Mars Sample Return in Financial Bind Already

Mars Sample Return in Financial Bind Already

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told a congressional subcommittee today that he learned just two weeks ago that the Mars Sample Return mission needs an additional $250 million in this current fiscal year, FY 2023, and another $250 million on top of what is requested for FY2024, to stay on track for launch later this decade. Senators queried Nelson about cuts they are seeing to other NASA science projects to pay for MSR.

NASA’s $8.3 billion FY2024 budget request for science is a record, but the liens on that budget are impressive not only because of the number of projects in the pipeline, but the impact of inflation and lingering COVID-related supply chain issues.

Returning samples from Mars has been a top priority for planetary scientists for decades. It’s an expensive proposition. Technical complexity and cost have been the obstacles, but NASA hopes it found a solution through partnering with the European Space Agency.

The first steps are being taken right now. NASA’s Perseverance rover is on Mars today collecting samples with the expectation that later this decade they will be transferred to a Mars Ascent Vehicle to boost them into orbit around Mars where they will meet up with an ESA spacecraft that will bring them back to Earth.

But it’s still expensive. In 2020, a NASA Independent Review Board (IRB) concluded NASA should plan to spend $3.8-4.4 billion for its share.

A lot has changed since then. The program was replanned after ESA withdrew from providing a lander and “fetch” rover that would have gone to the samples to pick them up.  NASA is building a stationary lander that will deliver the MAV. If Perseverance is still operating, it will transport the samples to the lander. If not, two helicopters modeled after the over-achieving Ingenuity Mars helicopter that just completed its 50th flight will be aboard to go get them.

Illustration of the spacecraft for the replanned 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

All of that is increasing the costs to NASA and raising concerns about the impact on other NASA science programs.

Nelson told the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee today that he just learned two weeks ago during a visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is building MSR, that they need an additional $250 million this year and above the request for FY2024 to stay on schedule for launch in 2028.

In answer to a question from subcommittee chairwoman Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Nelson said he and Shaheen’s staff were just at JPL “and they’re saying they want another $250 million in this year. Meaning in this year, existing 2023, and 2024.”

The FY2024 request warns that the projections for future MSR funding requirements are likely to grow and force NASA to descope the mission or reduce funding for other science projects. NASA just set up a second IRB to take another look at the program.

Nelson was responding to questions from both Shaheen and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), each of whom represent states deeply involved in NASA science missions that are seeing proposed cuts in order to pay for MSR.

Slide presented by Nicky Fox, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, at March 23, 2023 virtual community Town Hall meeting.

NASA has been open about making cuts to heliophysics and astrophysics to shift funds to MSR, but Van Hollen said the request also includes a 20 percent cut to the Dragonfly planetary science mission to study Saturn’s moon Titan and to earth science programs.

“I am troubled by the fact that it looks like the monies” taken from heliophysics and Dragonfly went to increasing funding for MSR, Van Hollen said, and the request “proposes to zero out the Earth Observing System satellites, Terra, Aqua and Aura, which are still productive.”

Nelson acknowedged the problem, but put the solution back in Congress’s hands.

“This budget represents the largest science budget ever, $8.3 billion. Now how do you get 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5 pound sack? Something has to be delayed. … What are you going to do when all of sudden the Jet Propulsion Laboratory says we need another $250 million in this year. And that was just said two weeks ago. So all of these things we need to work on with you and as I have said earlier … we can propose a budget, that is [what the] President proposes, but you dispose.” — Bill Nelson

Nelson was a Senator for 18 years and a member of the House of Representatives before that, so is very familiar with the saying that “the President proposes, but the Congress disposes” on government funding since under the Constitution only Congress decides how taxpayer money is spent. The President’s annual budget request is just that, a request.

Van Hollen went a step further, though, noting that the preliminary design of the MSR was questioned by the Independent Review Board, which is not the case with Dragonfly. Why is MSR getting more funding when it “has not stacked up well compared to some of the other programs like Dragonfly?”

Nelson pointed out the design changed because ESA withdrew from providing the lander/rover (although it is still building the Earth Return Orbiter to bring the samples back to Earth) and NASA had to come up with the new plan.

“So as you can see, there’s been a lot of scrambling to catch up because it was a design that evaporated in mid-air.” — Bill Nelson

But tough choices will have to be made unless Congress adds funding, which will be quite a challenge when House Republicans want to roll back government spending to FY2022 levels as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) spelled out yesterday. There is a lot of discussion that defense spending will be exempted from the cuts, increasing the burden on non-defense discrentionary spending, which includes NASA. Nelson laid out the “devastating” impacts on NASA if such cuts were imposed in a letter to the House Appropriations Committee last month.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Chair, Senate Appropriations Committee. Credit: Senate committee website

On a positive note, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the new chair of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, participated in the CJS hearing today that was both on NASA’s budget request and that for the National Science Foundation. She made the case that spending on science and technology programs is just as important as defense spending in ensuring U.S. leadership in the world.

“These hearings are really an important opportunity for us to assess what we need to keep our country competitive on the world stage and to keep folks back home safe and sound. And they’re also an important reminder that defense is just one part of the equation. If we maintain our competitive edge we have to stay at the forefront of scientific discovery. And NASA and the National Science Foundation both have long storied histories of helping our country do that. …

“The list of ways that [our nation has] established itself as a world leader is much more than a list of military achievements. It is a story of inquiry, invention, innovation, exploration and discovery of new frontiers. You know our country has seen time and again how those investments really pay off. They do strengthen our defense. They strengthen our economy. They strengthen our global leadership. … It makes our lives better. It makes our nation safer in really tangible ways. …

“The Moon landing didn’t just affirm our leadership in space and science, it inspired a new generation of kids to study STEM as Bill [Nelson] has told me many times.” — Sen. Patty Murray

Murray and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) are the new Chair and Vice Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, succeeding Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) who retired.  Murray and Collins issued a joint statement earlier this year vowing to work together on a bipartisan basis and restore “regular order” to passing appropriations bills.

Shelby’s successor in the Senate, Sen. Katie Britt (R-AL), is a member of the CJS subcommittee. A former Shelby staffer, her questions today, not surprisingly, focused on NASA and the Marshall Space Flight Center.


Correction: An earlier version of this article said that ESA withdrew from providing the lander that was to deliver the MAV and NASA now had to provide that lander. The original plan was for NASA to provide a lander that would deliver the MAV and ESA’s rover, but that changed to a two-lander design where ESA would provide its own lander for the rover and NASA’s lander would be only for the MAV. Thereafter, ESA withdrew from providing its lander/rover. NASA is still building a lander with the MAV, and is adding the two helicopters to retrieve samples as a backup in case Perseverance cannot make it to the MAV.

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