NASA Requests Funding for ExoMars While Warning MSR Costs May Grow

NASA Requests Funding for ExoMars While Warning MSR Costs May Grow

NASA’s FY2024 budget request includes a record-breaking $8.26 billion for science. The largest component is planetary science that includes the NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return mission to bring samples now being collected by the Perseverance rover back to Earth. The request includes almost $1 billion for MSR, but comes with a warning that costs may grow and it may need to be descoped or other science missions cut. NASA also is requesting money to help ESA finish the ExoMars mission after it severed its partnership with Russia.

The science budget funds programs in astrophysics, biological and physical sciences in space, earth science, heliophysics, and planetary science.

Although the request is at record levels, so are the demands.

Among the most expensive flagship missions now in development are the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope to follow the James Webb Space Telescope, the Europa Clipper mission to study Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Mars Sample Return.

Many smaller missions also are in development including the Near Earth Objects Surveyor, or NEO Surveyor, to locate asteroids 140 meters or more in diameter that might threaten Earth. Last year NASA proposed a dramatic cut to funding for NEO Surveyor because it was deemed of lower priority than other science programs. Congress pushed back because the project responds to congressional direction in the 2005 NASA authorization act to locate potentially hazardous asteroids. In the end, Congress added some money, but not enough to keep it on track for launch in 2026. NASA rescoped the project for launch in 2028, but the cost doubled to $1.2 billion for development. The FY2024 request includes funding to keep that date.

But it is just one example of the stresses on the science budget as projects cope with cost overruns due to supply chain disruptions and other effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation, and technical issues.  NASA delayed another project, the VERITAS mission to Venus, for three years because of overruns on a completely unrelated mission, Psyche, that missed its 2022 launch window because it could not verify its software in time. Psyche was so close to being ready for launch NASA didn’t want to cancel it, but the money to finish it and pay for the one-year delay had to come from somewhere and VERITAS drew the short straw.

Against that backdrop, the text of NASA’s budget request warns that difficult choices may be in the offing for MSR.

OMB’s summary of NASA’s FY2024 budget request highlights three NASA programs, a space tug to deorbit the International Space Station and two Mars missions: MSR and NASA participation in ESA’s ExoMars program.

President Biden has made no secret of his enthuasism for NASA’s robotic Mars program and for international space cooperation and it is evident in this request.

ESA partnered with Russia to build the ExoMars lander/rover, with Russia providing the lander and ESA the Rosalind Franklin Rover. The lander and rover were integrated together and about to be shipped to the launch site in Russia when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. ESA quickly terminated its partnership with Russia on that and other space programs. The rover remains at its manufacturing facility in Turin, Italy and ESA is hoping NASA will step in to replace Russia and provide the radioisotope heating units, landing engine elements, and a launch.

Nicky Fox, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, told reporters today during a media teleconference that the FY2024 request includes $30 million for ExoMars, but NASA and ESA are still discussing what’s needed for future years. ESA wants to launch in 2028.

NASA and ESA already have been working closely together on MSR. In light of the changes to ExoMars and other fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the two agencies revamped their plans for MSR last year.  ESA scrapped its plan to provide a Fetch Rover to collect the samples that are being deposited on the surface by Perseverance. Instead, Perseverance will bring the samples to the Mars Ascent Vehicle that will shoot them into orbit where they will transfer to ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter for the trip back to Earth. NASA also will provide two tiny helicopters modeled on the very successful Ingenuity helicopter that just completed its 47th flight on Mars — it was designed for only five — that also could retrieve the sample tubes.

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

The FY2024 request includes $949 million for MSR, with $700 million projected for FY2025, $600 million for FY2026, $612 million for FY2027, and $628 million for FY2028.

The project has not completed its confirmation review yet, however. That is planned for FY2024. NASA does not commit to cost or schedule estimates until a program passes through that step, Key Decision Point-C.

The budget request warns that “costs are expected to increase beyond what is shown in the outyear profile” and NASA “will have to either reduce funding for other activities within the Science Program or descope” MSR.  For example, one of the two helicopters might be eliminated.

NASA FY2024 budget request, p. PS-100.

The point is that despite a proposed $8.26 billion request, NASA’s science program still faces challenges in funding everything already on its plate.

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