WASHINGTON — The struggles NASA is facing with Mars Sample Return (MSR) are part of a longer-running challenge the agency faces with science missions that go sometimes deliberately a step too far, agency officials and adviser say.

A hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee March 21 devoted to NASA’s science programs spent much of its time on the delays and cost overruns suffered by MSR that have affected other parts of the agency’s science portfolio.

“This committee recognizes the immense value of the MSR mission. We continue to hope that these issues will be resolved and that the MSR mission will be successful,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chair of the space subcommittee, in his opening remarks. “Congress has the responsibility to weigh the cost of the mission with its scientific value and cannot simply rationalize cost overruns and schedule delays by stating that the end result of these missions will be worthwhile.”

Nicola Fox, NASA associate administrator for science, provided few updates on the status of an ongoing review to restructure MSR, one prompted by an independent review last fall that concluded the mission was behind schedule and overbudget.

“We are wrapping up and putting together the results” of the reassessment, she said. “They will be available in the spring.” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at a March 11 briefing about the agency’s fiscal year 2025 budget request that the agency would release details, including planned MSR funding levels for 2024 and 2025, in April.

NASA reduced spending on MSR in November while in a continuing resolution (CR) because of large funding differences between the House and Senate versions of spending bills. That led to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the lead center for MSR, laying off 8% of its workforce in February.

Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.), who serves on both the House Science Committee and House Appropriations Committee, criticized NASA for lowering spending on MSR in November, saying he was “blindsided” by that decision. “You left us in the dark, frankly, with some reprogramming that took place under loopholes during the CR,” he said. “I would have really appreciated a heads-up that we were going to lay off close to 600 employees at JPL before that decision was made.”

Fox said that NASA did brief Congress several times about MSR, and explained that the decision to reduce funding was based on a Senate bill that offered only $300 million for MSR, less than a third of the House bill and NASA’s request. Spending at the 2023 level under the CR, she said, risked breaching the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits agencies from spending above or in advance of an appropriations, by February.

Garcia instead argued that NASA violated the Impoundment Control Act, which restricts the ability of the administration to prevent the expenditure of funds appropriated by Congress.

“A lot of these jobs are already lost,” he said. “I don’t know how we do MSR correctly without that workforce. We’re already challenged.” He noted that he and 22 other members of the state’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Nelson the day before, asking that NASA allocate at least $650 million — roughly midway between the original Senate and House funding levels — for MSR in its operating plan for 2024, taking advantage of the flexibility granted to NASA in the final 2024 appropriations bill.

MSR, though, is just the latest in a series of ambitious NASA science missions that have suffered delays and overruns, such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). “NASA struggles to develop complete, credible and transparent estimates” for such missions, said George Scott, the agency’s acting inspector general.  That is linked at least in part to a “culture of optimism” that causes it to underestimate the challenges such missions face.

NASA has attempted to address those problems with a large mission study in 2020 that examined how to better manage such projects. “However, NASA has yet to incorporate the recommendations from the study into its practices and guidance for flagship missions,” he noted.

Tom Young, a retired industry executive who has been involved in many reviews of NASA programs, said he believed NASA was learning from problems from JWST and other missions. However, he said flagship missions “are never going to be free of challenges and difficulties” as the agency pushes the limits. “We are learning from it, but I do want to point out that these missions are never going to be easy.”

He said later in the hearing that JWST in particular was a step too far for NASA. “But, if we had not taken a step too far, we would not have the incredible results that we have today.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...