Pasadena Star-News: With fate of groundbreaking JPL Mars mission on line, Sens. Padilla, Butler amp up pressure on NASA

By Collin Blinder

California’s U.S. senators have now joined a chorus of area lawmakers in an effort to fully fund the Mars Sample Return mission in NASA’s fiscal year spending plan. If it’s not, they say billions in contracts and area jobs are at stake.

In a letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Wednesday, Sens. Alex Padilla and Laphonza Butler allocating the full $650 million necessary to fund the Mars Sample Return.

The mission — planned jointly with the European Space Agency — proposes robotic systems to collect rocks, soil and atmosphere from Mars and send samples back Earth in the 2030s for study.

The program is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, and would be the first ever mission that would launch back to Earth from another planet. Ultimately, such samples could unlock fundamental questions about life on Mars and the solar system, experts say.

But funding snags and uncertainty have already led to layoffs at JPL. Leaders say those challenges, plus questions over how NASA prioritizes the mission, jeopardize major plans for the mission.

The mission is now caught up in the politics of congressional battles, demands from local lawmakers and NASA’s ultimate priorities.

“If forced to operate at the unnecessarily low funding level prematurely directed by NASA in its November 8 letter, billions of dollars in contracts supporting American businesses will be subject to cancellation, we will fail to capitalize on more than a decade of investment in assets already deployed on Mars, and hundreds of highly skilled jobs in California and elsewhere in the country will be lost,” wrote Padilla and Butler. “This talent represents a national asset that we cannot afford to lose, particularly as we face increased competition from China.”

Congressional leaders want Nelson to adhere to what they said was definitive direction in Congress’ fiscal year 2024 appropriations bill, where “Congress was unequivocal in its support for the mission.” They leaned on studies and surveys with in the science community that the mission was a huge priority.

Nelson, in his annual State of NASA address earlier this month, said the agency was “caught” in a Congressional compromise for spending cuts in fiscal year 2025.

“As a result, NASA has become one of many government agencies that got caught in this across-the board-spending cut for two years,” he said.

So now comes how to divvy up what NASA did get.

The White House budget request this month for the mission did not make any hard promises, according to reports.

“Given that the Mars sample return mission is a major part of part of NASA’s planetary science budget, the budget enables NASA’s internal assessment of mission architecture options to be completed to address mission cost overruns before providing more details for the $2.7 billion in planetary science budget,” the White House stated, in a report from Space.com.

But Padilla and Butler continued to lean on what they said was Congress’ intent to fully fund the program.

“If NASA continues to defy Congressional intent or continues to propose insufficient funding that necessitates any further reductions in staff downstream, NASA will be demonstrating that it no longer supports the scientific community’s prioritization process, does not respect the authority of Congress, and does not recognize the significant role that scientific missions play in maintaining our national competitiveness as key technology demonstrators ahead of any human missions,” they wrote to Nelson.

In May 2023, NASA established an Independent Review Board to evaluate the technical, cost, and schedule plans before confirming the mission’s design.

The board provided its report to NASA in September. While noting the mission’s scientific importance, it expressed concerns over the mission’s budget.

In response to the report, NASA set up a team to review the Mars Sample Return. According to NASA, the team will make a recommendation by the second quarter of fiscal year 2024 regarding a path forward for Mars Sample Return. That review is due soon, according to reports.

In the meantime, JPL has felt the brunt of the debate over the future of the program.

On Feb. 6, JPL received a memo announcing that the lab would be laying off 530 full-time employees and 40 contractors, around 8% of the organization, the following day. According to the memo, signed by JPL Director Laurie Leshin, the cuts were the result of decreased funding for the lab’s mission.

Soon after, one former employee took to a popular social networking site to announce their termination.

“I will forever be grateful for the amazing opportunities I had to fulfill my childhood dreams of exploring other planets by building space robots,” they wrote.

One month later, on March 9, in a deal to avert of government shutdown, Congress passed an agreement that included assurances for the mission’s funding.

Padilla said that “the funding agreement passed today is a step in the right direction to ensure that California continues to lead our nation’s space program.”

“I will keep fighting to ensure that NASA sufficiently funds JPL’s Mars Sample Return mission to prevent further loss of essential, highly-skilled workers,” the senator added.

Padilla’s efforts come on the heels of recent efforts from a delegation of Southern California House members.

In a statement, Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, said: “I pledge to continue working with my congressional colleagues and the Administration to ensure we fully fund MSR.”

Chu, along with Representative Don Bacon, a Republican, have restarted the Congressional Planetary Science Caucus which works to advance planetary science missions. The Planetary Society is a founding partner of the caucus.

Lawmakers from across the aisle released an explanation of the agreement, expressing concern that “NASA’s actions have contributed to serious losses in NASA’s high-skilled workforce.”

Legislators also directed NASA to halt layoffs of MSR staff or to provide congressional committees with 30 days’ notice before doing so. The agreement ensured that at least $300 million of NASA’s funding would be allocated to MSR.

However, JPL had already been planning for a $300 million MSR budget prior to March. According to the Feb. 6 memo, Congress’s failure to approve a federal budget for fiscal year 2024 led NASA to direct the lab to plan for a budget of $300 million for the year’s MSR expenses. This budget was 63% lower than the mission’s funding in 2023 and 68% lower than the $949.3 million NASA had requested, officials said.

Had the $300 million been secured by Congress before JPL’s layoffs, the assurance may still have been too little too late.

The JPL memo explained that, after implementing a hiring freeze, cutting costs and laying off 100 contractors in January, JPL “must now move forward to protect against even deeper cuts later were we to wait.”

The mission explained
The mission would involve landing robots on the surface of Mars to retrieve samples that the Perseverance rover previously collected.

The samples would then be rocketed off planet, where an orbiting spacecraft could retrieve them and return to Earth. According to NASA, the samples would reach Earth sometime in the first half of the 2030s.

Recent funding woes were not the first troubles MSR has faced. The September report by the Independent Review Board found multiple, serious issues threatening the mission’s success. JPL had originally planned to launch MSR in 2027 or 2028. The review board gave that estimate a “near zero probability”. The board also found that MSR’s estimated budget of $5.6 billion was unrealistic, asserting that the mission would most likely cost $8 to 11 billion.

According to Casey Dreier, chief of space policy at the Planetary Society, the mission was unlucky to have the review board’s report published at a time when Congress was divided and had lost some of its most stalwart aerospace supporters.

“You tend to have more spending challenges when you have a divided Congress rather than a unified Congress,” Dreier explained.

At the same time, Dreier pointed out, the House and Senate appropriations committees had lost vocal NASA defenders such as former Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Mikulski, and former Rep. John Culberson.

Dreier thinks that the damning assessment of MSR was “like blood in the water”. Facing tough budgeting decisions, NASA chose to sacrifice the mission.

“The Mars Sample Return took it on the chin to preserve pretty much every other NASA science project and a lot of other NASA initiatives,” Dreier noted.

Another potential factor impacting the layoffs was JPL’s status as a Federally Funded Research and Development Center. While the lab falls under NASA’s control, the day-to-day operations are managed by Caltech.

Unlike most NASA employees, who are civil servants, JPL’s workforce are private employees of Caltech. This makes it less onerous to hire and fire JPL employees, who don’t share the unique protections of civil servants.

While MSR may be in the doldrums, Dreier sees immense value in the mission’s success. Among the mission’s scientific benefits are dating rocks from the red planet, learning why Mars lost its climate and potentially discovering evidence, or the existence, of Martian life.

“These implications basically would rewrite the textbooks for the entire history of our solar system, potentially rewrite the textbooks for biology, but certainly impact how we understand the evolution of rocky planets, like our own,” Dreier noted.

Read the full article here.

Print
Share
Like
Tweet
This site is registered on wpml.org as a development site.