Rising costs of returning Mars samples threaten other science missions

WASHINGTON — NASA’s efforts to return samples from Mars are facing mounting costs that are straining not only other planetary science missions, but also a major heliophysics mission.

NASA, in its fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, requested $949.3 million for Mars Sample Return (MSR), the program that will send missions to Mars to collect samples collected by the Perseverance rover and return them. on earth. MSR is a joint effort with the European Space Agency, NASA conducting work on a lander and ESA on an orbiter.

This funding not only represents a significant increase over the $653.2 million allocated to MSR in fiscal year 2023, but also a 19% increase over NASA’s projected $800 million in the year. last for the program in fiscal year 2024. [fiscal year] 2024 to ensure the project continues to progress toward confirmation and support the earliest possible launch date,” NASA said in its full budget request.

NASA budget documents also warned that costs would continue to rise. The 2024 request made no changes to future “additional years” projections from last year’s proposal, forecasting spending of $700 million in fiscal year 2025, $600 million in 2026 and $612.1 million in 2027. The new budget proposal also projected spending of $627.6 million in 2028.

“Mars sample return costs are expected to increase beyond what is shown in the previous year’s profile in this budget,” NASA said in the proposal. “To meet this budget challenge, NASA will either have to reduce funding for other science program activities or delineate elements of the Mars Sample Return mission.” This could include the removal of one of the two sample recovery helicopters added to the MSR mission concept last year, the document says.

During a March 13 briefing on the budget proposal, NASA officials provided few details about the reasons for the increased costs. Nicola Fox, the new associate administrator for science, said the agency was working on a series of preliminary design reviews (PDRs) for MSR this year before officially confirming the mission.

Agency officials also said little about rising costs during a public meeting on MSR at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference on March 16. Jeff Gramling, director of MSR at NASA Headquarters, said he expects the PDR series of global campaign elements to culminate in a system-level PDR in September. This would be followed by a confirmatory exam as early as October.

This review, known in agency parlance as Key Decision Point C, is also where NASA establishes formal cost and schedule commitments for the programs. NASA has yet to offer an official cost estimate for MSR, and when asked at the public meeting for a “rough” estimate, Gramling declined to give one.

“I don’t think I’m able to give you any cost data right now because we’re still using it in our processes,” he said. This effort includes ‘baseline’ cost estimates from the various reviews as well as a separate independent review planned prior to the system-level PDR.

However, the rising cost of Mars Sample Return is affecting other agency science programs. NASA cited MSR costs, as well as the personnel and other resources needed, as the reason for delaying the VERITAS Venus mission last fall, putting that mission’s future in jeopardy.

These effects go beyond NASA’s planetary programs. In the fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, NASA said it was seeking to suspend work on a major heliophysics mission, the Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC). This mission, a recommendation of the 2013 Heliophysical Decadal Survey, would fly a set of six spacecraft that would study the interaction of the upper atmosphere with the magnetosphere and the sun.

NASA had previously selected instruments for the mission through a competition and solicited proposals for all six spacecraft. Those proposals were due Feb. 10, with NASA expected to award an award in October to support a launch no later than 2029.

“The budget proposes to suspend development of the GDC, as continued development would have required a significant increase in funding at a time when other space science missions, such as the Mars Sample Return mission, also have high budget requirements,” said said NASA in its budget documents. . NASA is only requesting $10 million for the mission, compared to $49.4 million projected for GDC in 2024 in last year’s budget proposal. The 2024 request maintains GDC funding at $10 million in 2025 and 2026, then resets it to zero.

GDC’s delay is a major factor in an overall reduction in heliophysics in the budget, from the $805 million it received in 2023 to a request for $750.9 million in 2024. That could be a problem in the Senate, where the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA is chaired by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (DN.H.), whose home state is involved in numerous heliophysics missions.

“It’s not smart to do things like cut what you think is the president’s highest priority,” said Jean Toal Eisen, vice president of corporate strategy at the Association of Universities for Research. in astronomy and former Senate appropriations staffer, during a March 16 webinar by the Aerospace Industries Association. “They’ll just put it back and take the money from something you care about.”

The warnings in the budget proposal about MSR cost increases “is not a good place to be,” Casey Dreier, head of space policy at The Planetary Society, said during the same webinar. This increases the risk, he said, that the sample recovery lander will miss its 2028 launch window. “It will be a difficult credits process to get the money it needs now to meet this calendar.”

The Decadal Survey of Planetary Science released in April 2022 endorsed continued work on the Mars Sample Return. However, he recommended that if costs increased by at least 20% above a $5.3 billion projection adopted by this report, or if costs in any one year exceeded 35% of the budget NASA’s global science body, the agency is expected to ask the White House and Congress for additional funding. to ensure that the MSR does not “undermine the long-term programmatic balance of the planetary portfolio”.

Using projections from NASA’s budget proposal and going back to when MSR became a stand-alone program in fiscal year 2021, the agency plans to spend at least $5.2 billion on MSR until in 2028, a total that will increase both projected cost increases through 2028 and necessary expenditures for MSR after 2028 due to the expected return of samples in 2033.

“I think it’s a relatively fragile budget,” Dreier said of NASA’s overall budget proposal. “If any of these programs, or Artemis itself, really go astray in terms of going over schedule or over budget, you’re going to see serious consequences downstream within the agency.”

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