NASA engineers flawlessly did their job on Thursday, safely landing a rover on the surface of Mars after a journey of 130 million miles. Now, it’s up to Congress to make sure that big plans for follow-on missions become a reality.
The Perseverance rover, affectionately nicknamed "Percy," is now in place to collect Martian dust samples that scientists want to bring back to Earth in 2031 to study for signs of life. But the fate of those sample tubes also depends on a daunting journey through politics.
America’s space program has long been plagued by drastic shifts in mission that accompany the inauguration of a new president or the election of new congressional leaders.
But some space leaders on Capitol Hill hope to change that and give the Mars Sample Return Mission a better shot at outliving any one congressional term.
“We’re not the president. We can’t be John Kennedy and say ‘at the end of the decade,’” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who chairs the House space subcommittee, said in reference to Kennedy’s moonshot speech that birthed the Apollo program. “But we can do the congressional equivalent.”
Beyer, who was elected head of the House space panel last week, said he is eager to talk to the full committee leaders “right away” about passing a congressional resolution to show bipartisan support for funding the remainder of the Mars Sample Return effort, a three-part mission that’s expected to cost about $4 billion, in addition to the $2.7 billion already spent on the Perseverance rover.
“No Congress can commit another Congress to [a] budget,” Beyer said in an interview. “But why not get a huge bipartisan vote in Congress committing to the idea that future appropriators can look back at and say, ‘This was the intent of Congress.’”
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said he would “enthusiastically” support such a proposal, adding that he is “concerned” about support and funding for the mission decreasing because the payoff of bringing the samples home is so far away.
Lucas pointed to NASA’s track record to show why he’s worried, including the cancellation of the later Apollo missions because the nation “lost focus” and because of the gap in the agency’s commitment to deep space exploration when the Constellation program was scrubbed under the Obama administration.
Other nations racing to the Red Planet should motivate hesitant lawmakers on board, Lucas argues. For example, China has launched an aggressive space program, including robotic exploration of the far side of the moon and plans for a space station orbiting Earth. Most recently, a Chinese spacecraft that arrived in Mars’ orbit this month will send a rover to the surface in a few months.
“It’s easy to get distracted by challenges,” Lucas said in an interview. “There will always be those kinds of challenges but we have to keep our eye on the ball. We have competitors out there who are going to take advantage of the opportunities that exist on asteroids, the moon and Mars. Do we want to get left behind?”
The Perseverance rover is the first in a proposed three-step effort to bring samples of the Red Planet’s dust back to Earth to study. Perseverance will place samples into small tubes that can sit on the surface for decades waiting for their return trip, Kenneth Farley, the project scientist for Perseverance, told POLITICO ahead of the mission launch.
NASA will partner with the European Space Agency for the second part of the mission. A rover named Fetch will pick up the tubes and load them into a spacecraft about the size of a soccer ball that will blast off from the surface. That small orb will rendezvous with a larger spacecraft orbiting Mars in the third leg of the program. The larger vehicle will drop the sample-holding ball somewhere in the Utah desert.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the top Republican on the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said it’s important to see the mission through now that the first chapter has begun.
“This mission has been years in the making, and unless determined otherwise by the team, would be a waste of talent and resources to not see this mission through and ensure the return of scientific samples the rover obtains,” Moran said in a statement.
Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the top Republican appropriator for NASA in the House, agreed that Mars draws the attention of members in both parties.
"This really goes beyond Democrat and Republican,” he said. “When we have debt like we have, we don’t have money to spend like water. But I think we have got to keep a robust exploration into space in our budget.”
Studying the dust with high-tech equipment on Earth could answer big-picture questions, including whether life ever existed on Mars. But it’s also a crucial step toward sending people to the Red Planet, a long-term goal that was often raised by former President Donald Trump, but also has support from both parties.
President Joe Biden has so far not laid out a robust space policy, but White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration fully supports NASA’s Artemis mission, which prioritizes returning American astronauts to the moon as a stepping stone to the ultimate goal of crewed Mars flights. Reaching Mars is also mentioned in the Democrats’ 2020 platform, and has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.
But it’s important to study dust from Mars before sending people there, said Briony Horgan, an associate professor at Purdue University and a member of the rover’s science team. Dust on the moon is like tiny shards of glass, and can be harmful both to people breathing it in and to equipment on the lunar surface. While scientists don’t expect Martian soil, or regolith, to have similar properties, there’s also much about it that’s unknown.
“It would be helpful to design equipment to mitigate it and to understand if there are health hazards of it,” Horgan said. “We don’t know a lot about it’s chemistry, or how reactive it is.”
The sample return mission will also test whether engineers can launch something off the Red Planet, which will be an important capability if the astronauts on Mars missions ever want to come home, Horgan said.
The return mission also has the benefit of being named a top priority in NASA’s most recent decadal survey, a report prepared every 10 years by the National Academy of Sciences that lays out the must-do missions and is closely followed by Congress.
“Congress has a history of supporting these large scale missions. We see that with Mars rovers. We see that with the big space telescopes,” said Jared Zambrano-Stout, director of congressional and regulatory policy at lobbying firm Meeks, Butera and Israel and former chief of staff at the White House National Space Council. “I don’t think there’s a problem getting Congress bought in on flagship missions.”
He pointed to the James Webb Space Telescope, a behind-schedule and over-budget project, as evidence that Congress will stand by a program if they see the scientific value. “It’s an obvious example of where folks have said, ‘We should just cancel James Webb,’ and Congress has said, ‘No, the science that will come from it is too important.’”
Even if politics isn’t a barrier, a technology malfunction could still threaten NASA’s Mars efforts for the next decade. If Perseverance has difficulty collecting dust on the surface, it would have wide implications. NASA is already planning for the two next phases to deliver more than a dozen vials of regolith back to Earth.
If something goes seriously wrong with Perseverance, there’s no reason to fly those two additional missions, and NASA has no Mars missions in the pipeline, according to Casey Dreier, chief advocate at the Planetary Society.
“With all the money going into sample return, this is it. All the eggs are in this basket,” Dreier said.