Sample Return a Dream Without New Rockets

Regarding Brian Berger’s article in the May 18 issue [“Report: Secure Facility for Mars Samples Needed Earlier,” page 15], it is certainly a good thing that the space science community is serious about the potential for Mars microorganisms to harm life on Earth, no matter how small the risk.

However, there is really no need to build a sample-receiving facility, because the community is not even a bit serious about creating a high-performance launch vehicle the size of a person. One of those is needed to lift samples off Mars, while being small enough to affordably send there without displacing science instruments from the mission.

It is no secret that such a capability is way beyond proven rocket technology, and might not even be possible within accepted engineering practice. Sadly, it is also no secret that money is only allocated when enough influential people work together to advocate a particular expenditure, promising success.

For every rocket engineer who might have ideas for launching off Mars, there are thousands of people who understand microorganisms, disease and biocontainment facilities, a thriving community of experts. There simply is no community of miniature launch vehicle experts, because it is hard to do, and there are no other customers to sustain any ongoing activity.

Some planetary science leaders do appreciate that aggressive innovation is needed for a Mars ascent vehicle. However, we have lived with an insistence that breakthroughs be scheduled in advance because of how budgets and procurement systems work, and partly because of perception – i.e. “it’s just engineering.” Who else understands that solving technology mysteries can be just as fascinating and inspiring as Mars science mysteries?

Let’s assemble some teams of rocket engineers (and miniature avionics engineers) who primarily thrive on creative work with a reduced emphasis on accepted technical standards and programmatic process activity, then fund them sustainably with the freedom to discover within the constraints of building it small enough. Otherwise, stop pretending there’s going to be a Mars Sample Return mission.

John C. Whitehead