HAMBURG, Germany — Is NASA Slowing the Pace of Mars Sample Return (MSR) Amid Budget Issues?
At a recent meeting of NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee on Nov. 13, 2023, Sandra Connelly, deputy associate administrator for science at NASA, revealed that NASA is instructing three field centers to cut back on Mars Sample Return (MSR) activities. The reason behind this slowdown is the uncertainty surrounding the project’s 2024 budget and an ongoing reevaluation of alternative architectures for the program.
This reduction in MSR work is driven by Congress’s pending fiscal year 2024 appropriations bill, which presents discrepancies in the proposed budget for the MSR program. While the House bill would provide $949.3 million, matching NASA’s full request, the Senate version only includes $300 million and requests for MSR to be descaled or canceled if its total cost exceeds $5.3 billion. It should be noted that an independent review estimated MSR’s total cost to be between $8 billion and $11 billion.
Due to NASA operating under a continuing resolution (CR) that funds programs at fiscal year 2023 levels, which amounts to $822.3 million for MSR, the agency had to start ramping back activities as a contingency to respond to an uncertain financial future. NASA still hopes to receive sufficient funding to continue architecting the mission throughout the year, which led to them issuing directives to three field centers, including Goddard Space Flight Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Marshall Space Flight Center, working on different aspects of MSR.
As a part of this reduction, the Capture, Containment, and Return System (CCRS) will also be affected. This system, which is crucial in capturing sample canisters and securing them for return to Earth, will be reduced in functionality. The ongoing reevaluation of the MSR architecture, set to be completed by March next year, will provide a clearer and credible path forward.
Officials at the meeting provided an update on the ongoing reevaluation, emphasizing NASA’s effort to assess “architectural trade variants” and ensure balance in its planetary science programs without compromising the MSR mission.