NASA Mars Sample Return (MSR) Independent Review Board-2 Final Report

By Keith Cowing
Status Report
October 30, 2023
Filed under , ,
NASA Mars Sample Return (MSR) Independent Review Board-2 Final Report
NASA Mars Sample Return (MSR) Independent Review Board-2 Final Report

MSR IRB-2 Charter

  • Are the scope and cost/schedule understood and aligned?
  • What is the likely range of probable cost and schedule, drivers, and risks?
  • What is the funding profile required for the execution of the mission, and how sensitive is the mission to less than optimal funding profile guidelines?
  • Are there outsourcing, descope, or architectural options that should be considered in order to reduce technical risks, and/or to improve schedule and/or cost margins?
  • Does the current distribution of work across NASA centers best position the program for technical/schedule/cost success?
  • Are the management approach and structure adequate, including the international partnership for a program of this scope and complexity?
  • Are lessons from Mars 2020, JWST, or other flagship missions of comparable scope being considered and applied?

The IRB was able to address the elements of the charter thanks to the extraordinary level of expertise and commitment from a broad and diverse membership. The following two elements are addressed indirectly (i.e., they have no specific Findings/Recommendations), but are reflected in one or more findings.

Outsourcing: Evaluation by the IRB focused on the adequacy of the plans, required expertise (i.e., skills and experience), and the risks associated with implementation of existing contracts. MSR is a very complex mission that requires unique and proven expertise for successful development. The IRB took the validity of the two NASA Acquisition Strategy Meetings (ASM) at face value in this approach. Alternate architectures may offer an opportunity to revisit the acquisition strategy for some of the elements or components of the architecture. Evaluation of the possible sources must show credible and assured availability for mission success as part of a NASA ASM-level review.

Lessons learned: lessons such as assembling a team of the best people talent available, and actions to deal with long lead hardware and critical path items to reduce risk are being applied effectively. The latter is more important now than ever to deal with supply chain and lingering post pandemic issues. The larger and most consequential lessons noted in the Large Mission Study conducted by NASA/SMD have not or were not applied, specifically: Unacknowledged or undeclared uncertainties associated with early estimates, Ineffective system of checks and balances, Underestimated impact of recurring system design changes.

Full report


Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻