Call me a pessimist if you will (you will) but when I read stories with headlines like Nasa scientists hail Perseverance rover's arrival on Mars with stunning images…
The rover’s broad mission is to stay on Mars for a couple of years, gather data and harvest samples to be collected and returned to Earth on a future mission. The point is to determine whether there was life on Mars and answer subsidiary questions.
… I can't help but note that the "future mission" that's referred to is a long way from being locked in. I appreciate that I'm quoting from WikiPedia here, but when I read things like this…
Over time, several concept missions have been studied, but none of them got beyond the study phase. The three latest concepts for an MSR mission are a NASA-ESA proposal, a Russian proposal (Mars-Grunt), and a Chinese proposal.
… that doesn't sound promising. As I drafted this I was hoping to find some evidence that I was overlooking a whole bunch of detailed planning going on about this, but instead I found stories like this one at Space.com…
The next step, if all goes according to the current (provisional) plan, comes with two launches in 2026. One launch will send the NASA-led Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) mission toward Mars, and the second will loft the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO), which is helmed by the European Space Agency (ESA).
… and this one about those two 2026 missions…
Pristine samples of the Red Planet will come down to Earth a little over a decade from now, if everything goes according to plan. […]
NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are working together on a highly anticipated Mars sample-return mission, which advocates say is the logical next step in our study of the Red Planet and its life-hosting potential. […] The NASA-ESA plan is not yet official, Muirhead stressed, and details are still being worked out. But here's a rundown of the concept, as it's currently conceived.
Perhaps it's just scientists not wanting to jinx funding for the logical next step before it's locked in, and it's not as if those samples are going to be going anywhere once they've been collected and packaged up,1 but somehow it feels as if NASA could be heading for a scenario where they end up never getting enough funding for that sample return mission and they get deferred or scaled down to the point they're not worth doing, which would mark a truly sad ending to this portion of the NASA story.
Granted they have a provisional plan for the sample return side of the mission, but this is NASA we're talking about: them having plans and them getting to deliver on those plans are two very different things. I can't help but wonder if some future change of priorities might lead to diversion of that funding to other projects, perhaps on the grounds that wait a bit and you can ask Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk to grab the samples while they're in the vicinity.2
Perhaps part of the plan is for Ingenuity, the helicopter part of the mission,3 to fly the containers that hold those samples slated for return well out of the line of sight of Perseverance. Otherwise I fear that a future xkcd is going to give us a sequel to Spirit where Perseverance's last sight will be of a bunch of sample containers never having been picked up. Sad Perseverance is not a concept I wish to see on xkcd a few years from now! (Yes, this is silly: Perseverance isn't going to have emotions about the end of the mission. Just like Spirit didn't.)
Of course, it could go completely differently. Perhaps the Chinese or the Indians or the European Union will launch a sample return mission aiming to pick up those samples the Americans have left lying around. That'll be followed by the US administration insisting that even though there's no official plan to fund that sample return mission those samples belong to the freedom-loving nations of Earth, and forming a Coalition of the Willing to defend that notion right back here on Earth. Then we can all die in the aftermath of the Sample Return Crisis War of 2030 while a few freedom-loving trillionaires and their acolytes4 expire slowly on their way to Mars as it becomes clear that perhaps SpaceX and Blue Origin could've benefited from a little more pre-flight testing. In a Neal Stephenson novel, this leads to one of them revealing an FTL space drive they've been working on in their side gig, and we jump to 500,000 years later when this corner of the galaxy is dominated by the human race because it turned out that the sample of humanity on board was not only ridiculously rich but also, between them, contained all the specialist knowledge the human race would ever require.5 In the real world, this leads to a few spaceships, devoid of human life, ending up not braking and going into orbit around Mars but carrying on until they are just a few lifeless objects in the asteroid belt, waiting to be a mystery to the next spacefaring race that passes by and notices that a couple of the members of the asteroid belt have an unusually regular design that suggests an artificial origin.
Now, I'm going to tear myself away from my web browser and watch the first episode of the second season of For All Mankind. It might feature astronauts lining up with small arms on the lunar surface, set to move against the local branch of the Evil Empire, but I have a feeling that by season's end it'll still be more optimistic and realistic than some of what I've written here. [This is what we get when I write here instead of sleeping.]
- Unless the Barsoomian Ground Defence Forces, upset that NASA's probes seem to be better at evading Barsoomian defences nowadays, decide to send out troops to move the samples so they're not to be found. What a blow that would be to pride of the imperialists of Jarsoom. ↩
- Or (dear Ghu no!) it becomes a big part of a major party's platform in the 2022 or 2024 electoral season that the returned samples might contain the seeds of the next pandemic, so best to leave those rocks back on Mars. Yes, that'd be silly in the extreme, but after surviving 2016-2020 would you bet against it? ↩
- Can I just add at this juncture: I cannot quite believe I've just written a post that includes talk of a helicopter on Mars. This is the future I signed up for when I was mainlining the Science Fiction shelves in my local library back in the early 1970s and, dammit, Arthur C Clarke was the best speculative fiction author in the world, unless that was Andre Norton or Hugh Walters. (What can I say, I was young and naiive back then. By the end of that decade I'd have been talking about Brian M Stableford for the Hooded Swan novels or John Varley for The Ophiuci Hotline or Frederik Pohl for Gateway.) ↩
- The sad thing being that 52% of the US citizens in the complement of those two vessels, in an alternate timeline, understood full well that the Martian rock samples were unlikely to contain anything that would survive long enough to cause us humans a problem if it somehow ended up being exposed to Earth's biosphere, but the lure of tax cuts and racism took precedence and persuaded them to let that sway their votes and ensured that NASA didn't get the funding it hoped for. ↩
- Or at least, they had a copy of Wikipedia on the local intranet and they knew how to search it. Shame the external links didn't resolve any more. ↩