From the Chief of Space Policy
In the spring of 1977, less than a year after the Viking landers first landed on the Martian surface, NASA released its official budget request to Congress. Tucked away in the text, almost as an aside, was $10 million to begin planning future Mars missions, including a “surface sample return mission as early as 1988.”
I write this in the Summer of 2023, 46 years later, and Mars Sample Return remains nearly a decade away. It’s astonishing to consider both the optimism and hubris contained in that small request, given the collective effort, success, and failures of the past quarter century of robotic Mars exploration. Mars does not give up its secrets easily.
Mars Sample Return is now a multi-mission, multi-center, multi-agency project that is undergoing detailed project designs. It’s not cheap. This year alone MSR will spend $822 million. Next year NASA requested $949 million. But the project seems to teeter on the edge of feasibility. Leaked cost estimates placed an upper range of $9 billion for the endeavor, nearly twice what the most recent decadal survey report assumed it would cost. NASA responded by convening an unprecedented second independent review panel to assess the project. The fate of Mars Sample Return very likely rests on their recommendation, which will be released by September.
To some extent, the uncertainty and cost growth of Mars Sample Return is the outcome of a system working as intended. The formulation period it’s in right now — akin to drafting detailed blueprints before building a house — is supposed to discover problems, technical issues, hidden complexities, and other difficulties before construction begins in earnest. The cost estimates that have been leaked are selective and lack context (for example, do they assume significant project delays that would lower annual costs but increase total expenses?).
At the end of the day, the planetary science community, through the decadal survey process, was clear about its support: “The highest scientific priority of NASA’s robotic exploration efforts this decade should be the completion of Mars Sample Return as soon as is practicably possible,” they wrote. Nowhere does it say that the effort should be abandoned if it costs too much. Congress directed NASA to follow decadal recommendations; not pursuing MSR would be unprecedented.
Perhaps the keywords here are “practicably possible.” For over 50 years, Mars Sample Return has been impractical. I believe we have the technology. But it remains to be seen if the costs can be kept in the “practical” realm. Nothing is official yet, and perhaps this leak may help motivate the project to focus on cost control, taking nothing for granted.
For the record, I still think it’s worth it. Unlike 1977, we have samples in-(robotic)hand. Perseverance has dutifully done its job and prepared a rich cache of Mars for us. It would be a shame to let those slowly waste away on the surface; abandoned relics covered in eons of red sand.
Until next time,
Chief of Space Policy
The Planetary Society
Space Policy Highlights
What’s going on with Mars Sample Return? (planetary.org) "Mars Sample Return is in the midst of an extensive review and revision period unique among modern planetary missions. Recent updates from NASA, as well as leaked preliminary cost estimates totaling as much as $9 billion over the next ten years, suggest that the project is facing a number of technical, budgetary, and, ultimately, political challenges."
Regulating a maturing commercial spaceflight industry (thespacereview.com) "Since the passage of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, the commercial human spaceflight industry has been in a so-called “learning period” that restricts the FAA’s ability to regulate the safety of spaceflight participants on those vehicles. That period, originally scheduled to run for eight years but extended several times, allows the FAA to regulate spaceflight participant safety only in the event of an accident that kills or seriously injures people on a flight...that learning period is now scheduled to expire at the end of September, and many in industry are lobbying for another extension.
Interest grows for human spaceflight in Europe (spacenews.com) "As the European Space Agency continues to develop proposals for human space exploration efforts, more European countries are showing an interest in launching astronauts. The interest by several ESA member states in private astronaut missions is a positive sign for the agency’s plans for human space exploration...“Sweden, Poland and many others are now inspired by this ambition to go to space and have an astronaut flying into space,” said [ESA Director General Aschbacher]. “This momentum starts developing, and I can only say it’s nice to see.”
India, a growing space power, is forging closer ties with NASA (arstechnica.com) "When India’s ambassador to the US signed up his country to the Artemis Accords last month, it signaled the world’s most populous nation—with a growing prowess in spaceflight—could be turning toward the United States as a partner in space exploration."
Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition
We check in on the congressional budget process for NASA, Mars Sample Return’s spiraling cost growth, and the impending end of the regulatory holiday for human commercial space launch companies. Jack Kiraly, director of government relations for The Planetary Society, joins host Casey Dreier to provide the latest insight and analysis on these issues.