In a stumbling statement this week, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson presented the NASA position on Mars Sample Return: “The bottom line is that $11 billion is too expensive and not returning samples until 2040 is unacceptably too long,” he said April 15. Actually, it was his top line — NASA had already signaled they would not support Mars Sample Return (MSR) — indeed the budget decision had been made a couple of months ago and had resulted in layoffs of much of the MSR workforce. 

Nelson’s line (top or bottom) was disingenuous. The 2040 date is a NASA marketing date for its human program, and has no reality for the actual development of a human mission to Mars. Just look at the already existing delays in the Artemis program before it even starts work on a human lunar landing. Similarly, the $11 billion ought not to be a problem for the agency spending nearly ten times that much on Artemis, and likely will require 50 times that much for humans to go to Mars. Nelson cited wanting the samples back before a human mission to Mars; 2040 would be just fine. Furthermore, it is not the samples that are a precursor to the engineering development of the human Mars mission — it is the robotic MSR itself with the entry, descent, landing, ascent, rendezvous and docking, and Earth return that all precursors. They would be part of the development. Now they are likely to not be relevant, as scaled down “heritage” of what we have done before. In fact, the most likely outcome is more delay or outright ceasing Mars exploration altogether.

NASA does not care about MSR because it wants to protect Artemis. NASA would not even allow the Independent Review Board to state that MSR was in the U.S. national interest. Yet, it is. We lead the world in space because of what we have done in the solar system. Now, it appears, that torch will pass to China. A headline last month in a Chinese newspaper read, “China’s Mars sample return mission ‘progressing smoothly’ while Nasa struggles behind schedule.” The arena for American technology development is not old-fashioned rockets and space suits. It is robotics, intonation processing, artificial intelligence, sensors and instruments. And the rationale for space exploration should be more than a do-over of what others are now doing, but the active investigation of the key unknown: the nature of life.

The James Webb Space Telescope maintained its extraordinary budget support despite major development setbacks and delays largely because of its science goals probing the mysteries of the universe, and its ability to observe planets around other stars (exoplanets) for signs of life. Today, few wring their hands about the cost as they enjoy the plethora of results from the telescope. Samples from Mars are to be explored for equally compelling reasons – searching for extraterrestrial life and unraveling the mysteries of planetary evolution. Unfortunately, the planetary science community have been remiss in explaining that as part of their mission development, relying instead on citing the priority of the mission to themselves. 

The nature of and uniqueness of life on Earth has occupied society for all of human history. Through folklore, religion, stories, literature and finally through science, humankind has wondered, and occasionally worried, about whether life is unique or ubiquitous. We wonder about and devote significant intellectual resources to questions of its origin and evolution, and equally, about its destiny. Earth is our only example – we can only theorize about life elsewhere. Except, with Mars, we explore the conditions of life to see if it formed there, how and if it did not, why? Mars is the only accessible other world for us with a surface, atmosphere and water. Bringing samples of that surface into our laboratories here on Earth will reveal much about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. There is no more relevant experiment to the detection of extraterrestrial life than analyzing the carefully selected samples from the proposed NASA-ESA mission. 

NASA’s “no” to Mars Sample Return is couched in bureaucratic double-speak. But its real bottom line meaning is: No to American space leadership; no to space science and technology development; no to seeking to understand life in the universe and its relation to us on Earth. Perhaps public interest in all of these can turn NASA around. Will we try? 

Louis Friedman is the co-founder and Executive Director Emeritus of The Planetary Society. Prior to that he was Manager of Advanced Programs and the post-Viking Mars Program at JPL.

Louis Friedman is the co-founder and Executive Director Emeritus of The Planetary Society. Prior to that he was Manager of Advanced Programs and the post-Viking Mars Program at JPL.