NASA scrapped the next phase of its Mars mission. Now what?
May 23, 2024

NASA scrapped the next phase of its Mars mission. Now what?

It could cost NASA $11 billion and take 16 years to bring rocks and soil back from the red planet, part of its effort to advance our understanding of the solar system. Hoping for a cheaper, faster option, the agency is turning to the private sector.

Ever since NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars three years ago, it’s been collecting rocks and soil from the red planet.

The plan was for NASA to send a robotic spacecraft to Mars to bring those samples back to Earth, but the agency has scrapped those plans due to a ballooning price tag and extensive delays.

At a news conference in April, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, “The bottom line is that $11 billion is too expensive and not returning samples until 2040 is unacceptably too long.”

With no way of getting to Mars on its own, NASA is hoping to hitch a ride with private space companies to finish the mission. Think Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke to Kenneth Chang, science reporter at The New York Times, about NASA’s difficulties on Mars and its partnerships with the private sector.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kenneth Chang: This is probably the biggest, most ambitious robotic mission that anyone has ever tried. Because pretty much by definition, you have to land on Mars, pick up the rocks and then launch from Mars. This is something no one’s done before yet, launching a rocket from another planet. And you have to get it right on the first try. And it turned out to be even more difficult than NASA thought it would be. Anything that’s difficult ends up being really expensive, and really slow as well.

Lily Jamali: With this announcement, NASA seems to be saying we cannot figure out a way to do this ourselves for a reasonable amount of money and over a reasonable period of time, but maybe someone else can. Is that the message? Is NASA growing more dependent on these partnerships with private companies to carry out or complete missions?

Chang: This is something that NASA has been doing for more than a decade now. It started with sending cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX got one of those contracts. And that’s really how SpaceX grew into the SpaceX we know today. And it turned out to be a great plus for both SpaceX and NASA. SpaceX got business that sort of jumpstarted them from basically nothing to the behemoth that they are today. And NASA got a service that they can send cargo to the space station much cheaper than they could when they were using the space shuttles. So, it’s a win-win for everybody. And NASA really shouldn’t be in the FedEx business. That’s not their strong point. Their strong point is building these great instruments to go study Mars or Jupiter and doing things that no one’s done before. Whereas the mundane things like getting people into orbit, maybe even getting now instruments to Mars, that’s perhaps something that entrepreneurs can do better, faster, cheaper, and NASA can focus on the things it really wants to do. It doesn’t really want to be a delivery company.

Jamali: So how would you characterize the current state of NASA? When you think about where NASA was when we were kids, it was probably the first government agency that I learned about, and it was a symbol of what mankind, and the American government specifically, was capable of. What did you think of NASA as a kid?

Chang: I loved it. I am old enough to remember the last few Apollo moon landings, and that was an exciting thing to watch on TV, of course. It was a great moment where NASA did something that felt like an achievement for NASA, for the United States, and entire world, in fact. That we could do something that seemed absolutely impossible. And that was a great achievement. It’s been more than 50 years since that time, and times change and NASA is changing. And if it can do things better, with the help of smart people outside of NASA, that’s a benefit to everyone. NASA and the space industry have grown beyond what Apollo was in the 1960s. And yes, there’s now SpaceX, there’s these private citizens going into space, and it doesn’t seem quite as special. But in a sense, that’s what makes it more exciting because now we can hopefully get more applications of people going into space, sending more satellites, doing more different things. And so this becomes more and more the fabric of our everyday lives, and not just something we watched on TV a few times when we were kids.

Jamali: So as NASA does more of these partnerships with the private sector, does that change the place that NASA has long held in the public imagination?

Chang: As I was saying, they sort of lost the way they were thought about during the moon landings. Everyone’s still excited by NASA, kids are so excited to be an astronaut. And this idea that they’re going to go to Mars, hopefully in the next 10 years, maybe 20 years, that’s exciting. The first astronauts to walk on Mars will be as famous as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. So, there’s still new achievements out there for NASA to accomplish in the future. But NASA is evolving. And this was actually a conscious decision by various administrations in the U.S. They wanted NASA to encourage the private sector. That’s actually in the law that that governs NASA, that they should be relying on the private sector to the greatest extent possible. And they’re succeeding. So, if it doesn’t seem quite as exciting, it’s because they’re actually being successful.

Jamali: It sounds like you’re saying this was part of the plan all along.

Chang: It was part of the plan, at least on paper. And it’s only in the last 20 years that people really started taking it seriously.

More on this

The space race that began last century is far from over, but China is now the main competitor to the U.S.

The Atlantic reports that China is scheduled to return its own samples from the red planet in the 2030s. The magazine cites an independent review ordered by NASA that “ominously warned” last year that by letting other nations get ahead, the U.S. “abandons the preeminent role” President John F. Kennedy assigned to space exploration.

Lest talk of cost overruns gets us all down on America’s endeavors in space, we’re sharing a video of NASA’s Perseverance rover in action. You can hear the sparks and crackles as the machine’s lasers vaporize rock surfaces to study them.

It’s not often that I quote a random commenter on YouTube, but I had to share this one, in slightly edited form: “The fact that it’s been just over 100 years between the first flight on earth and humanity hearing sounds from the surface of another planet is absolutely stunning.”

Yeah, it really is.

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Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
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