NASA Establishes Independent Review Board for Mars Sample Return

NASA Establishes Independent Review Board for Mars Sample Return

NASA just established a board to make an independent assessment of the agency’s plans to bring a sample of Mars back to Earth.  The Mars Perseverance rover now on its way to the Red Planet is the first step of this international effort to achieve what has long been a top priority of the planetary science community. If everything falls into place, the first samples could be back here in 2031.

Perseverance carries 43 cigar-shaped sample tubes that will be filled with rocks and soil from a variety of locations as it roves around Jezero crater after it arrives next February. The tubes will be left on the Martian surface for later retrieval by a “Fetch Rover” that will place them in a container and onto a rocket that will send them into orbit around Mars. A third spacecraft, the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO), will collect the container and return it to Earth. The three-part enterprise is called Mars Sample Return (MSR).

Illustration of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover leaving sample return tubes on surface of Mars. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

MSR is a partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). NASA’s Perseverance is the first of the three spacecraft needed. Next is the Sample Return Lander, which includes the Fetch Rover to retrieve the samples and a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) to send the samples into orbit. NASA will build and launch the lander/MAV, while ESA provides the Fetch Rover. Third is the ERO, which requires a sample capture mechanism and an Earth reentry capsule. ESA will build and launch the ERO, while NASA provides the sample capture mechanism and the reentry capsule.

The plan is to launch both the Sample Return Lander/Fetch Rover/MAV spacecraft and the ERO in 2026. ESA’s governing body has already committed to the first third of the 1.5 billion Euros ESA will require. Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, estimates NASA’s cost at $2.5-3.0 billion while stressing that is a “first guess,” not the result of  a rigorous costing exercise. That does not include the cost of Perseverance or building a biologically-secure containment facility to house the samples once they are back on Earth. Perseverance cost $2.4 billion to build ($2.7 billion if operations and other costs are included).

Zurbuchen said he was creating an Independent Review Board (IRB) for MSR now in order to maximize mission success.

David Thompson, former President of Orbital ATK (which was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2018), will chair the IRB.  Its task is to review the technical concept of the mission for “robustness and the ability to satisfy the mission’s essential requirements.”

Thompson said the review “will give us the chance to focus on overall mission success and to consider potential improvements that can be made early in the program to help ensure that outcome.”

The IRB is expected to begin its work later this month and spend 8 weeks reviewing the current plan.  A report to NASA is due an unspecified number of weeks later.

MSR was the top priority in the last planetary science Decadal Survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in 2011. NASA and ESA had an agreement at that time to cooperate on a “campaign” of missions to achieve the MSR goal, but the United States withdrew in 2012 after the Obama Administration deemed it unaffordable.  The decision followed significant cost overruns and a two-year launch delay on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity and the revelation of new cost overruns for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Both are “flagship” science missions and the idea of starting a new flagship mission, MSR, was not popular in the Administration. The decision was very controversial in the planetary science community and Congress, however, and ultimately led to the decision to build Perseverance (or “Mars 2020” as it was called for many years).

Still, concern about cost overruns on flagship programs remains. Zurbuchen began taking steps soon after he became head of NASA’s science programs to ensure JWST’s successor, WFIRST — recently renamed the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope — does not follow in JWST’s programmatic footsteps.

The announcement about the MSR IRB noted that a 2017 independent review for WFIRST “helped the team make successful scope and cost trades” before NASA made a commitment to the cost and schedule.

Congress historically is a strong supporter of NASA’s science programs, but how a Mars Sample Return mission can fit into NASA’s budget between now and 2026 is a tall order. The agency already is under a White House directive to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, U.S. policy to continue operations of the International Space Station at least until 2024 (likely to be extended to 2028 or 2030), and a congressional requirement to send two probes to Jupiter’s moon Europa in 2025 and 2027 (both flagship missions). Congress also supports NASA’s plan to launch WFIRST/Roman Space Telescope around 2025 although the Trump Administration wants to terminate that program.

The IRB’s task may be to assess MSR’s technical concept, but “overall mission success” also requires a realistic look at affordability.  How far Thompson’s group goes in that direction will be interesting to watch.

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