taking the time to join and discuss this really fascinating, troubled, but I think still this profoundly exciting mission. And nothing worth doing should be easy or it tends to be easy. Mars sample-return is the essence of that. It's difficult for a reason or there's a reason no one's ever done it before because it is just profoundly difficult. So I want to see this work. NASA will be following up with a formal response in early spring of next year to how they intend to continue this mission. They seem optimistic there's a path forward and we are ready here at The Planetary Society to support this highest priority of the Planetary Science community Decadal Survey, and just a long time goal of our organization for decades now of this really exciting thing. Jack, you and I will be standing at the launch of, or maybe the return when we're old men of these samples coming down in the Utah Desert. And I hope to be there with you and we'll open a bottle of champagne when we see these samples come back.

Jack Kiraly: Absolutely. It's truly a set of missions, a program of multiple missions that truly encapsulates the inspiring work that is being done at NASA. It is really in getting caught up in all things Mars science in this role, reading stories and ideas being passed around in the 1960s and 1970s, about maybe one-day sample-return from Mars will be a reality, and now seeing it that we are having this discussion that it is being put together, and that is being put together thoughtfully is very important. And just goes to show that with the right people at the right time, with the right budget, with the right program can accomplish truly phenomenal things, and making sure that we are in the position to succeed is going to be worth the weight and to see what is in those samples is going to revolutionize our understanding of the universe of life itself. I'm sure of it.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. No small thing, just could possibly revolutionize our understanding of life.

Jack Kiraly: Yeah, just one of these fundamental questions of life.

Casey Dreier: Jack, it's been a delight to be back this month, the Space Policy Edition. We will be back next month. We are back to our usual monthly cadence of the first Friday of every month for Space Policy Edition. Until then, make sure to subscribe to our Space Advocate newsletter at advocate. That's a free monthly newsletter with an essay by me and key policy highlights that are happening throughout the world. Jack, you have mentioned, and I will re-mention our current advocacy action that anyone living in the United States can fill out at Anything else that we should leave our listeners with this month?

Jack Kiraly: If you have listened to this entire episode and have not gone to, what are you doing? This is the time we need you. We need you to take this action to write your members of Congress because this is where it all begins. And I want to be part of this journey. I know you, if you're listening to this episode, you want to be part of this journey to unravel those mysteries of the universe that we keep talking about. And Mars sample-return is a key part of that program, a key part of that vision as are missions like Veritas and DaVinci and Dragonfly and NEO Surveyor, but we need, need, need your help to make this a reality.

Casey Dreier: The longest journey begins with the smallest step of advocate action, let's say.

Jack Kiraly: Of sending a letter to Congress.

Casey Dreier: Sending a letter to Congress. Jack, thanks again. Thank you so much for listening. If you love the show, share it with a friend or consider joining us as a member at The Planetary Society, and continue to make this all happen at We will see you next month on the Space Policy Edition. Until then, Jack, ad astra.

Jack Kiraly: Casey, ad astra.