Image credit: Barbara David

In classic “wait-a-minute” style, back in mid-April, NASA requested proposals from industry to do a double-take on the costly Mars Sample Return (MSR) initiative to return samples of the Red Planet in the 2030s.

NASA is now moving forward with 10 studies to examine more affordable and faster methods of bringing samples from Mars’ surface back to Earth.

Image credit: NASA

The MSR seven

As part of this re-look, NASA will award a firm-fixed-price contract for up to $1.5 million to conduct 90-day studies to seven industry proposers.

Additionally, the go-ahead has been given to NASA centers, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) to also crank out MSR re-evaluation studies in the hopes of improving MSR’s price tag and schedule.

Mars sample return to Earth – a major and multi-billion dollar undertaking by NASA, the European Space Agency.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Alterations or enhancements

Once all the studies are in hand, NASA will assess them to consider alterations or enhancements to the Mars Sample Return architecture, tagged by independent assessment groups as perhaps costing upwards of $11 billion to carry out.

NASA has announced that the following companies and their proposals were selected from among those that responded to the April 15 request for help in re-shaping the MSR undertaking. They are:


Lockheed Martin, Littleton, Colorado: “Lockheed Martin Rapid Mission Design Studies for Mars Sample Return”

SpaceX, Hawthorne, California: “Enabling Mars Sample Return With Starship”

Aerojet Rocketdyne, Huntsville, Alabama: “A High-Performance Liquid Mars Ascent Vehicle, Using Highly Reliable and Mature Propulsion Technologies, to Improve Program Affordability and Schedule”

Blue Origin, Monrovia, California: “Leveraging Artemis for Mars Sample Return”

Quantum Space, Rockville, Maryland: “Quantum Anchor Leg Mars Sample Return Study”

Northrop Grumman, Elkton, Maryland: “High TRL [Technology Readiness Level]  MAV [Mars Ascent Vehicle] Propulsion Trades and Concept Design for MSR Rapid Mission Design”

Whittinghill Aerospace, Camarillo, California: “A Rapid Design Study for the MSR Single Stage Mars Ascent Vehicle”

The Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) is a major and costly component of NASA’s robotic Holy Grail mission, a sample return effort to haul to Earth Martian collectibles.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dumpster fire

All of this activity was sparked last September when an independent review board (IRB) released its findings after taking a diligent and detailed look at the flagship MSR project.

The IRB was established by NASA to judge the technical requirements, cost and calendar plans of the task. It was a thorough sanity check on how things were going for MSR…and things were found not to be going well.

For more information, go to my Scientific American story – “NASA’s Troubled Mars Sample Mission Has Scientists Seeing Red – NASA’s Mars Sample Return program is the agency’s highest priority in planetary science, but projected multibillion-dollar overruns have some calling the plan a “dumpster fire”” – at:



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