Mars Sample Return Dominates House Hearing on NASA Science

Mars Sample Return Dominates House Hearing on NASA Science

The fate of NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission dominated today’s hearing before a House Science, Space, and Technology subcommittee on NASA’s science program. While committee members were supportive of the effort to bring samples of Mars back to Earth, they also were cautious about ensuring the program does not experience the huge overruns and schedule delays of past programs like the James Webb Space Telescope.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chairing a hearing on NASA’s science program, March 21, 2024. Screengrab.

Space and Aeronautics subcommittee chair Brian Babin (R-TX) began the hearing with just that message.

“Members of this Committee undoubtedly recall the years of delays and the billions of dollars in cost overruns before the James Webb Space Telescope was launched. Another mission, the Psyche spacecraft, finally launched in 2023 after more than a year delay, which incurred significant costs and impacted other missions, such as the VERITAS mission.

“We want NASA to engage in bold, daring missions. But Congress must direct NASA to take on these missions with a clear understanding of the associated costs and risks. Consistent cost overruns and delays can result in other worthy missions being postponed or canceled and can create a reluctance for Congress to provide additional funding, or even approve such missions in the future.” — Rep. Brian Babin

He added that the hearing was not intended to “chide NASA,” but to understand the challenges in fulfilling the “bold, daring” missions recommended by the Decadal Surveys from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that guide NASA’s science program.

Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA), at House SS&T committee hearing on NASA’s science program, March 21, 2024. Screengrab.

Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA), however, not only chided NASA, but vociferously objected to recent NASA decisions that led to layoffs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA as NASA decides what to do about the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is on Mars collecting the samples right now, but the question is how to get them back here. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are partners in MSR, which has been the top priority of the last two planetary science Decadal Surveys, but the cost of the mission and its potential impact on other NASA planetary science missions is a concern not only to Congress, but the planetary science community as a whole. The most recent Decadal Survey included a $5.3 billion cost estimate.

Illustration of the spacecraft for the new Mars Sample Return campaign architecture. From left: NASA Ingenuity-class helicopter, ESA Earth Return Orbiter, NASA Perseverance rover, NASA lander with ESA robotic arm, and NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In July, the Senate Appropriations Committee said that if MSR exceeds that amount, it should be cancelled. The House Appropriations Committee took the opposite approach, strongly supporting MSR.

Separately an Independent Review Board (IRB) established by NASA made extensive recommendations in September about needed changes to the program and concluded the cost could be as much as $11 billion. NASA is still determining how to respond to the recommendations. This was the second IRB NASA convened to review MSR. The first, in 2020, also recommended major changes.

In February, while NASA was operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) with its FY2024 funding in limbo, the agency decided to “pause” the MSR program lest the Senate position prevail in the final appropriations bill. MSR is managed by JPL, which consequently laid off eight percent of its workforce. Unlike NASA’s civil service field centers around the country, JPL is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology.

Nicky Fox, NASA Science Mission Directorate, at House SS&T committee hearing on NASA’s science program, March 21, 2024. Screengrab.

Nicky Fox, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said at the hearing today the decision was made to ensure NASA did not violate the Anti-Deficiency Act that prohibits government agencies from spending money they don’t have.

Garcia, who also is a member of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA, took strong exception. He complained that NASA “left us in the dark” about what it was going to do and the layoffs are having terrible consequences.

“It was a premature decision,” Garcia exclaimed, asserting NASA “exploited loopholes” in the language in the CR. The “damage is tremendous” to the workforce “not just to my district but to all of Southern California.” He disputed the contention that NASA might have violated the Anti-Deficiency Act. “This argument is technically and legally not true unless” NASA was spending money at an exceptionally high rate or reprogrammed it for other purposes. He and 20 other Members sent a letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson yesterday calling on the agency to fund MSR at no less than $650 million in FY2024.

Fox replied that NASA “did brief Congress a number of times” and NASA does not direct JPL what to do with their workforce, but only gives them guidance on the amount of funding to expect.

NASA’s Inspector General’s office recently conducted its own audit of the MSR program and like the IRB concluded a do-over is needed. Acting Inspector General George Scott said today that “NASA struggles to establish complete, credible and transparent estimates” especially for large, complex missions.

Tom Young, who has decades of experience in government and industry and is often called upon to lead reviews of programs that go awry, said MSR’s future “is in the hands of NASA, congressional and administration leaders. Bold, visionary leadership is needed to put MSR on the path to success” with improvements needed in cost estimating, systems engineering, employee development, and program management.

Jonathan Lunine, Cornell University, at House SS&T committee hearing on NASA’s science program, March 21, 2024. Screengrab.

Despite all the challenges, MSR is viewed as scientifically compelling.  Cornell space scientist Jonathan Lunine, who was a member of the second IRB, expressed confidence MSR will go forward.

“I am supremely confident that it can and will be done. It can be done because American engineering prowess is up to the task. It will be done because as a nation we surely will not simply walk away from a daring, highly visible and scientifically important challenge.” — Jonathan Lunine

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