Congressional budget gridlock leads to shocking NASA layoffs

Congressional gridlock has thrown sand into the gears of NASA's search for ancient life on Mars. Citing funding uncertainties and Congress's failure to pass a 2024 budget, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates under contract to Caltech, announced Tuesday that it will lay off 8 percent of its workforce, about 530 people, and 40 more contractors. .

The stunning move comes amid technical and budgetary challenges for JPL's most ambitious project mission, Mars Sample Return, is a partnership with the European Space Agency designed to bring Martian soil back to Earth for analysis in laboratories. Planetary scientists believe that such samples may contain evidence of past life on Mars.

“Today I write to share some difficult news,” wrote JBL director Larry Leshin grimly. Memo to staff tuesday “While we still do not have the final word from Congress on FY24 funding or Congress on MSR budget appropriations, we are now in a position to take further significant action to reduce our spending, which will result in layoffs. Additional releases by JPL employees and contractors.”

The Mars sample return mission has already had some major successes. The Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February 2021, has dug up and stored intriguing samples of Martian soil. This is part of the “return” mission. Returning the samples to Earth will require innovative feats of space engineering.

And it will require money. A NASA Independent Review Board report estimated that sample return would cost between $8 billion and $11 billion over the full life cycle of the mission. In the world of space science, there is one truism: “Budget is critical.”

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Returning samples from Mars to Earth for closer examination by scientists is taking longer and costing more money than NASA expected, according to a scathing report. Independent Review Board Report Released last year. According to a November report on Spacenews.com, NASA officials have instructed the three NASA centers working on the Mars sample return to “commence a return to operations” related to the mission.

In Tuesday's memo, Leshin explained that NASA directed JPL to allocate $300 million in fiscal 2024, a 63 percent decrease from 2023. Budget uncertainty has led to a hiring freeze at JBL and cuts to budgets and contractor personnel, he wrote.

“Unfortunately, those measures alone will not be enough to make it through the rest of the fiscal year. So in the absence of appropriations, we wish we didn't need to take this action, and then we must move forward to protect against even deeper cuts, even if we have to wait,” he wrote.

The JPL robot has a storied past in space science. The Pasadena, Calif., laboratory managed the Viking and Voyager missions of the 1970s and, more recently, landed several rovers on Mars. Built by JPL Europa Clipper It is scheduled to start in October A voyage to an icy Jupiter moon has a surface ocean.

But its most important mission, officials say, is returning a Mars sample. This is a high priority for planetary scientists who suspect that Mars was once compatible with life. Although Perseverance, like its still-operating Curiosity rover before it, has instruments that can probe and test Martian soil, scientists believe they need the materials in their labs to tease out the Red Planet's full history.

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It is also a complex endeavor. The plan is to land another spacecraft on Mars to collect samples obtained by the diligence. Later, samples will be launched into Mars orbit and another spacecraft will be towed back to Earth.

However, according to the Independent Review Board report, “the mission was established from the outset with unrealistic budget and scheduling expectations. “As a result, there is currently no reliable, compatible technology or properly assigned schedule, cost, and technical baseline that can be accomplished with available funding.”

NASA is reviewing and revising the mission structure in response to the report, and a new plan will be released in the coming weeks, officials said.

Meanwhile, the announcement of layoffs at JPL drew sharp condemnation from Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.). Report calling the move “premature and ill-advised”.

“I am deeply disappointed by the upcoming JPL layoffs announced today, and my thoughts are with the workers and their families who will be affected,” Chu said. “These cuts will devastate workers and Southern California in the short term, and they jeopardize not only the long-term viability of our Mars exploration program, but scientific discoveries for years to come.”

At NASA's science town hall on Jan. 31, Nicola Fox, the agency's top administrator for science, began her remarks by noting the difficult nature of budget uncertainty. “We sympathize with the stress in the community about this,” Fox said.

Mercury is especially stressful. Most employees at JPL have been instructed by Leshin to work remotely.

“I am advising most staff to work from home tomorrow, Wednesday, February 7, so everyone can be in a safe, comfortable environment on a stressful day. Most individuals cannot enter a lab during this forced remote workday,” Leshin wrote.

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Following a virtual meeting with supervisors, employees will be notified by email if they are affected by the layoffs, Leshin wrote.

“We encourage affected employees to forward this email to their personal email account immediately, as NASA requires that access to JPL systems be terminated as soon as possible following notification,” he wrote.

Perseverance, meanwhile, continues its mission on a planet currently about 213 million miles away. Rover is Jezero had to climb out of the crater, digging up samples of sedimentary rocks from the river's delta billions of years ago.

This high-altitude trip will give the rover access to a different type of terrain, a tantalizing prospect for planetary scientists who know Mars was hot and wet but don't know if it harbored life.

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