NASA's attempt to bring part of Mars home is unprecedented. The mission's problems are not

Huge cost overruns. Important deadlines become out of reach. Problems of unprecedented complexity, and the scientific progress of a generation depends on their solution.

That's the current state of affairs at Mars Sample Return, the ambitious but endangered NASA mission whose budget is rapidly increasing jobs cost at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge and signed threats of cancellation of legislators.

But not long ago, those same dire conditions described the James Webb Space Telescope, the groundbreaking infrared telescope that did launched on Christmas Day 2021.

The largest space telescope ever has proven to be a scientific and public relations victory for NASA so far. The telescope's performance has exceeded all expectations, senior project scientist Jane Rigby said at a meeting meeting recently.

The first images were so eagerly anticipated that the White House picked up NASA's announcement and released a message dazzling view of thousands of galaxies the day before the space agency shared the first party photos. Thousands of researchers have since requested observation time.

“The world hopes that this telescope will be a success,” Rigby told the National Academies' Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics.

But in the years before its launch, the success and fame Webb now enjoys were far from guaranteed.

The telescope costs twice as much as initially expected and launched seven years later than the original schedule. Some members of Congress tried that at one point attract financing from the project. Even the journal Nature referred to it at the time as the 'telescope that ate astronomy'.

After a thorough assessment of the project's needs and shortcomings, NASA was able to turn around the difficult undertaking. Proponents of Mars Sample Return are hopeful that the mission will follow a similar trajectory.

“A lot of great science will come out of” Mars Sample Return, said Garth Illingworth, astronomer emeritus at UC Santa Cruz and former deputy director of the project that is now the James Webb Space Telescope. “But they need to get realistic about how to approach this.”

Last year was a crisis point for Mars Sample Return, whose goal is to extract rocks from the Red Planet's Jezero crater and return them to Earth for study.

In July, the US Senate presented NASA with an ultimatum in the proposed budget: Present a plan to complete the mission within the $5.3 billion budgeted or risk cancellation. A sobering thing independent assessment found in September that there was “almost zero probability” that Mars Sample Return would meet its proposed launch date of 2028, and “no credible” way to fulfill the mission within the current budget. NASA will respond to that report this month.

These tubes contain samples of rock cores and regolith (broken rock and dust) collected by NASA's Perseverance rover for the Mars Sample Return campaign, which aims to bring chunks of Mars back to Earth for further study.

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The James Webb Space Telescope was further along in its development path when it reached a similar crossroads in 2010: six years after construction started. Frustrated by the rising budget and continually delayed launch date, the U.S. House of Representatives did not include funding for the telescope in the proposed budget, which would have ended the project if the Senate had agreed.

In a statement, lawmakers denounced the mission as “billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management,” foreshadowing the criticism that would be leveled at Mars Sample Return more than a decade later.

To avoid cancellation, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) ordered an independent review of the project, which was under construction in her state.

The board determined that Webb's problems stemmed from: “very flawed” initial budget. All the technical expertise needed to complete this ambitious project was present, the evaluators concluded. But it would be virtually impossible to accomplish this with the amount of money currently set aside.

Illingworth remembered that review when he read the Mars Sample Return researchwhich yielded a similarly grim conclusion.

“Some of the words sound very familiar,” he said, chuckling.

When the Mikulski review came out in 2010, Illingworth was deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which now leads the science and operations for the James Webb Space Telescope.

A huge mosaic of Stephan's Quintet of galaxies, as imaged by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.

With its powerful infrared vision and extremely high spatial resolution, the James Webb Space Telescope shows never-before-seen details in an image mosaic of the group of galaxies known as Stephan's Quintet.

(Space Telescope Science Institute / NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO)

He was sympathetic to the challenges faced by Mars Sample Return managers, but regretted that the hard-earned lessons of the James Webb Space Telescope have apparently faded so quickly – especially the importance of having a realistic budget from the start.

NASA missions are managed by very smart people with an established history of doing very difficult things. How is it possible that something as mundane as budgeting constantly confuses them?

“The problem is that the models that you have as a cost estimator – and they have very complex proprietary software models that try to understand these kinds of things – are all built on things that happenedin the past tense,” said Casey Dreierhead of space policy for the Planetary Society.

“When you try something completely new, it is by definition very difficult to estimate in advance how much something unprecedented will cost,” says Dreier. “That happened for Apollo, it happened for the space shuttle, it happened for James Webb, and it's happening now for Mars Sample Return.”

Mars Sample Return also has some mission-specific challenges that Webb did not have to deal with. First, it's happening at the same time as Artemis, NASA's hugely expensive mission to return humans to the moon.

Artemis is expected to cost $93 billion by 2025 an increase of 27% in the previous year's budget, while Mars Sample Return's guaranteed funding is 63% less than last year's expenditure.

And as NASA's ambitions grow, so does its funding from Congress, adjusted for inflation been essentially flat for decades. That leaves little room for unexpected extras.

“We're giving the space agency the most ambitious set of programs in space since the Apollo era, but instead of Apollo-era budgets, it has a third of 1% of US spending to work with,” Dreier said. “If you stumble now, the wolves will come after you. And that's what happens with Mars Sample Return.”

Not all ambitious scientific efforts survive the kind of scrutiny that confronts sample returns. In the 1993 Congress cancelled the U.S. Department of Energy's Superconducting Super Collider, an underground particle accelerator, raising concerns about rising costs and fiscal mismanagement. The government had already spent $2 billion on the project and dug a 22-kilometer tunnel.

But in the same week After ending the super collider, Congress agreed — by a margin of one vote — to continue funding the International Space Station, a similarly expensive project whose cost overruns had been widely criticized. ISS was launched in November 1998 and is still going strong. (For now anyway – NASA will do that on purpose throws it into the sea by 2030.)

The future of the space station was never seriously threatened again after that painfully close vote, just as Webb's future was never seriously questioned after the 2010 cancellation threat.

JPL, the agency that manages Mars Sample Return, has already paid a heavy price for the mission's initial setbacks, laying off more than 600 employees and 40 contractors after NASA ordered spending cuts.

But projects that survive these types of reckonings often emerge “stronger and more resilient,” Dreier said. “They know the eyes of the nation and NASA and Congress are on them, so you have to deliver.”

NASA will reveal this month how it plans to proceed with Mars Sample Return. Those familiar with the mission say they believe it can still happen — and that it's still worth doing.

“Am I confident that NASA, JPL and all involved can execute the Mars Sample Return mission with the attention and technical integrity required? Absolutely,” said Orlando Figueroa, chairman of the mission's independent assessment team and a former NASA chief “Mars Czar.”

“It will require very difficult decisions and commitment, including from Congress, NASA and the administration. [and] a recognition of the importance, as was the case with James Webb, for what this mission means for space science.”

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