Price Tag of NASA's Martian Rock Retrieval Mission Is Skyrocketing

The Mars Sample Retrieval program is now estimated to cost double than what was originally projected.


As NASA's chief of science programs, Thomas Zurbuchen oversaw missions like the James Webb telescope launch and the landing of the Mars Perseverance rover. When he stepped down from that post in 2022, he told The New York Times that the key to innovation was to take smart risks and not to panic when some of them don't pay out. It appears NASA itself is struggling to apply that wisdom. 

Last week, according to reporting from Ars Technica, leaders at the space agency were told that the development cost for the Mars Sample Retrieval (MSR) program had doubled. Originally, the cost to collect rock samples from Mars was estimated at $4.4 billion; now, that number is north of $8 billion. And that's just for development. The estimate does not include launch costs, construction, or operating costs. The final tab could be north of $10 billion. 

The plan is to send an unmanned sample retrieval lander to Mars in 2028. That vehicle would return to Earth with the rock and soil samples that the Perseverance rover has collected since it landed on Mars in 2021. However, there are concerns over whether Perseverance will still be operational in 2028, so NASA is creating backup plans that include sample recovery helicopters. If all of these steps go according to plan, the samples will return to Earth by 2033 at the earliest. 

Understanding the geological makeup of other planets is a noble scientific endeavor, but not when taxpayers are footing the colossal bill. This is not the first time (or even the second) that NASA has run a delayed project over budget. Their flagship Artemis program has ballooned in price and will now cost over $93 billion by the end of 2025. And it's likely an astronaut won't return to the moon by then. 

The news that this project had doubled really shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Back in April, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told the Senate Appropriations Committee's Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee that the MSR program would need an additional $250 million to stay on track in fiscal year 2023. 

Even the science community has suggested that this price tag is simply not worth it. Planetary scientist Paul Byrne told Ars Technica that MSR risks becoming "the planetary community's James Webb Telescope," meaning that this project would eat up much of the budget allotted for planetary science, stifling other worthwhile projects in its wake. 

There are many ways for NASA to cut costs on this project, but the most obvious answer is to turn to the budding private space industry. NASA is already relying heavily on SpaceX to complete the Artemis program; there is no reason why SpaceX or some other company couldn't pick up the venture. Even if the rocks were to prove life on Mars (and that's a big if), at some point, there needs to be a limit to how much public money NASA is willing to spend.