The high price of guaranteed success
- As proposed, the Mars sample return mission will be an extraordinary technical challenge.
- At a minimum, the current approach involves sending a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) rocket from Earth to Mars, landing the SSTO with extreme accuracy on the back of a new Mars lander, deploying a small rover to gather the sample container, loading that container onto the tiny rocket, launching said rocket into Mars orbit, grabbing the sample with large orbiter launched from Earth, and returning said sample to Earth where it will reenter the atmosphere and be safely recovered.
- This downright Rube Golberg machine-esque architecture is nevertheless the best currently available with current mindsets and hardware. It’s also likely the only way NASA or ESA will independently acquire samples of Mars within the next few decades, barring radical changes to both the mindsets and technologies familiar and available to the deeply bureaucratic spaceflight agencies.
- However, this is by no means an attempt to downplay the demonstrated expertise and capabilities of the space agencies and their go-to contractors. Both ESA and NASA have a decades-long heritage of spectacular achievements in robotic space exploration, reaching – however briefly, in some cases – almost every major planet and moon in the solar system.
- The NASA-supported Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) remains a world-leading expert of both designing, building, and landing large, capable, and long-lived rovers/landers on the surface of Mars. JPL also has a track record of incredible success with space-based orbiters, including Cassini (Saturn), Magellan (Venus), Galileo (Jupiter), Voyager (most planets, now in interstellar space), Stardust (comet sample return), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO, Mars orbiter) and more.
- This success, however, can often come with extreme costs. NASA’s next Mars rover – essentially a modified copy of the Curiosity rover currently operating on Mars and a critical component of the proposed sample return – is likely to cost more than $2B, while Curiosity cost ~$2.5B. The Cassini Saturn orbiter cost around ~$3.5B for 15 years of scientific productivity. ESA’s Rosetta/Philae comet rendezvous cost at least $2B total. In the scheme of things, it would be hard to think of a more inspiring way to spend that money, but the fact remains that these missions are extremely expensive.