How does this new guy on the block, [NASA Associate Administrator for the Space Science Mission Directorate Alan] Stern, know so well that an incredibility expensive and program disruptive MSR [Mars Sample Return] will bring back the goods? [“Mars Sample Return Proposal Stirs Excitement, Controversy,” July 23, page 19] Where is the evidence, the trade studies, that conclusively prove a sample return is better than, say, a series of lower cost, evolved MSLs [Mars Science Laboratory missions] seeking and analyzing samples, building on each experience at Mars.
As for the “sample catcher:” this implies that the right sample is just lying there on the surface ready to be picked up. I don’t think so! A series of robotic missions are probably required to search, possibly dig for the samples.
And once acquired, I have never seen a good argument as to why the samples have to be returned to Earth for analysis.
Let’s do the studies needed first. But on the other hand MSR is cool and exciting. Maybe this is what is needed to keep the Mars Program going and I am for that. But let’s still do the studies.
(Editor’s note: the author is the former Mars Pathfinder Project Manager and worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 36 years before retiring in 1998.)