Can NASA's Mars Sample Return Program Be Saved? Some Experts Think So

The quest continues to bring pristine Mars rocks to Earth.


The Mars Sample Return (MSR), one of NASA’s most critical programs designed to bring pristinely sampled Mars rocks inside 30 titanium tubes to Earth, just hit a major roadblock.

On Monday, NASA announced that the current MSR budget was too expensive, costing somewhere between $8 billion and $11 billion. To avoid budget cuts to other critical programs, like the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Asteroid Surveyor space telescope that could spot a rocky existential threat to our planet, NASA pushed the retrieval back until the 2040s. That’s a decade longer than the space agency’s initial timeline.

But one possible savior could be the private aerospace sector, whose biggest player is SpaceX.

What’s going on with Mars Sample Return?

This illustration shows NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which will carry tubes containing Martian rock and soil samples into orbit around Mars.


On our planet, the samples would reveal untold secrets about the big “if” in space science: Are we alone in the universe? Over the last several decades, robotic explorers have gleaned from the reddish landscape that life may have had the right conditions to flourish on the fourth rock from the Sun. Scientists might be able to prove this tantalizing possibility if they can get ahold of these rocks. The Voyager golden records, the myriad of international missions that have orbited Mars, and the host of upcoming missions to the possibly aquatic moons in the outer Solar System, would win an incredible endorsement.

Extending the mission timeline is what makes the most sense to preserve the MSR plan as it currently exists, Casey Dreier, chief of space policy at the non-profit The Planetary Society, told The New York Times on Monday.

But NASA leadership does not want to wait until 2040. “That is unacceptable to wait that long. It’s the decade of the 2040s that we are going to be landing astronauts on Mars. It’s also unacceptable at $11 billion,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters at a news conference on Monday.

A concept for multiple robots that would work together to ferry to samples from Mars to Earth.


NASA will ask for proposals from the private sector to find solutions that would offset costs and maintain the project’s integrity. In addition to that, NASA will develop “a revised plan that leverages innovation and proven technology,” according to their published announcement.

What could put Mars Sample Return back on track?

NASA has historically leveraged its partnerships with the private sector to save on costs. For its Artemis program, which marks NASA’s first major crewed return to the Moon since Apollo, the agency has already issued contracts for companies to launch instruments for studying the lunar environment in preparation for crews and has selected proposals for crewed Moon rovers.

MSR’s architecture shares some similarities with that of Artemis III, of which SpaceX will play a key role.

NASA is now building upon the success, and resolving issues, from 2022’s Artemis I mission. For Artemis II, four astronauts are currently in training to fly around the Moon and back as early as September 2025. Then on Artemis III, the program scales up in a whole new way.

A mobility prototype for NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission was demonstrated in the Mars Yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on April 11, 2023 in Pasadena, California.

Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images

SpaceX holds the contract to build the Starship human landing system for NASA, which would ferry astronauts from lunar orbit to the Moon’s surface, and then carry them back up there.

The vehicle will reach the Moon before the four Artemis III astronauts set sail there, according to NASA. Soon after the Orion capsule arrives with the crew, it will rendezvous with the SpaceX lander, and two brave explorers will get onboard to become the first people to descend to and walk on the Moon’s surface since 1972. When the week of the surface expedition ends, Starship would ferry the duo up to meet the orbital Orion capsule, which would then exit the Moon’s environment and fly the crew back to Earth.

Artemis III’s sequence resembles, in part, what must happen on Mars Sample Return. Titanium tubes containing the Red Planet samples would be placed on a spacecraft that could launch them into Martian orbit. Here, another spacecraft would jet off to Earth, carrying the samples to their new home.

The Orion spacecraft, with the Moon in the distance.


“The challenges of getting off the surface of the Moon have been demonstrated already through the Apollo missions,” Dianne DeTurris, an aerospace engineer at California Polytechnic State University, tells Inverse in an email. “A vehicle got off the surface with people onboard successfully 6 times. The issues for getting on and off of Mars are similar, but the distance to travel to get there is much greater, and with that, there is a greater signal lag due to the time difference. Can it be done? Yes. Will it be done? Very likely. The technology exists already, it is just about finding a cost-effective way to execute the task.”

In February, Dreier wrote a column for The Planetary Society arguing that Starship likely wouldn’t come to MSR’s rescue. Among several reasons he cited, a November 2023 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office says the Starship human landing system for Artemis III is running into delays.

“NASA remains responsible for its own destiny,” Dreier wrote. For now, MSR and the first modern human landing seem so close — but just out of reach.

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