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June 11, 2024

NASA Seeks Faster, Cheaper Mars Sample Return Mission

NASA is rethinking its approach to the Mars Sample Return mission, aiming for a plan that is faster, less costly, and simpler than the one abandoned in April.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson canceled the original plan in April, which projected a return date in 2040 and a total cost of $11 billion. The space agency now seeks a new strategy that will cut costs and reduce complexity, targeting a mission completion in the 2030s.

Shifting Strategies

"The bottom line is, an $11 billion budget is too expensive and a 2040 return date is too far away," Nelson said in an April 15 news release. He emphasized the need for a plan that achieves the mission in a more timely and budget-friendly manner.

The challenges of the mission include landing a spacecraft on Mars, collecting samples, and launching them back to Earth-a feat never accomplished before. Although the Perseverance rover has successfully collected rock samples, the next steps in returning them to Earth are complex and costly.

"We need to think outside the box to find a way ahead that is both affordable and ensures samples are returned in a reasonable timeframe," Nelson stated.

Redefining Costs and Timelines

If the sample return mission proceeds, the spacecraft would need to travel over 33 million miles to Earth. Nelson described this journey as "no small task." NASA officials echoed this sentiment, calling the Mars Sample Return one of the most complex science missions they have ever attempted.

To manage the mission's financial impact, NASA intends to limit Mars Sample Return costs to no more than 35% of the annual budget for the Planetary Science Division. For 2024, NASA allocated $310 million for the mission and is seeking $200 million for 2025. The new mission design aims for a total budget closer to $8 billion.

NASA has issued a request for proposals from industry partners, NASA centers, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to leverage innovative and proven technologies. Nelson expects an alternative plan to be ready by fall.

The Original Plan and Its Flaws

The original mission plan depended heavily on contributions from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Lockheed Martin. The ESA was to provide an Earth return orbiter and a capture containment and return system. Lockheed Martin was contracted to receive $35 million for the Mars lander's cruise stage, $194 million for a Mars ascent vehicle, and $2.6 million to design an Earth entry system.

However, escalating costs have forced a reevaluation. The projected budget rose from an initial estimate of $5.3 billion to $11 billion, with the actual costs outstripping early estimates. Several factors contributed to this increase, including higher-than-expected inflation rates and additional costs for a sample-receiving facility that was not included in the original budget.

NASA's Acting Inspector General George Scott highlighted these issues in testimony before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. He noted that the initial $5.3 billion estimate did not account for the entire lifecycle costs, focusing only on expenses from 2023 to 2032.

Additionally, ESA's failure to deliver a promised sample fetch rover led NASA to consider replacing it with more expensive sample recovery helicopters.

Future Directions

Despite the challenges, NASA remains committed to the Mars Sample Return mission. Perseverance continues to collect samples, with 38 tubes filled-representing about two-thirds of its sample-collecting capability. These samples are crucial for understanding the origins and evolution of Mars, the solar system, and life on Earth.

Returning the samples from Mars is a top priority, according to Nicola "Nicky" Fox, Associate Administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Our next steps will position us to bring this transformational mission forward and deliver revolutionary science from Mars," Fox said in an April 15 news release.

NASA aims to finalize a viable mission plan by the end of the year. Depending on the propulsion system used, the journey to Mars, sample collection, and return could take one to two years.


NASA's efforts to redesign the Mars Sample Return mission underscore the challenges and complexities of space exploration. By seeking a more cost-effective and timely solution, NASA hopes to make significant scientific advancements while managing budget constraints and technological hurdles. The outcome of this mission will not only provide valuable insights into Mars but also pave the way for future planetary exploration.