In a disheartening turn of events, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has announced that it’s laying off about 8% of its workforce. That means that about 530 JPL employees will be let go, along with about 40 employees of the Lab’s contractors. That sucks for the people being let go, but the bigger concern for the rest of us is what will happen to upcoming missions like Mars Sample Return (MSR)?
These layoffs have nothing to do with the individuals affected or with JPL’s activities. It’s all budget wrangling, something that is a near-constant in a democracy. There’s only so much money, and there’s always an excess of things to spend it on.
In this case, NASA has passed on funding constraints to JPL, and while JPL has tried to manage them, the result is this announcement.
“After exhausting all other measures to adjust to a lower budget from NASA, and in the absence of an FY24 appropriation from Congress, we have had to make the difficult decision to reduce the JPL workforce through layoffs,” a statement from JPL explained.
Without a Fiscal Year 2024 appropriation, there isn’t enough money in NASA’s budget to keep everything going. In fact, NASA and JPL have been waiting for an appropriation of some kind of final word on 2024 funding for the MSR mission but haven’t received any clear indication. JPL has been dealing with the uncertainty by streamlining operations and making changes in the last several months, but now they say their hand is forced.
“While we still do not have an FY24 appropriation or the final word from Congress on our Mars Sample Return (MSR) budget allocation, we are now in a position where we must take further significant action to reduce our spending, which will result in layoffs of JPL employees and an additional release of contractors,” said JPL’s statement.
“These cuts are among the most challenging that we have had to make, even as we have sought to reduce our spending in recent months.”
What will this mean for the Mars Sample Return joint mission with the ESA? What will it mean for the Perseverance Rover, as it actively collects and caches samples on the Martian surface?
It’s nothing new for organizations to face budget constraints and layoffs. But there’s a sense of immediacy with these layoffs. It’s all happening very quickly, and that can be especially concerning in an organization whose activities rely on meticulous and advanced planning involving highly complex systems. It takes years, even decades, to pull a mission like MSR together, and lack of funding consistency makes it all the more difficult.
Universe Today publisher Fraser Cain interviewed Casey Dreier about this issue. Dreier is Chief of Space Policy at The Planetary Society, and their discussion is on YouTube.
“A good number of people very rapidly; this is all happening in a single day,” said Dreier.
The layoffs aren’t exactly surprising. There’ve been indications that it may come to this, but the actuality of it is still sinking in. “This has been stirring for a while. JPL started laying off contractors last month,” Dreier said. JPL has also had a hiring freeze in place since September.
“How do you clean out 8% of your workforce overnight?” Dreier asked.
With great sensitivity, according to JPL Director Laurie Leshin. “Our desire in this process is that impacted employees quickly get to the point where they will receive personalized attention during this transition,” Leshing wrote in a memo to JPL employees.
“Without an approved federal budget including final allocation for MSR FY24 funding levels, NASA previously directed JPL to plan for an MSR budget of $300M,” Leshin wrote in a memo. The $300 million number is at the low end of historical congressional markups to NASA’s budget. It’s also a 63% decrease from FY 23. Nobody can say that NASA and JPL have been wreckless in their assumptions about funding.
These layoffs may not be entirely due to a lack of money. They could be a symptom and a result of the dysfunctional political situation playing out in the US Congress. The political class is mired in ongoing disputes, and it’s preventing some important work from being done in a timely fashion.
“Really though, at the end of the day, a stalemate between two chambers of Congress is driving the sudden layoffs rather than a more orderly wind-down,” Dreier said.
The upcoming Artemis missions attract a lot of attention for sending astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time in more than 50 years. But in purely scientific terms, many of us are excitedly awaiting the Mars Sample Return. Artemis is Human Spaceflight, and MSR is Science. By bringing samples home from Mars, we’ll be poised to uncover important answers to questions about Mars’ ancient past and whether life ever existed there.
An independent review of the MSR uncovered some serious problems. According to Dreier, that report stated that the mission cannot be completed with any budget. “MSR is a deep-space exploration priority for NASA,” the report states. “However, MSR was established with unrealistic budget and schedule expectations from the beginning. MSR was also organized under an unwieldy structure. As a result, there is currently no credible, congruent technical, nor properly margined schedule, cost, and technical baseline that can be accomplished with the likely available funding.”
How do these new cutbacks play into this?
“At the stage MSR was in, there had been no formal cost projections,” Dreier said. That’s typical of complex space missions like MSR because there’s nothing to compare it to and gauge it by. As Dreier points out, NASA likely spent tens or hundreds of millions of dollars before they even knew what the final cost would be. That money is spent determining if the mission can even be built at all and in what timeline. That’s the mission formulation stage.
However, Dreier explained, the Decadal Survey prioritized the MSR mission and plugged in a cost of about $5.3 billion US. “The independent review, however, said this project is likely to cost between 9 to 11 billion dollars,” said Dreier. (Watch the video to see Fraser wince at that.) That number could easily go higher if missions like the JWST tell us anything. And the MSR mission is extremely complex, involving different vehicles, companies, and agencies all working together.
So, where does this leave the MSR? Only time will tell.
MSR is an extraordinarily complex undertaking. There are so many parts and pieces to it that if one thing goes wrong, we get nothing from it. We either get samples, or we don’t, and if we don’t, the mission provides nothing, and all that money is gone.
These staffing and budget cutbacks aren’t MSR’s first headwinds. After the Independent Review Board’s report, NASA formed a committee to examine MSR and come up with a response. This has taken months and has been taking place behind closed doors. “All that we know is that MSR is in major trouble, and NASA has been thinking about what to do but has not said what it’s going to do,” Dreier said. “That lack of path forward from NASA has made the project appear vulnerable politically.”
“Blood’s in the water,” Dreier said. It may be that the experience with the JWST and its ballooning cost overruns are contributing to the reluctance to fund MSR.
Dreier is a spokesperson for the Planetary Society, and he says quite clearly that while the Society is in favour of a Mars sample mission, they’re not wedded to this version of it.
Who knows what will happen? There’s a certain ‘fog of war’ element to all of this.
There’s no question that getting samples from Mars to labs here on Earth is the next step in understanding the planet. The Decadal Survey doesn’t take ill-considered positions, and neither does the Planetary Society.
NASA and JPL will survive this lack of funding. But will the MSR in its current state survive it?
That seems to be anybody’s guess right now. But as Dreier says, “The politics around this are becoming sharp-elbowed.”