LA Daily News: With JPL jobs at stake, reps call on White House agency to reverse cuts to Mars mission

By Ryan Carter

Southern California congressional leaders on Thursday, Feb. 1, formally called on White House budget officials to reverse fiscal cuts to the Mars Sample Return program that would lead to layoffs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In a letter to Director Shalanda Young of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Reps. Adam Schiff and Judy Chu, and U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, urged the executive agency to pull back on the cuts before Congress has finalized its 2024 appropriations.

“This short-sighted and misguided decision will cost hundreds of jobs and a decade of lost science, and it flies in the face of Congressional authority,” they wrong in a letter co-signed by 41 other members of Congress from California, including Reps. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, and Ted Lieu, D-Manhattan Beach, and Tony Cardenas, D-Panorama City.

For months, lawmakers have been calling on the agency to refrain from the cuts, which would hit hard economically and in terms of the science investment that’s already gone into the work, they said.

But last month, JPL director Laurie Leshin said NASA is expecting a budget that could limit Mars Sample Return spending to $300 million for the current fiscal year. That amounts to 36% of the $822 million spent in the previous year and well below the $949 million the Biden administration sought for the program.

The MSR mission, led by JPL in Pasadena, would launch a spacecraft from the surface of another planet and return it to Earth. The mission would carry samples currently being collected on Mars’ surface by the Perseverance Rover—the completion of a decades-long project at NASA, which has been at the top of the agency’s priority list.

According to lawmakers, while the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill passed by the House Appropriations Committee allocates $949.3 million for the MSR mission, equal to the President’s FY2024 Budget request, the Administration and NASA have already directed JPL to begin operating as though MSR’s FY24 budget has already been cut to $300 million – the amount proposed in the Senate. Lawmakers said negotiations are not yet done, as Congress has not yet enacted its final fiscal year 2024 appropriations.

“If not reversed, this decision would ensure that JPL will not be able to meet the next launch window and will force a dramatic reduction of billions of dollars in contracts as well as the termination of hundreds of highly skilled employees.”

Lawmakers said the impact won’t just be felt for the Mars mission but also on important national security projects.

Leshin said last month that adjusting to such a massive budget cut “will be painful.”

“It is also becoming more likely that there will be JPL workforce impacts in the form of layoffs, and the way such JPL workforce actions are implemented means that the impact would not be limited to MSR,” Leshin wrote.

In a Jan. 8 interview during a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, Leshin said JPL  received direction from NASA to plan for the lower level.

“So, the first thing to happen is to look at where we’re using on-site contractors on MSR, but other places as well, where JPLers could backfill for that,” she said.

The contractors, she said, are used when workloads become extremely heavy on specific programs. They were primarily working on MSR, but also on other projects she said were already finishing up.

JPL has also had a hiring freeze in place since September.

“We had been growing quite a bit because we were very busy,” Leshin said in an interview posted on SpaceNews.com. With several missions, such as Psyche, NISAR and Europa Clipper, either having launched or nearing completion, “we needed to stem the growth a bit.”

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