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The Space News article NASA continues Mars sample return mission studies

Among those planned missions is Mars sample return, a multi-mission architecture that involves collecting samples of Martian rock and regolith and caching them for collection by a later mission. That mission would then launch the samples into Martian orbit where a spacecraft would retrieve them and send them to Earth.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will carry out the first phase of that effort by caching samples. Future steps remain undefined, although the agency’s leadership says that Mars sample return remains a priority.

“Certainly, Mars sample return is something that we are committed to as an agency,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a June 6 briefing with reporters. “That’s a civilization-level changing capability, and we want to do it.”

Question: What is a "civilization-level changing capability", and why would bringing samples from Mars back to Earth be one?

Of course if some microbe brought back to Earth from Mars escaped bio-containment and unexpectedly altered Earths' ecosystem, that would certainly be civilization-level changing, but I hope that's not what's being envisioned here!

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  • $\begingroup$ This opens up the ability to exploit resources from distant bodies by delivering them to earth. We wouldn’t be limited to only resources on earth. I’d say that would be civilization-changing. $\endgroup$
    – Paul
    Jun 13 '18 at 0:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Paul scientific sample return from space (which is not new at all) and "exploit resources" are completely different. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 13 '18 at 0:39
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    $\begingroup$ The premise of the question assumes that an unqualified Trump-appointed politically-motivated administrator is correct and sincere in his statements. $\endgroup$ Jun 13 '18 at 1:19
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh - not from anything with substantial gravity, except earth's moon. That doesn't prove it cannot be done using only fuel carried from earth - there have been proposals apparently - but it hasn't been done. $\endgroup$ Jun 13 '18 at 3:44
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    $\begingroup$ If eventually the samples will show without doubt that life forms exist or existed on Mars - then yes, it can be called "civilization changing", I suppose. Currently we don't know is biological life require wery rare circumstances to occur, or it's "only add water" and occurs on lots of planets. So, evidence of life would essentially change our "picture of the Universe and our place in it". Any other potential science results of sample return would not be "civilization changing", I think. $\endgroup$
    – Heopps
    Jun 13 '18 at 9:06
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It's not.

I worked on two incarnations of MSR, and conceived a third, two of which got a good way into development, but none made it to a launch pad. I can say that MSR would be a tremendous scientific advance in the exploration of Mars. However I cannot see how it would be a "civilization-level changing capability", unless the definition of civilization levels is extremely fine, and we'd be going from civilization level 42585201 to civilization level 42585202.

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  • $\begingroup$ Aha! That's the forgotten question! "At the beginning of the 21st century, at what ML (1E+06 level) was Earth's civilization?" We already know the answer of course. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 13 '18 at 3:20
  • $\begingroup$ any thoughts? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jul 27 '20 at 9:58
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    $\begingroup$ I agree completely, Mark, and I also agree with a couple of comments: If MSR returned incontrovertible evidence of a "second genesis" of life (life not derived from Earth cross-seeding), that might be civilization-changing, at least for Earth's religions and probably more; and if it brought a virulent infectious microbe that got out, that might also be civilization-changing. $\endgroup$ Dec 15 '20 at 18:36
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    $\begingroup$ MSR is having another potential effect beyond its mission: the cost of the program is so high that if implemented as proposed, it will consume nearly all of NASA's planetary exploration budget for the next 1-1/2 to 2 decades. The previous NAS "Decadal Survey of Planetary Science", the document that's supposed to guide NASA's priorities for 10 years, gave its #1 recommendation to the first of the MSR missions, but said subsequent mission of the series should be contingent on more accurate cost estimates and gave specific cost limits. NASA is now treating all MSR missions as... $\endgroup$ Dec 15 '20 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ ..."mandated by the 2013-2023 Decadal Survey" and is proceeding as though all three missions are cast in stone, despite the current cost estimates being significantly higher than the limits established. The next Decadal Survey is starting up now, and multiple groups involved in planetary exploration want to ensure that it addresses the issue of balance in NASA's planetary exploration program. $\endgroup$ Dec 15 '20 at 18:47
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@MarkAdler's answer begins

It's not.

but I'd refine that and say

It's not expected to be.

In What precautions are planned to prevent samples returned from Mars crashing and releasing organisms on Earth? I imagine the unlikely event that the returned sample capsule crash lands and opens and then the second unlikely possibility that it contained either life or sufficiently complex molecules that could cause trouble if released into Earth's biosphere.

If that happened, it absolutely could be “civilization-level changing"!

Genesis crash site scenery

Genesis crash site scenery

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 That picture looks like a still from the start of a sf movie. $\endgroup$ Dec 15 '20 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ I worked on Genesis as sort of the "Mission Generalist". One specific task was fixing a suboptimal parachute design. Most people hear only, "The Genesis parachute failed." IT DID NOT !!! The spacecraft's avionics failed to send the command to start the parachute deployment sequence! The ground test that would have revealed that problem before launch was cancelled by the contractor. Lesson learned: if your project has budget and schedule pressure, DON'T "fix" it by abbreviating the testing and quality assurance program !!! $\endgroup$ Dec 15 '20 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ @TomSpilker thanks for the information! That is a lesson that is leaned over and over throughout the world of technology development management. I'll post a question about that in about an hour to provide more space in case you'd like to write an answer when you have time. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Dec 15 '20 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ I guess "parachute failure" sounds better than "upside down G-switch" :( $\endgroup$ Dec 15 '20 at 22:31

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