Is Mars Sample Return in jeopardy? US Senate slashes NASA budget

A former NASA science chief said exploding costs for the Mars Sample Return mission could 'torch the whole science community.'
Chris Young
An artist's impression of several MSR robots.
An artist's impression of several MSR robots.

NASA / JPL-Caltech 

NASA is facing serious budget concerns over its Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, which is slated to launch to the red planet in 2028.

On Thursday, July 14, the US Senate offered less than half of NASA's requested budget for the mission, and it voiced concerns over budget overruns and impacts on other NASA missions, a report from Ars Technica reveals.

The Mars Sample Return mission is NASA's ambitious plan to retrieve samples, collected by its Mars Perseverance rover, and return them to Earth using a fleet of robotic, autonomous spacecraft.

The problem with NASA's Mars Sample Return mission

NASA had originally requested $949 million for the fiscal year of 2024 to support MSR. In its proposed budget, released Thursday, the Senate offered $300 million, with a major caveat — if NASA cannot assure Congress that the mission's overall cost won't exceed $5.3 billion, it will rescind the $300 million.

If that were to happen, most of the $300 million would be reallocated to the space agency's Artemis Moon missions.

A committee report explained that Congress has so far spent $1.739 billion on MSR, Ars Technica reports. Despite the massive outlay, the launch date for the ambitious Mars mission is expected to slip past 2028, and budget overruns also have the potential to impact other NASA missions.

"The Committee has significant concerns about the technical challenges facing MSR and potential further impacts on confirmed missions, even before MSR has completed preliminary design review," the report by the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies subcommittee reads.

The new report comes shortly after concerns were raised over the rising costs of MSR. In another report three weeks ago, Ars Technica wrote that NASA was internally discussing scenarios in which the cost of the Mars Sample Return mission could exceed $9 billion. These exploding costs would likely take funding away from other science missions.

In an interview with Ars Technica, former NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen said, "if the answer is this is not the decade to do it, my heart breaks because I put so much effort into it. But it is better to not do it than to torch the whole science community. We have to have the courage to say no. That’s the only way we earn the right to say yes."

NASA has been here before with James Webb

In its report, the Senate cites a budgetary cost estimate of $5.3 billion in the planetary science community's influential "decadal" survey published in 2022. The survey states that, should costs exceed that budget by 20 percent or more, NASA should not take money from other planetary programs. Instead, it should ask Congress for a "budget augmentation."

Now, the US Senate is effectively suggesting that the mission should not go ahead at all if it can't make do with a $5.3 billion budget. That is potentially a massive setback to arguably NASA's most high-profile mission of the 2020s and 2030s. It's worth noting though, that NASA has been here before. In 2011, the US House proposed canceling the James Webb Space Telescope due to delays and cost overruns. That mission recently celebrated its first year of science operations.

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