Opinion: A Sample Return Mission to Mars
The Space Review Download time: Jun 7 2011 1:15 PM ET
Sample return is something of a holy grail to planetary explorers. The advantage is that age dating and extensive compositional analysis can be done better with modern instruments in Earth-based laboratories than on miniaturized instruments that have to prepared years in advance for space flight. In the case of Mars, we have been pursuing sample return since the 1970s, with many real and false starts but never approaching a finish line. I was in charge of the NASA post-Viking Mars program for a while when we took the first serious sample return mission proposal to the National Academy of Sciences for endorsement. Some enthusiastic scientists even claimed that with one gram of Mars in their laboratory here on Earth they could provide the entire history of Mars. Others, perhaps more practical, feared that the cost and complexity of Mars Sample Return would eat up the rest of the science program.
That debate continues today. Although Mars Sample Return has made it into official planning documents and schedules, some financial crisis always arises to set it back another half-decade or so just when mission planners are ready to begin development. This could be happening now: Even as the recent National Academy Planetary Decadal Study endorsed the mission, it weakened that endorsement by citing cost constraints.…
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