The U.S. Senate on Thursday cut the budget for NASA’s ambitious mission to return soil and rock samples from the surface of Mars.
NASA had requested $949 million to support its Mars Sample Return mission, or MSR, in fiscal year 2024. In the proposed budget for the space agency, released Thursday, the Senate only offered $300 million and threatened to take that amount away.
“The committee is deeply concerned about the technical challenges facing MSR and potential further implications for confirmed missions even before MSR completes preliminary design review,” the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies subcommittee said in its report on the budget. .
The committee report, obtained by Ars, noted that Congress has so far spent $1.739 billion on the Mars Sample Return mission, but that the public launch date – currently 2028 – is expected to shift and cost overruns threaten other NASA science missions .
Further, the report states that the $300 million allocated to the Mars mission will be withdrawn if NASA cannot provide Congress with an assurance that the total cost of the mission will not exceed $5.3 billion. In that case, most of the $300 million would be reallocated to the Artemis program to land humans on the moon.
The Senate’s proposed budget for the Mars mission follows a report from Ars three weeks ago that delved into the exploding costs. Internally, NASA has discussed scenarios where total mission costs could reach $9 billion. The report also raised serious questions about the ability of NASA and the field center leading the mission, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to deliver a critical lander in time for a launch date in 2028.
The concern of some scientists, including former NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen, is that the rising costs of Mars Sample Return cannibalize funding for other science missions. And if the price is already approaching $ 10 billion, things are likely to get out of hand.
“If the answer is that this isn’t the decade to do it, my heart breaks because I put so much effort into it,” Zurbuchen told Ars. “But it’s better not to do it than to set fire to the entire scientific community. We need to have the courage to say no. That’s the only way we earn the right to say yes.”
The Senate cites a budget cost of $5.3 billion, which was the mission’s estimate in the planetary science community’s influential “decadal” study published last year. This study listed Mars Sample Return as a top priority, but added a caveat regarding cost. If the total price exceeds $5.3 billion by 20 percent or more, NASA shouldn’t be taking that money from other planetary programs. Instead, the agency should ask Congress for a “budget increase.”
The US Senate seems to have disliked this. It has now told NASA that if the mission can’t be done for $5.3 billion, in fact it should not to be ready. That’s a significant escalation of the stakes for NASA’s high-profile science mission of the 2020s.
What happens now
This is not the last word in the budget process. The U.S. House will also set its budget priorities for the coming year, after which the House and Senate will negotiate a final budget for the upcoming fiscal year. That will be an important point this fall.
Another will be the work of an “Institutional Review Board” convened by NASA to review the monster-return mission and make recommendations for its success. The board is led by Orlando Figueroa, a retired deputy center director for science and technology at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the group will release a report in late August or September.
It seems likely that this independent review committee will advise NASA and Congress on whether the sample return mission, as designed, is affordable; or whether it needs substantial changes or should be canceled entirely.
Congress has previously sent warning signs like this to NASA. For example, in 2011, the U.S. House proposed canceling the James Webb Space Telescope due to continued delays and cost overruns as part of the budgeting process. In the end, the Webb telescope received the necessary funding and finally launched successfully in late 2021.
However, Casey Dreier, who leads The Planetary Society’s advocacy and policy efforts, said there may be a notable difference between then and now. Much of the scientific community gathered around the Webb telescope a decade ago, he said. There seems to be much less support for the Mars mission because it can provide data for a smaller portion of scientific research.
Dreier said his organization continues to support the Mars Sample Return mission because of the decade’s research prioritization. But he said the Planetary Society will closely monitor the findings of the independent review committee.
“We support the decade study and we want Mars Sample Return to happen, but we need to know what happens with this independent assessment,” he said. “Maybe this is the kick in the pants NASA needs to get this under control.”