A rendering of the various components of the Mars Sample Return Architecture including a rover, a Mars ascent rocket, an orbiter, and a helicopter.

Is NASA Actually Committed to Returning Samples From Mars?

Jake Robins - Space

This past Monday, NASA delivered a highly-anticipated update to the highly-anticipated Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission. If you've been following the long and eventful storyline of MSR, you'll know that this update's purpose was to get things "back on track" so to speak. After years of mismanagement, the program's spiralling costs have finally caught up with it and were summarized in a rather scathing Independent Review Board report.

...there is currently no credible, congruent technical, nor properly margined schedule, cost, and technical baseline that can be accomplished with the likely available funding
- MSR Independent Review Board, Report -

Following this report, NASA convened a team to address the recommendations in the report, and that team's final analysis was due last month. So when the notice from NASA hit my inbox last week, I was pretty excited to see what they had come up with. But that excitement dimmed very quickly on Monday when NASA Administrator Bill Nelson started talking. In what Louis Friedman called "a stumbling statement", Nelson proclaimed everything the team had come up with as unacceptable and that NASA would be going to industry to look for new ideas. To me, this was a startling revelation; NASA didn't know how to fix MSR.

Root Causes

Maybe it was naive of me, but until Monday I had generally assumed MSR's issues were managerial. Certainly, the technical challenges were difficult but NASA specializes in difficult. I had and still have confidence NASA can eventually figure out how to get a rock from one planet to another. They've already landed the SUV-sized nuclear-powered robotic sampling rover using a rocket-powered skycrane on Mars, a very real sentence that still makes me chuckle to say out loud. The next steps can't be that much of a leap.

The MSR project is unique among NASA planetary missions in that it is actually a number of missions stitched together that have to operate in a linear sequence of events. It presents some interesting project management challenges that NASA's planetary division hasn't really had that much experience with. Designs changes from earlier missions can affect later missions. In addition, MSR is an international parternship; NASA signed a letter of intent with the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2018 to partner on the effort to bring these samples home. This certainly adds more complexity to the project management by layering in an entire other space agency, and one whose funding and management is tangled up in the confusing web of 22 European member states each with their own government.

Inexplicably, NASA had set up a rather mystifying organizational structure around MSR in its early days. The largest parts of the projects were farmed out to various NASA centres, including the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in California, Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, and Goddard in Maryland. This in and of itself is not that unusual, but instead of creating a strong leadership base at Headquarters to manage these centres and keep things flowing, NASA also gave leadership of the project to JPL separately, creating a new Mars Sample Return Project Office there, which reported up to a small team at HQ. Furthermore, the existing assets for MSR (the aforementioned nuclear powered rover, Perseverance) as well as the study of Mars planetary science in general, remained separately managed at the Mars Exploration Program office, also at JPL. Lastly, ESA's contribution was of course managed separately on the other side of the Atlantic.

This structure created some rather difficult circumstances. Consider the following results:

  • The director of NASA's Planetary Science Division does not have authority over Mars Sample Return, the largest and most important planetary science initiative NASA has ever undertaken
  • The future assets and existing assets for MSR are managed under different programs with different incentives
  • The HQ team, which should manage the whole program and is necessarily the main conduit to ESA, had two staff members
  • JPL had three different teams working on MSR in different capacities

The IRB report made some strong recommendations to clean this up, including unifying the Mars Exploration Program and the MSR office, staffing up leadership in a way that made sense, bringing management back to HQ, and creating logical lines of accountability, budgetary control, and authority. The report made many other recommendations and noted other findings but in reading through them, my take had been that they all fundamentally traced back to this broken organizational structure.

When this report came out last fall, it was certainly a shock, but as I digested it I came to a conclusion that it was, in a way, good news. If MSR's issues were truly managerial and not technical, then simply following the recommendations of the report would be sufficient to get it back on track. So when NASA announced they would put a tiger team on the case and deliver their results the following spring, I was optimistic. Unfortunately, that optimism seems to have been misplaced.

Uninspiring Solutions

The results of NASA's work since last fall are uninspiring at best. After "70 interviews with programmatic science stakeholders" and analysis on "20 architecture variations", NASA's best idea is, basically, to take the existing plan and stretch it out all the way to 2040. This, of course, keeps the annual funding levels more palatable, but doesn't actually address the cost overruns. NASA rejected most of the IRB's organizational structure recommendations, opting to keep MEP and MSR offices separate, and instead seek a Mars Chief Scientist to act as some kind of bridge between the programs (this seems like mostly a communicative role instead of an authoritative one). NASA does recognize the lack of leadership at HQ, which I'm happy to see, but their "new" plan still keeps Planetary Science off to the side of the entire project.

Honestly, this plan is stunningly unimaginative, and NASA knows it. Administrator Nelson's opening statement puts it very plainly, and indicated that this new plan is basically dead on arrival.

The bottom line is that $11 billion is too expensive and not returning samples until 2040 is unacceptably too long.
- Administrator Bill Nelson, NASA Press Briefing -

For this reason, NASA has decided to seek "out of the box" options. The next day, they issued an amendment to the ROSES solicitation asking for proposals from industry on fixing MSR. The plan would be to award a number of funded industry studies to be completed by the end of the year. These proposals seem to be quite flexible, with potential industry partners being able to integrate one or many of the existing assets into some kind of new plan. To put it short, NASA doesn't seem to know the best way to fix MSR, and so they're asking for help.

What's Going On?

I've been thinking non-stop over the last couple days about what the heck is going on and what all this means. My assumption of a simple management problem was being challenged. The most obvious answer is that I was wrong, and the technical challenges of this project are beyond NASA. Given that I am just some guy with a couple podcasts and a blog who has never managed a large aerospace project, this answer can never really be retired from the list of possible solutions. I am frequently wrong, after all.

But some things were just not adding up for me. Trouble was already brewing on this project in 2021, when the Planetary Advisory Committee was expressing concern about costs and disconnection from the science community that would be charged with analyzing MSR's results. In late 2022, NASA's Associate Administrator for Science, Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, left NASA, and later revealed that MSR gave him "sleepless nights" and that he thought there was "a crisis going on". Eric Berger at Ars Technica reported a scoop on ballooning costs in June of 2023, and the IRB report findings landed in September of that year. This all felt like a really long time for a technical problem to persist on a flagship program without more leadership intervention. MSR started getting formulation money in FY21, which began in October 2020 but whose appropriations were not actually passed in Congress until the end of 2020. MSR in its formulation phase, has essentially never been correctly managed. We've seen this evidenced by the frequent and dramatic design changes experienced throughout the last few years. Different components like second landers, different propulsion systems, fetch rovers, and a short-lived surprise addition of two helicopters have come in and out of the design since I've been following it.

As I sat and thought about this on Monday, I started to wonder - was anyone supervising these people? If this program was off the rails immediately as it entered formulation, how did it take three and a half years for NASA to step in and say "we don't know how to do this"? I started to wonder if I was right about the management of the program, but wrong about which management was broken. Was the current NASA leadership committed to MSR?

Commitment

I know I roped you in to this with a spicy headline asking if NASA was committed to MSR, but of course that's an impossible question to answer given that NASA is an enormous organization with many constituencies and priorities. I've told you before I'm interested in nuance, and I don't think this is a binary answer. The science community, many of whom work directly or indirectly for NASA, has demonstrated their commitment to the idea of sample return over and over, tagging it as the highest priority science objective in every single decadal survey ever created. I suspect that there are many folks from JPL, Marshall, Goddard, NASA HQ, the US Congress, and industry who recognize its importance, too. But I now have some doubts about the current NASA administration's commitment.

Back in June 2022, we had our friend Eric Berger on Off-Nominal to talk about Bill Nelson's performance after a year in office. Eric had published an article a few months before expressing that he had been wrong about his previous criticisms of Nelson. I always think twice about going against an Eric Berger take; he has this incredibly frustrating ability to be right a lot of the time. At the time, my issues with Bill Nelson were mostly communicative. His video message about the successful launch of James Webb Space Telescope on Christmas Day, 2021, heard here amid the clamour of the people who actually went there, had really rubbed me the wrong way. Surely the NASA Administrator would want to attend an event like that instead of this disconnected message. The clumsy venture into Bible verses and trying to make connections to Christianity did not help. Maybe I was just missing the passion of the previous Administrator, whose enthusiasm was infectious and who broke into tears during his farewell message.

Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine smiling wide as he tries out the SpaceX Dragon Capsule Simulator in Hawthorne, California. NASA
Find someone who looks at you the way Jim Bridenstine looks at anything with a NASA logo

Eric isn't wrong, by the way. Nelson has been effective and done a pretty good job. As he mentions in his article, shepherding the Artemis program across partisan lines and securing its funding, getting Artemis 1 off the ground, and keeping the absolute clusterfuck of a partnership with Russia together enough to keep the ISS operating are not small tasks. But this attention seems, to me at least, to be somewhat limited to NASA's human spaceflight endeavours. When it comes to science programs, we seem to be gifted only with clumsy video messages, often pre-recorded, like when DART successfully impacted Dimorphos, or when Intuitive Machines landed on the Moon, or when the "little helicopter that could" Ingenuity's mission ended.

Maybe I'm reading too much in to that. Maybe the hard work of an Administrator really lies in DC and travelling around to the various centres to be a part of their big moments feels good but has less value than I think. Nelson certainly knows the US government better than I do. He's also 81 years old, so maybe frequent travel isn't the best way to deploy him. But I do wonder if this is indicative of his priorities. Nelson is well-known for talking a lot about the threat of China in space, and wrangling political clout to fight that is no small task. Thirty countries have joined the Artemis Accords since Nelson became Administrator, which is incredible. When we look back on Bill Nelson's tenure I think it will assuredly be remembered for the geopolitical impact rather than the scientific. So it goes for a department of the Executive branch.

But it seems like this strategy has costs for programs left in the shadows, even ones as big as Mars Sample Return. If Dr. Zurbuchen left NASA in Dec 2022 feeling like MSR was "in crisis", surely he had discussed it with the Administrator by then. Why then was a team not assigned to fix it until 10 months later, after a brutally honest IRB report revealed the deep-set issues? You care about the things you care about.

What's Next?

With this week's update, we're now back in a waiting game. Industry will reply with proposals for studies in May. NASA will then award one or more study awards. Those studies will come back in "late fall" or "early winter", meaning that at some point in January of 2025, NASA will be able to think about how to move forward. It's not lost on me that Bill Nelson may not be the NASA Administrator by then. I'm trying not to read too much in to that but mostly failing.

Last July, the US Senate fired a warning shot across the bow of NASA when it became clear MSR was out of control, proposing a funding reduction of $522M USD and threatening to cancel the program if its costs could not be reigned in. After the regular back and forth between the House and the Senate, the final budget resolution for FY24 landed on something very peculiar for MSR. The bill directed NASA to spend not less than $300M but not more than $949.3M, basically giving the agency a range of spending. Thanks to the Fiscal Responsibility Act passed last year, NASA's budgetary situation is challenging right now, and they've made some tough choices in their budget request for next year. Given those challenges, it's maybe not surprising that NASA has chosen this path of industry studies, allowing them to spend around $310M this year, virtually the bottom of their range.

Sometimes you gotta live to fight another day. And sometimes you gotta punt the most important planetary science project ever in order to protect the Artemis program. Either way, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to believe that this administrator is all that interested in getting MSR done, which is a shame, because it could be transformative. And who knows, maybe these studies will reveal an incredible proposal and this will be good in the long run. After years of covering planetary science, I can confirm that you can't say anything about a Mars mission in a public space without someone replying "just use Starship". Like my friend Casey Dreier has written, I remain skeptical that commercial space can dig us out of this one, but at least now we'll see for sure what SpaceX could propose instead of relying on the Twitter replies of a fervent fanbase. I am excited to see all the proposals, and fully ready to change my mind about that, because I care about this mission.

I just wish NASA did, too.