Mars Sample Return mission overview [Credits: NASA]

Is the Mars Sample Return Mission destined to fail?

Mars Sample Return mission costs have skyrocketed and we’re at a crossroads: continue to pursue this dream project or wait until more mature times will come?

As Carl Sagan used to say: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, and what’s more difficult than searching for alien life on another Planet? We’ve already dug in depth into the Mars Sample Return mission in this detailed Insight and that allowed us to better understand the immense difficulties beyond this historic endeavor!

Carl Sagan stands in front of a Viking lander mockup in Death Valley, California [Credits: NASA]
Carl Sagan stands in front of a Viking lander mockup in Death Valley, California. Credits: NASA

At first look, they could appear just engineering problems, but they’re just a little portion of this intricate project. We need to remember the difficulties to make two huge space agencies work together (in this case NASA and ESA), plus a lot of different companies working connected to them, and last but not least politics: the one who in the end must fund this pursuit.

“I think there’s a crisis going on!”

Thomas Zurbuchen talks about Mars InSight during a pre-landing briefing [Credits: NASA]
Thomas Zurbuchen talks about Mars InSight during a pre-landing briefing. Credits: NASA

These are the worrying words of Thomas Zurbuchen, a Swiss-American astrophysicist who was the running Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA until the end of 2022. He continued:

“This was the thing that gave me sleepless nights toward the end of my tenure at NASA and even after I left.”

To add fuel to the fire, some sources at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) have confessed that the last estimate put the price tag of the mission at nearly 10 billion dollars, double the previous estimate! That doesn’t even include launch costs, operating costs, or receiving infrastructure to process the samples… those are a lot of unknowns.


We should look at the overall implications for planetary science

“Mars Sample Return is of fundamental strategic importance to NASA, US leadership in planetary science, and international cooperation and should be completed as rapidly as possible. However, its cost should not be allowed to undermine the long-term programmatic balance of the planetary portfolio.”

Those are official words that come straight out of the annual report of the “influential decadal survey” which set the priorities for NASA’s next decade of space exploration. The most worrying aspect of all emphasizes the constant increase in funding that every year sucks more and more finance from the space exploration budget of NASA, the set is roughly 3 billion dollars.

Nobody denies the huge importance of this mission, which has been talked about and sponsored for decades now, but the fact that it requests more than what it could give back. By comparison, JWST (James Webb Space Telescope) has been worked on for decades and has requested immense funding but now, that is up and working flawlessly, it’s paying back every single penny spent on also by allowing a lot of different researches by the scientific community. Last but not least, galvanizing public opinion about space as Hubble before has done!

The Mars Sample Return mission is being sold by NASA as a “life-detection mission but the real possibility of really finding something meaningful it’s actually really low. Moreover, the real implications that this project is going to have on the scientific community are extremely slimmer than JWST.

We need to have the courage to say NO at times

The Mars Sample Return mission has already managed to affect the planetary science community. The Veritas mission to Venus has been delayed by 3 years, Dragonfly the drone that aims to fly around Saturn’s moon Titan is receiving less money than it needs. Plus, the planetary community’s next high-priority mission, an orbiter to Uranus, is most likely going to be pushed way beyond its targeted date.

Mars Sample Return mission overview. Credits: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech
Mars Sample Return mission overview. Credits: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech

However, everything isn’t lost: NASA has some options to control the costs of the Mars Sample Return Mission even though that comes without compromises. The mission could be stripped of its 2 drones (backup plan if Perseverance rover will not be able to deliver the samples) or let the competition do its jobs and give the possibilities to companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin (for example) present its proposals.

“If the answer is this is not the decade to do it, my heart breaks because I put so much effort into it. But it is better to not do it than to torch the whole scientific community. We have to have the courage to say no. That’s the only way we earn the right to say yes.” Zurbuchen ended.

Let’s all cross our fingers and hope they’ll figure out a solution, and otherwise it’d be incredibly sad and shameful to not witness this historic endeavor come to life.


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Filippo Zamprogna

Filippo Zamprogna

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