NASA needs a cheaper, faster way to bring Mars dirt back to Earth

Budget constraints have NASA looking for a faster and cheaper method to bring samples from Mars’ surface back to Earth. In a teleconference on Monday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said that an independent review concluded that the agency’s current plan to bring the first samples collected by the Mars rover Perseverance could cost up to $11 billion and would likely not be achievable until 2040. The fiscal 2025 budget for the space agency, as well as additional anticipated budget cuts, are behind how slowly the current plan is being executed. 

“That is unacceptable to wait that long,” Nelson said about the mission to return samples of dust and rocks from Mars to Earth. “It’s the decade of the 2040s that we’re going to be landing astronauts on Mars.”

NASA is planning to solicit ideas from its various centers and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a quicker, cheaper return mission. Nelson said the agency is aiming for a budget of under $7 billion and is hoping to bring the samples back in the 2030s. 

The independent review, conducted last September, raised numerous concerns over the feasibility of NASA’s Mars Sample Return Mission. NASA had originally estimated that the return mission’s launch would take place in 2027 or 2028, but the independent review concluded that this would be impossible due to “technical issues, risks, and performance-to-date.”  

In an X post on Monday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk wrote that the company will be responding to NASA’s solicitation for alternatives and that the company’s Starship rocket has the potential to return “serious tonnage” in less than five years.

Starship has run into its own delays and challenges. The most recent launch of a prototype in March was successful, but SpaceX lost contact with the rocket just as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere.

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