NASA budget deal offers hope for JPL's Mars Sample Return mission

A bipartisan agreement on NASA's final budget for the current fiscal year offers a glimmer of hope that the space agency's ambitious but struggling effort to bring pieces of Mars to Earth can recover from devastating budget cuts that have led to hundreds of layoffs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at La Cañada Flintridge.

This week, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees finalized the bill an agreement that would raise a minimum of $300 million for the Mars sample return mission, which is managed by JPL. That's a steep drop from the $822.3 million NASA spent on the program last year, and less than a third of what the Biden administration requested.

Mars Sample Return would deliver rocks, debris and dust from the Red Planet's Jezero crater, which has already been collected by the Perseverance rover and sealed in tubes. The MSR mission envisions a lander that would pick up these tubes and use a small rocket to deliver them into orbit around Mars, where they would rendezvous with a spacecraft that would make the journey back to Earth in about five years after the orbiter launch.

The ultimate goal is to search the samples for evidence that life once existed on Mars. That task may be left to future generations of scientists who will have access to technologies that don't yet exist, NASA says.

Mars Sample Return, a joint project with the European Space Agency, is an extremely complex engineering effort say scientists would be a crucial step toward future human missions to Mars. Still, the project is experiencing delays and rising costs.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson ordered the agency earlier this year to brace for that $300 million figure. That order has resulted in the loss of nearly 700 staff and contract jobs at JPL since January.

The Senate appeared ready to condemn the mission entirely when it released its draft budget in July, writing that the Appropriations Committee was “alarmed” by the mission's slow progress despite steady funding.

As a result, the Senate required a year-by-year review of how NASA planned to fulfill the mission within the $5.3 billion then estimated as the total lifetime cost of MSR. Without, warned the committee“NASA is directed to provide options to descope or rework the MSR or the mission will be canceled.”

In the budget agreement released Sunday, lawmakers made clear that the ultimatum in the Senate proposal was no longer on the table.

“MSR is the top priority of 2022 Planetary science decennial survey but there are concerns that the expected launch schedule continues to shift,” lawmakers said in a bipartisan opinion rack of members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Last year, NASA commissioned one independent assessment of the mission, which found MSR 'unsuitable to be effectively led' and hampered by 'unrealistic budget and planning expectations from the outset'. It's likely impossible to meet the planned launch dates for the lander and orbiter in 2027 and 2028, the review said, and even a 2030 launch looks doubtful without a massive injection of cash far greater than what Congress has budgeted.

NASAs answer The revision is expected this spring. Once that is in place, the current budget gives NASA 60 days to present Congress with a plan for the future of the mission. This could include requests to redirect as much as $649 million in the budget to Mars Sample Return, which would increase program spending to the level Biden initially requested.

“The agreement further directs NASA not to proceed with any MSR program workforce reductions until such a report is provided,” the statement said.

In January, 100 on-site contractors at JPL were laid off after NASA notified the laboratory to reduce expenses, despite the strong objections of California lawmakers. Last month, the lab laid off 530 employees — about 8% of its workforce — and 40 additional contractors.

Many of those who lost their jobs were seasoned veterans whose departures shocked colleagues, JPL officials said.

Some state representatives in Washington were optimistic that the mission could get back on track.

“This funding agreement is a step in the right direction to ensure California continues to lead our nation's space program,” Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat, said in a statement.

“The fight is not over,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) said in a speech rack. “I urge NASA to quickly implement the new appropriations guidance so that officials can consider rehiring JPL employees and contractors who were laid off under an outdated Senate appropriations bill that is no longer being considered by Congress considered.”

A JPL spokesperson said this week that no personnel changes were expected at the laboratory before NASA's response to the assessment was published. Late last month, NASA's Office of Inspector General published its own report audit of the Mars Sample Return mission, whose projected costs have nearly doubled since the start of the program to more than $10 billion.

The audit found that it was difficult to determine a design for the mission Capture, containment and return system significantly messed up budget and timeline estimates. It also attributed some of the mission's problems to a discrepancy in management and communication styles between NASA and the ESA.

But by considering past mistakes and planning a path forward, management must confront “characteristics inherent in large and complex missions like MSR… for example, a full understanding of the complexity of the mission, initial over-optimism, sub-optimal design/architecture and the team's ability to meet expectations,” the audit said. It warned project managers not to “simply attribute past cost growth to the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation or supply chain issues.”

For the record:

7:44 am March 7, 2024An earlier version of this article underestimated the size of the decline in NASA's entire annual budget between 2023 and 2024 as $500,000. It's about $500 million.

The budget agreement between the House and Senate appropriations committees provides a total of $24.875 billion for all NASA operations this fiscal year, a decrease of $500 million from last year's budget. The difference is entirely due to the budget cut Congress demanded for the Mars Sample Return mission.

The figures are not technically final until the budget is passed, which is expected to happen this week without further changes.

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