Mars Sample Return cost growth threatens other science missions

WASHINGTON — NASA’s efforts to return samples from Mars are facing rising costs that are putting pressure not only on other planetary science missions but also on a major heliophysics mission.

NASA, in its 2024 budget proposal, requested $949.3 million for Mars Sample Return (MSR), the program that will send missions to Mars to take samples collected by the Perseverance rover and return them to Earth. MSR is a joint effort with the European Space Agency, with NASA leading the work on a lander and ESA an orbiter.

This funding is not only a significant increase from the $653.2 million allocated for the MSR in fiscal year 2023, but also a 19% increase from the $800 million that NASA projected last year to spend on the program in fiscal year 2024. “The budget supports increased requirements in (fiscal year) 2024 to ensure the project continues to make progress toward confirmation and support the earliest possible launch date,” NASA stated in its full budget request.

NASA’s budget documents also warned that costs will continue to grow. The 2024 request made no changes to future “outyears” projections from last year’s proposal, expecting to spend $700 million in fiscal year 2025, $600 million in 2026 and $612.1 million in 2027. The new budget proposal also expected to spend $627.6 million by 2028.

“Mars Sample Return costs are expected to increase beyond what is shown in the outyear profile of this budget,” NASA stated in the proposal. “To address this budget challenge, NASA will either need to reduce funding for other activities within the science program or eliminate elements of the Mars Sample Return mission.” That could include removing one of the two sample retrieval helicopters added to the MSR mission concept last year, the document noted.

During a March 13 briefing on the budget proposal, NASA officials provided few details about what is driving these increased costs. Nicola Fox, the new associate administrator for science, said the agency worked through a series of preliminary design reviews (PDRs) for the MSR this year before formally confirming the mission.

Agency officials also said little about cost growth during a town hall meeting on MSR at the March 16 Lunar and Planetary Sciences conference. Jeff Gramling, MSR director at NASA Headquarters, said he expected the series of PDRs of elements in the overall campaign to end with a system-level PDR in September. That would be followed by a confirmation review as early as October.

This review, known in agency parlance as Key Decision Point C, is also where NASA sets formal cost and scheduling commitments for programs. NASA has yet to offer an official cost estimate for the MSR, and when asked during the town hall meeting for a “ballpark” estimate, Gramling declined to provide one.

“I don’t think I’m in a position right now to give you cost data because we’re still working it through our processes,” he said. This effort includes “grassroots” cost estimates coming through the various reviews as well as a separate independent review planned prior to the system-level PDR.

However, the growing cost of the Mars Sample Return is affecting other agency science programs. NASA cited the cost of the MSR, as well as the personnel and other resources required for it, as a reason for delaying the VERITAS Venus mission last fall, putting the future of that mission in jeopardy.

These effects go beyond NASA’s planetary programs. In the fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, NASA said it is seeking to suspend work on a major heliophysics mission, the Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC). That mission, a recommendation of the 2013 Heliophysics Ten Year Survey, would fly a set of six spacecraft that would study the interaction between the upper atmosphere and magnetosphere and the Sun.

NASA had already selected instruments for the mission through a competition and solicited proposals for the six spacecraft. Those proposals are due Feb. 10, with NASA expected to make an award in October to support a launch by 2029 at the latest.

“The budget proposes to halt GDC development, as continued development would have required a significant increase in funding at a time when other space science missions, such as the Mars Sample Return mission, also have high budget requirements,” NASA said in its budget documents. NASA is seeking just $10 million for the mission, compared to the $49.4 million expected for GDC in 2024 from last year’s budget proposal. The 2024 request keeps GDC funding at $10 million in 2025 and 2026, then resets it.

The GDC delay is a major factor in an overall reduction of heliophysics in the budget, from the $805 million it received in 2023 to a request of $750.9 million in 2024. That could be an issue in the Senate, where the Appropriations Subcommittee, that funds NASA is chaired by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (DN.H.), whose home state is involved in many heliophysics missions.

“It’s not smart to do things like cut the thing that you think is the president’s highest priority,” Jean Toal Eisen, vice president of corporate strategy at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy and a former Senate Appropriations staffer, said during a March 16 webinar by the Aerospace Industries Association. “They just want to put it back and take the money away from something that you cared about.”

The warnings in the budget proposal about cost increases in MSR “are not a good place to be,” Casey Dreier, director of space policy at The Planetary Society, said in the same webinar. That increases the risk, he said, of the sample retrieval lander missing its 2028 launch window. “It’s going to be a tough grant process to get the money needed now to keep that schedule.”

The Planetary Science Ten-Year Review published in April 2022 approved continued work on the Mars Sample Return. However, it recommended that if costs rose at least 20% above a projection of $5.3 billion, as the adopted report, or if costs in a year exceeded 35% of NASA’s total planetary science budget, the agency should request the White House and Congress on additional funding to ensure that MSR does not “undermine the long-term programmatic balance of the planetary portfolio.”

Using the projections in the NASA budget proposal and going back to when MSR became a stand-alone program in fiscal year 2021, the agency expects to spend at least $5.2 billion on MSR through 2028, a total that will grow from both expected cost increases through 2028 and expenditure necessary for MSR after 2028 through the planned return of samples in 2033.

“I think it’s a relatively crisp budget,” Dreier said of the overall NASA budget proposal. “If any of these programs, or Artemis itself, really goes astray in terms of blowing its schedule or budget, you’re going to see some serious downstream consequences within the agency.”

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