Stunning move comes amid technical and budgetary challenges for JPL’s most ambitious mission, Mars Sample Return, a partnership with the European Space Agency that aims to bring Martian soil back to Earth for close examination in laboratories. Planetary scientists think such samples could contain evidence of past life on Mars.
“Today I am writing to share some difficult news,” wrote Laurie Leshin, director of JPL, in a somber memo to employees on Tuesday. “While we do not yet have an appropriation for FY24 or final say from Congress on the Mars Sample Return (MSR) budget allocation, we are now in a position where we must take significant additional steps to reduce our spending, which will result in layoffs . of JPL employees and an additional release of contractors.”
The Mars Sample Return mission has already accumulated some important triumphs. The Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February 2021, has unearthed and stored intriguing samples of Martian soil. It’s the “return” part of the mission that is risky. Getting the samples back to Earth will require new feats of aerospace engineering.
And that will require money. A report by NASA’s Independent Review Board estimated that returning the sample would cost between $8 billion and $11 billion over the mission’s entire life cycle. In the world of space science, there is a truism: “Budgeting is mission critical.”
Getting samples from Mars back to Earth for scientists to scrutinize will take longer and cost more money than NASA anticipated, according to a scathing Independent Review Board report released last year. According to a November report on Spacenews.com, NASA officials have instructed three NASA centers working on Mars Sample Return to “begin resuming activities” related to the mission.
In Tuesday’s memo, Leshin explained that NASA had already directed JPL to allocate $300 million in fiscal year 2024 for returning samples from Mars, a 63 percent reduction from 2023. That number is consistent with the lower bound of Congressional profit margins on the NASA budget. Budget uncertainty led to a hiring freeze at JPL and cuts to contractor budgets and workforces, she wrote.
“Unfortunately, these actions alone are not enough to get us through the remainder of the fiscal year. Therefore, in the absence of an appropriation, and as much as we wish we didn’t need to take this action, we must now move forward to protect ourselves against even deeper cuts later if we have to wait,” she wrote.
JPL has a legendary past in robotic space science. The Pasadena, Calif., lab managed the Viking and Voyager missions of the 1970s and more recently landed several rovers on Mars. The JPL-built Europa Clipper is scheduled to launch in October on a mission to an icy moon of Jupiter known for having an underground ocean.
But its most important mission, officials said, is returning samples to Mars. It’s a high priority for planetary scientists, who suspect Mars was once ripe for life. Although Perseverance, like the still-operational Curiosity rover that preceded it, has instruments that can inspect and test Martian soil, scientists believe they need the material in their labs to unravel the entire history of the Red Planet.
It’s also a complicated undertaking. The plan involves landing another spacecraft on Mars to collect the samples obtained by Perseverance. Then the samples will be launched into Mars orbit to rendezvous with another spacecraft that would transport everything back to Earth.
However, the mission “was established with an unrealistic budget and schedule expectations from the beginning,” according to the Independent Review Board report. “As a result, there is currently no credible and congruent technique, nor a properly defined timetable, cost and technical basis that can be achieved with the likely available funding.”
NASA is in the process of reviewing and revising the mission architecture in response to that report, and a new plan will be revealed in the coming weeks, officials said.
Meanwhile, the announcement of layoffs at JPL drew a sharp rebuke from Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who released a statement calling the move “premature and misguided.”
“I am extremely disappointed by the impending JPL layoffs announced today and my thoughts are with the workers who will be affected and their families,” Chu said. “These cuts will devastate workers and Southern California in the short term and harm the long-term viability of not only our Mars Exploration Program, but also the many years of scientific discoveries to come.”
At a NASA science meeting on January 31, the agency’s chief science administrator, Nicola Fox, began her remarks by highlighting the difficult nature of budget uncertainty. “We empathize with the community’s stress around this,” Fox said.
Wednesday feels particularly stressful. Most of JPL’s workforce has been instructed by Leshin to work remotely while employees learn whether they still have jobs.
“I am directing most employees to work from home tomorrow, Wednesday, February 7th, so everyone can be in a safe and comfortable environment on a stressful day. Most people will not be able to enter the lab during this mandatory remote work day,” Leshin wrote.
After a virtual meeting with supervisors, employees will be notified via email if they are affected by the layoffs, Leshin wrote.
“We encourage affected employees to forward this email to their personal email accounts immediately, as NASA requires that access to JPL systems be turned off shortly after notification,” she wrote.
Meanwhile, Perseverance continues its mission on a planet that is currently about 340 million kilometers away. The space vehicle is it was supposed to come out of Jezero Crater, where it has excavated samples of sedimentary rocks in what was a river delta billions of years ago.
This trip to higher ground will give the rover access to a different kind of landscape, an attractive prospect for planetary scientists who know Mars used to be warmer and wetter but don’t know whether it ever had life.