back to article NASA's Mars Sample Return mission is in danger of never launching

NASA is delaying some of the components of its ultra ambitious Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission after receiving a problem-filled report from an Independent Review Board. The NASA-commissioned IRB reckons the mission is suffering from a number of problems, including an unrealistic budget and schedule from the start of the …

  1. alain williams Silver badge

    When it comes to collecting dirt ...

    the only dirt that interests politicians is dirt on their political opponents - $9 billion would be approve in a moment.

    This dirt is 'only' of scientific interest, it will result in few votes, so NASA will have a hard time getting this approved.

  2. Proton_badger


    The US military probably costs $2bn a day, if only humanity could put a dampener on our tribal nature and desire to kill each other. Or with missions like this, we could see more International funding and cooperation (there's a lot of sample containers lying around up there), 14 countries worked on James Webb, so we can if we want to, though it's probably a lot easier to justify inventing/building parts than sending money.

    1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

      Re: Perspective

      $877bn last year, so you were only a bit low. $2.4bn per day.

  3. Philo T Farnsworth

    A rounding error in the defense budget

    As noted above, whatever this effort might cost, it is dwarfed by the expenditures by the US military.

    We recently concluded an approximately eight trillion dollar exercise in futility in Afghanistan and, before that, a trillion dollar "bargain" in Iraq, from which we seemed to have learned few, if any, lessons, if the Special Inspector General for Afganistan Reconstruction is to be believed. Not to mention the debacles and boondoggles of the F-35 aircraft and the Littoral Combat Ships, which only a defense contractor could love.

    But, sadly, actually learning something about the nature of the solar system and, by extension, the nature of ourselves. . . sorry, the purse is closed and no can do.


    1. DS999 Silver badge

      Re: A rounding error in the defense budget

      I think it will turn out we did learn something from those debacles, that the public is going to turn against any war/occupation that keeps sending American soldiers home in coffins without any tangible benefit back home.

      We learned the same lesson in Vietnam, but it was forgotten after 9/11 when people wanted to feel like we were striking out at those who were responsible. Hopefully we do not have something on a similar scale that causes us to once again forget that lesson.

      F35 and LCS are just more of the same for the defense industrial complex that has been happening since the 50s when Eisenhower's warning went unheeded.

      1. Philo T Farnsworth

        Re: A rounding error in the defense budget

        I wish I could be as optimistic as you appear to be, but I've been around long enough to know that "lessons learned" are quite often "lessons forgotten."

        You have only to read the puff piece in the Atlantic on General Milley to realize how quickly we forget.

        Amidst all the Trump and glory, this passage on Milley's formative years is about all you need to know: "This was during the Reagan-era defense buildup, when the Army—now all-volunteer—was emerging from what Milley describes as its 'post-Vietnam malaise.' This was a time of war-fighting innovation, which Milley would champion as he rose in rank."

        It wasn't a debacle or quagmire -- it simply was a temporary "malaise" to be overcome and an opportunity for ambitious, "innovative" soldiers to rise in rank.

        Similarly, our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan will be shaken off and any "lessons" will be quickly converted to new weapons systems.

        The rest. . . just footnotes, if that.

      2. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: A rounding error in the defense budget

        "I think it will turn out we did learn something from those debacles, that the public is going to turn against any war/occupation that keeps sending American soldiers home in coffins without any tangible benefit back home."

        Recruitment is way down and the US military is cutting back on retention bonuses/incentives likely due to an increase in chiefs for an insufficient number of injuns.

        I'd recommend a good trade school rather than learning a trade in the military. Many jobs that teach marketable skills are done by contractors and grunts get the George jobs. With a trade school it's possible to shift from one thing to another if you find you don't have the aptitude or interest in something. The military isn't very keen on "finding yourself" once you've been assigned to something. The best you might get with a change is becoming a fuel distribution technician in Alaska (gas station attendant/fuel truck diver or second) for the remainder of a hitch with no option to reenlist.

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: A rounding error in the defense budget

          The military had no choice but to offer generous recruiting bonuses and incentives because they had to support occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recruitment is down because there isn't as much need as there when they needed people willing to put their lives on the line for an ephemeral goal no one from the chairman of the joint chiefs on down to the sergeants could articulate.

          But yes like most bureaucracies the military seems to suffer from too many officers (managers) compared to the total force size. You get throw into a lot more complex tasks in the military than anyone would trust an 18 or 19 year old with on the outside. Why not get paid to learn a trade instead of paying to learn it in a trade school? If you're an employer do you want to hire someone who went to a trade school and got a welding certificate, or someone who did welding (and probably a lot more) in the military for a couple years?

  4. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge


    Reading the article, with the references to the comments made by the IRB, sounds awfully like the HS2 project in England

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: HS2

      The purpose of HS2 is not widely understood and the project has failed to do a decent job of describing its purpose. Consequently you get all the ill informed pub talk like "all that money to save 20 minutes".

      A project that gets priced up with a certain figure that people feel would be acceptable to get it past all the politics then in reality turns out to be several times more.... well that's new.... I'm certain that when people sign off on these giant projects they already know the cost is a ridiculous work of fiction because all costs always have magnified historically, people can't not know this.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: HS2 - "people can't not know this"

        "people can't not know this", but that's normally for the next government to sort out in relatively short (<10 years) projects. But the problem is this is a loooong project and the same government has been around for a looong time, so it's having to face its own shit piling up.

        Taken long enough term, HS2 is even an environmental plus - lots of destruction now. but it will free up the existing London to Birmingham line for more freight. But it's only going to be to the detriment of us on the old, slow line, who will be slowed even more by the freight, and suffer even more cancellation as it's normally freight trains that rip up the track.

        Anon because who would really admit to living in Northampton - a branch line, off what will become a branch line?

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: HS2 - "people can't not know this"

          The fast trains on the London to Birmingham route tie up more blocks than a slow freight train does.

          Original London to Birmingham bypassed Northampton because the landowners didn't want it. Was it the Spencers? Maybe they were canal people. Dunno, but they soon came back to get their branch line built.

          Anyway, original L&B 112 miles raised £2.5 million pounds to build it. It actually ended up costing £6.5 million to complete. So when people gasp in shock at inflated costs, they are acting.

          1. Caver_Dave Silver badge

            Re: HS2 - "people can't not know this"

            The train line bypassed Northampton as they were not sure that the engines could make the climb out from the river valley that Northampton lies in. Mostly the hills to the north where the branch track does go across the Althorp estate - quite close to the house actually. (The land owners were blamed in some quarters, but Robert Stephenson, the engineer of the London and Birmingham Railway was determined to avoid gradients steeper than 1:330). Kilsby tunnel was still required to the north by the mainline.

            Watford Gap (between the Cotswolds and Northampton Uplands) is used by Train, Canal and M1 motorway - they and the A5 are about 100m apart as they pass through Buckby Wharf. It always surprises me that it was not heavily bombed in WWII to cut such arteries.

            1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

              Re: HS2 - "people can't not know this"

              Bombing roads or railways seldom makes strategic sense since they are too easily rebuilt. To be more than a nuisance you have to target bridges, or if you can get your hands on earthquake bombs, tunnels.

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: HS2 - "people can't not know this"

          "the same government"

          "The Government" are the Cabinet and I've heard them argue that "they" are not the "same" Government after a re-shuffle, let alone a new PM. Of course, we all know it's the same Party, but they would try to have us believe otherwise.

  5. Gene Cash Silver badge

    NASA are their own worst enemy

    For one thing, they don't ever fight back against what Congress does to their programs.

    For example, one reason SLS is so expensive is that Congress has dicked around with the funding, and stretched things out. So they have to pay contractors for 6 years of work instead of 3 years. This has the side effect that NASA can't make a coherent financial plan and put it into action.

    Does NASA ever bring this up in hearings? No. Never. Not even a peep. For once I'd like to hear "Mr. Administrator, why is [program] so over budget?" "Well, Senator, it's because you never funded it to the extent we could get anything actually done"

    Now there's the need to lowball stuff so it gets funded in the first place, and here we are.

    1. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: NASA are their own worst enemy

      "For example, one reason SLS is so expensive is that Congress has dicked around with the funding, and stretched things out."

      SLS wasn't a NASA project, it was pure pork for politicians to bring back to their states that said money and jobs, now re-elect me...... again. SLS got handed to NASA and they were told "do this" given a pat on the head and not to come back for anything else until it's done.

  6. vadeertime

    Space X

    Why not just farm out the MSR mission to Space X? They could probably do it within budget and deliver on time.

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: Space X

      deliver on time

      Either you missed the </sarcasm> or I want to know what you're smoking/drinking/injecting.

      1. Spherical Cow Silver badge

        Re: Space X

        The current MSR timeline is to return samples "in the early to mid 2030s". Do I think SpaceX can get there and back in 10 years or less? Absolutely! So yes, they can deliver on time (and it'll cost a lot less too).

        Source for current MSR timeline:

  7. tiggity Silver badge

    Great chance for China (or others)

    Chinese could quietly develop a sample collection & retrieval solution of their own and then get a jump ahead on the US in space bragging rights - I'm sure the Chinese would get great pleasure from that. It would probably then get the politicos to actually fund some missions properly (similar to the R&D impetus that led to the moon landings, where loss of "national face" as the Russians stole an initial lead in space tech was the driving factor)

  8. Pete 2 Silver badge

    The secret of success ...

    > in danger of never launching

    ... is to never fail.

    And what better way to never fail, than to never do anything?

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