A March 7, 2014 story in Space.com reports the results of a recent study that suggests that a cheap Mars sample return mission could be accomplished using hardware being developed by SpaceX. Such a mission could be launched as early as 2022.
The idea is that a NASA rover such as the Mars 2020 mission, a clone of the current Mars Curiosity probe, would pick up some soil and mineral samples from the Martian surface. Then a version of the SpaceX Dragon, dubbed Red Dragon, would be launched to Mars using a Falcon Heavy rocket. Red Dragon would be able to land two metric tonnes of equipment on the Martian surface that would include a device to transfer the Mars samples from the rover to a vehicle that would then be launched from Mars to return to Earth. The vehicle would assume a high orbit around Earth where a second vehicle would rendezvous and dock with it, transfer the sample to a sterile and secure container, and then return if safely to Earth for study.
A Mars sample return mission is not on NASA’s current manifest. NASA was obliged to back out of a joint MSR project called Exo-Mars with the European Space Agency due to Obama administration budget cuts. Therein lays the problem.
Even if a Red Dragon based sample return mission is cheaper than previous schemes, it will still cost a significant amount of money. NASA’s current static budget does not allow for any new missions of that scope. It will take an increase in funding to garner the resources necessary for such a mission to take place. That will take leadership that thus far has not been very apparent where space policy is concerned.