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NASA’s Mars Sample Return Plan Is Deeply Flawed, Experts Say

An illustration of Nasa’s Mars Sample Return Plan
An illustration of NASA’s Mars Sample Return (MSR) plan. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has decided to postpone its Mars Sample Return (MSR) program’s next development phase due to significant problems with its technical readiness, cost, and schedule. An independent review recently looked into these issues and raised serious concerns.

On September 21st, NASA made public the findings of an independent review board they had established earlier this year. This review aims to evaluate the progress of the program and to collect samples left behind by the Perseverance rover on Mars and bring them back to Earth. Orlando Figueroa, a former director of Mars exploration at NASA, led this review.

The report came to the conclusion that there is an extremely low chance that the two main parts of the MSR project, one being a sample retrieval lander created by NASA and the other an Earth return orbiter developed by the European Space Agency, will be prepared for launch in 2027 or 2028 as initially planned. Additionally, the report noted that the allocated budgets for the MSR project are not enough.

The MSR project was initiated with unrealistic expectations regarding both its budget and schedule. However, there is currently no believable, consistent plan in terms of timing, expenses, and the technical foundation that can be achieved with the likely available funding, according to the report.

Estimated cost increase from $3.8 billion to $8 billion

NASA had not yet established an official cost estimate for the MSR project, a task that was scheduled to be addressed during a confirmation review this autumn. In 2020, a prior independent review approximated that MSR would require funding in the range of $3.8 billion to $4.4 billion.

This estimate had already increased significantly from earlier projections. During the summer of the same year, there was a report indicating that cost estimates had further risen, reaching a range of eight to nine billion dollars. NASA, at the time, referred to this range as “highly speculative.”

The new independent review, however, reveals that the anticipated total costs for MSR over its entire lifecycle now fall in a range between eight to eleven billion dollars. This amount is considerably higher than what NASA had foreseen in its budget plans.

The report emphasizes that the current design and plan for MSR are not feasible within the expected funding constraints. Even if NASA decides to alter the project’s overall structure, the report suggests that this cost range is unlikely to change.

The easiest solution to address this issue would be to postpone the launch of the lander and orbiter until the year 2030.

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