The US Senate on Thursday cut the budget for NASA’s ambitious mission to return soil and rocks from Mars.
NASA requested $949 million to support its Mars Sample Return mission, or MSR, in fiscal year 2024. In its budget submitted to the space agency, released Thursday, the Senate provided only $300 million and threatened to take the money.
“The committee has many concerns about the current challenges facing the MSR and the potential impact on the projects that have been approved, even before the MSR has completed its initial evaluation,” the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies committee said in its budget report.
The committee’s report, obtained by Ars, said Congress has spent $1.739 billion on the Mars Sample Return project so far but the public launch date—currently 2028—is expected to fall, and rising costs threaten other NASA science projects.
Further, the report states that $300 million in funding for the Mars mission will be withdrawn if NASA cannot provide Congress with assurances that the total cost of the mission will not exceed $5.3 billion. In that case, more than $300 million will be sent to the Artemis Program to put people on the Moon.
The Senate’s proposed budget for the Mars mission follows Ars reported three weeks ago which caused the price to increase. Internally, NASA has been discussing how the total cost of operations could reach $9 billion. The report also raised serious questions about the ability of NASA and the mission’s lead facility, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to deliver a heavy-duty human in time for a 2028 launch.
The concern of some scientists, including former NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen, is that the cost of the Mars Sample Return balloon will cost money from other science projects. And if the price is already approaching $10 billion now, then it may continue to disappear.
“If the answer isn’t ten years for me to do this, my heart is breaking because I’m trying so hard,” Zurbuchen told Ars. “But it’s better not to do that than to set the whole scientific community on fire. We have to have the courage to say no. It’s the only way we get the freedom to say yes.”
The Senate budgeted $5.3 billion, which was the mission’s estimate for a “decade” of Earth science research published last year. The study cited the Mars Sample Return as important, but added a caveat to the pricing. If the total cost exceeded $5.3 billion by 20 percent or more, NASA would not have to take the money from other planetary programs. Instead, the agency should ask Congress to increase the “budget”.
The US Senate does not seem to like the sound of this. Now it has told NASA that if the $5.3 billion project can’t be done, it should no let it happen. This is an important step forward for NASA’s most advanced science mission of the 2020s.
What is happening now
This is not the final word in the budget process. The US House will also set its budget requirements for the coming year, and then the House and Senate will discuss the final budget for next year. That will be one important point this fall.
Another will be the work of the “Institutional Review Board” invited by NASA to evaluate the return model and make recommendations for success. The team is led by Orlando Figueroa, retired deputy director of science and technology at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the team will release a report publicly at the end of August or September.
It appears that the independent board will provide guidance to NASA and Congress as to whether the return mission, as proposed, is feasible; or if it needs major changes or should be completely eliminated.
Congress has sent similar warning signs to NASA in the past. For example, in 2011. The US House proposed the idea Canceling the James Webb Space Telescope due to its delays and cost overruns as part of the budget process. In the end, the Webb telescope received the funding it needed and was finally successfully launched in late 2021.
However, Casey Dreier, who leads the efforts and policies of The Planetary Society, said there could be a big difference between then and now. Most of the scientists gathered around the Webb telescope a decade ago, he said. There seems to be a very shallow basis for supporting the Mars mission because it can only provide information for a small area of scientific research.
Dreier said his organization continues to support the Mars Sample Return mission because of its ten-year research priority. But he added that the Planetary Society closely monitors its findings from an independent agency.
“We support the 10-year study and we want the Mars Sample Return to happen, but we need to know what happens with this independent review,” he said. “Maybe this is the kick in the pants that NASA needs to get this right.”