NASA “Pauses” Mars Sample Return Program While Assessing Options

NASA “Pauses” Mars Sample Return Program While Assessing Options

NASA officials told an advisory committee today they are pausing the Mars Sample Return program as they assess alternative architectures in the wake of increased costs and constrained budgets. A recent independent review put the cost at $8-9.6 billion, far above earlier estimates. Although the House Appropriations Committee signalled support, the Senate Appropriations Committee did not. Concerned the Senate position may prevail when NASA’s FY2024 budget is finalized, they decided to take steps now to reduce near-term spending while determining a path forward.

At a meeting of the Planetary Science Advisory Committee (PAC) this afternoon, Sandra Connelly revealed that last week the three NASA centers involved in the MSR program were directed to begin “ramping back.” Connelly is Deputy Director of the Science Mission Directorate and is leading the NASA team responding to the September report of the second MSR Independent Review Board, IRB-2.

Her team will not make final recommendations until March, but congressional funding uncertainty means some decisions need to be made sooner.

Jeff Gramling, MSR Program Director at NASA Heaquarters, told PAC they are “pausing” the program in FY2024 while determining how to proceed in concert with their partners at the European Space Agency.

“We’re pausing the program in FY2024 while we go off and consider how best to understand and then incorporate how we’re going to change the program and respond to the IRB’s findings. … We brought Steve [Thibault] downtown to be the chief engineer in the Headquarters MSR program office … leading a team that consists of all the implementing centers and our European colleagues to stand back and take a look at the architecture with a fresh set of eyes and figure out not only just how to improve our technical margins and make the mission more robust, but also to see if there are ways to implement it in ways to potentially save costs. We’re also going off and listening to industry and seeing what ideas they have.

“… It’s not just about the architecture, it’s about how do we position the program for long term success and that may mean looking at organizational complexity, internal communications, and how we’re structured to achieve this mission.” — Jeff Gramling

The architecture has changed already as NASA and ESA try to figure out how to get the samples being collected right now by the Perseverance rover onto a rocket to boost them into orbit around Mars where they will meet up with the spacecraft that will deliver them back to Earth. The samples are in tubes, some laying on the Martian surface and others aboard the rover.

NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance took this selfie. composed of 59 images taken by its WATSON camera, on January 22, 2023 at the “Three Forks Sample Depot” at Jezero Crater on Mars where it left 10 cigar-shaped sample tubes for later retrieval. More than 30 more remain on the rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The current plan calls for NASA to build a Sample Return Lander (SRL) equipped with a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) and a robotic arm provided by ESA. Perseverance would drive up next to the lander and the arm would transfer the tubes into the MAV. As a backup, the SRL would carry two Mars helicopters based on the Ingenuity helicopter now on Mars serving as a scout for Perseverance. If Perseverance couldn’t travel to the lander, the helicopters could fly over to a “depot” where some of the cigar-shaped tubes were deposited earlier.

The MAV would lift off from the surface and place the samples in orbit where they would transfer into an ESA-provided  Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) equipped with a NASA-provided Capture, Containtainment, and Return System (CCRS) to protect the samples from contamination by Earth and protect Earth from contamination by the samples.

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

It’s complex and expensive.

For FY2024, NASA is requesting $949 million for MSR and at a hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee in April, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he’d just learned another $250 million was needed to keep it on schedule.

The Senate committee was not impressed and provided only $300 million. In the report to accompany the CJS bill, they directed NASA to come up with a plan with a  “year-by-year funding profile for MSR” that stays within the $5.3 billion lifecycle cost outlined in the 2022 planetary science Decadal Survey by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. If it can’t, “NASA is directed to either provide options to de-scope or rework MSR or face mission cancellation.”

Decadal Surveys, produced by the Academies every 10 years (a decade), lay out the top priorities for NASA science programs. A Mars sample return mission has been the top priority is the two most recent Decadals for planetary science. The current Decadal cautions against allowing Mars Sample Return to crowd out other planetary science projects, however, calling for MSR funding not to exceed 35 percent of the annual planetary science budget.

The Senate bill hasn’t gone to the floor yet. The House is getting ready to consider its version this week. Unlike the Senate, the House CJS subcommittee (the bill was not reported from the full committee) approved full funding for MSR.

Nonetheless, Connelly said today the uncertainty is leading them to make cutbacks already at the centers involved in the program: Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA; Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL; and Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.

Connelly and Nicky Fox, SMD’s Associate Administrator, said they are going to focus just on getting the samples into orbit around Mars, not back to Earth.

That means development of the CCRS will be set aside for now. They will take it through Preliminary Design Review “to make sure it’s well documented and at a place where we can pause” and pick it back up later if needed, Connelly explained.

“Basically the direction is to not continue [CCRS] at this point in time because we’re going to prioritize getting the samples in orbit in parallel with what was recommended by the IRB. And in doing so, it doesn’t preclude us from using that as one of the architecture alternatives moving forward, but it does allow us to preserve funding for this year, which is going to be critical. — Sandra Connelly

NASA and ESA were planning to launch the SRL/MAV in 2027 and the ERO/CCRS in 2028, but the IRB-2 said that was not realistic. They currently are targeting 2030, but that also may not be possible.

Fox said they haven’t given up on 2030 yet, though. “We are in an unprecedented reduction in our operating budget in SMD,” but are looking “for creative ways to be able to still do Mars Sample Return” within “an annual budget we can stomach.”  It could be that 2030 will not work, but they remain committed to that date for now while “all options are on the table.” Pushing the date further into the 2030s “is in the trade space, but we are not ready to do that yet. The idea is to try and look for alternate architectures to preserve that date.”

In a statement to after the meeting, NASA emphasized that the focus for now will be getting the samples into orbit around Mars.

“NASA is in a constrained and unpredictable budgetary environment that requires thoughtful consideration of plans and activities for all future missions, especially flagship missions, while also ensuring a balanced portfolio. Under these circumstances – and in order to leave flexibility to evaluate future options for the Mars Sample Return – direction was provided to centers on expected funding in the near term with guidance on current workforce priorities. Consistent with recommendations from the Independent Review Board (IRB), the MSR mission will in the near term prioritize those parts of the mission design that retrieve the samples and get them into orbit around Mars.” — NASA statement

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