NASA has some pretty ambitious plans for Mars in the near future, but the space agency’s recent decision to cut funding for the Mars Sample Return mission has left parties on both sides confused. The decision has drawn criticism from lawmakers who deemed the decision to be “short-sighted and misguided,” according to Politico. The mission, which aims to bring Martian samples back to Earth, has faced recent budgetary challenges, which has led to the US space agency to slow down the program in November.
California lawmakers, led by Democrats Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Alex Padilla, wrote a letter to NASA administrator Bill Nelson about the Mars mission decision. The letter was also signed by Democrats Rep. Judy Chu and Sen. Laphonza Butler, along with Republican Reps. Mike Garcia and Young Kim. The letter mentions that the decision could lead to loss of jobs, cost up to a decade of scientific progress, and that the “rash decision” to suggest cuts during the appropriations stage “flies in the face of congressional authority.”
The job cuts from the slashed funding would primarily impact NASA’s California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which creates robots that are sent to Mars. The letter also played on Nelson’s own personally stated missions, such as his desire to counter global competition from other spacefaring superpowers like China. The US isn’t the only country hoping to return samples from the Red Planet for the first time in history, as China is also working on a similar goal.
NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission is an awe-inspiring scientific project that involves the Perseverance rover and a collaboration with the European Space Agency for later phases of the mission. The Perseverance rover is currently roaming the planet’s surface to collect rocks and dust in tubes, which will be retrieved in the future. The ESA will then assist with the retrieval stage.
NASA and the ESA will send a rover named Fetch to pick up the tubes from the surface of Mars in a hand-off from the Perseverance rover. The rover will then load the tubes into a spacecraft, which will launch off the surface and meet with a larger spacecraft, which will make the journey back to the Utah desert to drop the samples off. According to Politico’s report, the funding cuts would lead to the space agency missing the 2030 launch window for the retrieval lander.
An independent review of NASA’s Mars mission was released in September that revealed the budget and schedule for the project was unrealistic from the beginning. This is evidenced by the fact that the initial $4 billion budget could potentially reach up to $11 billion, which has undoubtedly influenced the space agency’s decision to pull back and suggest budget cuts. The agency will have to await final congressional appropriations to find out how much it will receive from the current funding request.
At this time, there is a House bill that will grant NASA’s full funding request of $949.3 million. There is also a Senate Bill that would give the agency only $300 million. In the meantime, the agency has a funding patch but will have to continue operating on last year’s budget until the February 2 deadline hits.