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NASA’s Mars Sample Return has a new price tag—and it’s colossal

This illustration shows a concept for a proposed NASA Sample Retrieval Lander, about the size of an average two-car garage, that would carry a small rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle to the Martian surface.

Enlarge / This illustration shows a concept for a proposed NASA Sample Retrieval Lander, about the size of an average two-car garage, that would carry a small rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle to the Martian surface. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

During his final months as the chief of NASA’s science programs last year, there was one mission Thomas Zurbuchen fretted about more than any other—the agency’s ambitious plan to return rocks from Mars to Earth. He supported the Mars Sample Return mission and helped get it moving through the agency’s approval process. But the project threatened to devour the agency’s science budget.

“This was the thing that gave me sleepless nights toward the end of my tenure at NASA and even after I left,” said Zurbuchen, who left NASA after seven years leading its Science Mission Directorate at the end of 2022. “I think there’s a crisis going on.”

Now, Ars has learned, the problem may be even worse that Zurbuchen imagined.

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