Senate puts NASA on notice over Mars mission

The Senate is signaling deep skepticism about NASA’s ambitious plans to fetch samples of soil from the red planet, expressing concerns over the mission’s cost and viability.  

Senate appropriators are offering just $300 million in funding for fiscal 2024 for the Mars mission — less than a third of the $949 million budget request from NASA.  

Appropriators also say they have deep doubts about whether NASA can complete the mission, known as Mars Sample Return (MSR).  

“The Committee has significant concerns about the technical challenges facing MSR and potential further impacts on confirmed missions, even before MSR has completed preliminary design review,” the Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies subcommittee wrote in an appropriations bill outlining the funding for 2024.

It further said it would rescind the $300 million allocated for the mission if the agency cannot guarantee that overall cost will not exceed $5.3 billion. NASA estimates that the mission’s development costs, which were originally $4.4 billion, have soared to more than $9 billion. 

Notably, this price tag only represents the cost of developing and testing the mission’s components. It does not include launch costs or operating costs for the mission’s planned five-year timeframe. It also doesn’t include construction of any new sample-receiving facility that may be required to handle the rock and soil samples. 

The samples in question have been collected by NASA’s newest Mars rover — Perseverance —which launched to Mars in 2020. The rover was dispatched to Mars to help find signs of life, and was tasked with scooping up samples of the Martian surface and subsurface. So far, Perseverance has collected 18 of 43 planned samples.  

The ability to collect and study samples could provide scientists with unprecedented data on Mars, helping to fill in the gaps about how the planet changed over time. They could help scientists understand whether Mars was habitable and may even contain definitive signs of life — either past or present. 

NASA has been working with the European Space Agency to develop the MSR mission. As part of this plan, NASA will build a Sample Retriever Lander that is slated to launch in 2028, although the Senate as well as some within the agency doubt this is a viable launch date. 

As NASA has been working on developing the technology needed for the mission, costs have ballooned. First estimates indicated the cost of this mission would be around $4 billion, but according to the committee’s report, the space agency has already spent more than $1 billion. The subcommittee also flagged that the planned 2028 launch date is very aggressive and likely to slip, increasing cost overruns.

NASA also convened an Institutional Review Board to review the MRS mission and determine its best path of success. The board is expected to issue its findings in late August or early September.  

A periodic polling of the scientific community designed to flag important NASA missions last year estimated that MSR would cost around $5.3 billion, the limit the Senate is now setting. 

If NASA cannot guarantee it can complete the mission for this amount, the Mars program faces cancellation, and the Senate will transfer the $300 million to other missions, with the bulk of it going to the Artemis lunar program. That mission aims to return astronauts to the surface of the moon and establish a small space station in orbit around the moon.

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Scientists in the same survey said the Mars mission was highly critical, and that it was worth asking Congress for more money to complete it. They argued that the request would help to ensure that any extra funding would not be taken away from other science missions.  

But NASA faces significant headwinds in winning more funding, as congressional negotiators feel the pressure to keep overall government spending in line with a budget caps deal worked out between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) earlier this year.  

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) described himself as a NASA supporter but acknowledged during consideration of NASA funding in the Senate Appropriations Committee last week that the cuts will lead to “significant challenges” in continuing all of the agency’s programs.  

“We were able to protect the most important national priority within NASA’s budget, which is to return to the moon and maintain our strategic advantage in space,” said Moran, the top Republican on the spending subpanel overseeing NASA funding.  

Costs for the Mars program have risen for a number of reasons.

There were technical flaws in the original mission concept, which involved a single lander and a small rover to retrieve the samples. There were also large errors in the technical requirements of the mission which meant that more hardware was needed, which costs more money.

Staffing issues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., has also delayed multiple missions, including MSR.

This isn’t the first time a mission was massively over budget or the first time a major NASA mission faced cancellation.

The James Webb Space Telescope faced its own possible cancellation in 2011, but went on to launch in 2021 despite a ballooning budget that ended up costing $10 billion. NASA’s Artemis lunar program is also massively over its planned budget, and could end up costing an estimated $93 billion by the time astronauts reach the lunar surface.  

Tags Jerry Moran Joe Biden mars MSR program nasa

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