Engineers operate an Earthbound double of a Mars rover within the “Mars Yard” at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. MUST CREDIT: Melina Mara/The Washington Post

Engineers operate an Earthbound double of a Mars rover within the “Mars Yard” at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. MUST CREDIT: Melina Mara/The Washington Post (Melina Mara/Washington Post)

Congressional gridlock has thrown sand in the gears of NASA’s search for ancient life on Mars. Citing funding uncertainties and the failure of Congress to pass a 2024 budget, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is operated under contract by Caltech, on Tuesday announced that it is laying off 8 percent of its workforce, about 530 people, plus another 40 contractors.

The stunning move comes amid technical and budgetary challenges for the JPL’s most ambitious mission, Mars Sample Return, a partnership with the European Space Agency that is designed to bring Martian soil back to Earth for scrutiny in laboratories. Planetary scientists think such samples might hold evidence of past Martian life.

“Today I’m writing to share some difficult news,” JPL director Laurie Leshin wrote in a grim memo to employees Tuesday. “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.”

The Mars Sample Return mission has already racked up some major triumphs. The rover Perseverance, which landed on Mars in February 2021, has dug up and stored intriguing samples of Martian soil. It’s the “return” part of the mission that’s dicey. Getting the samples back to Earth will require novel feats of aerospace 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’s a truism: “Budget is mission critical.”

Getting samples of Mars back to Earth for close scrutiny by scientists will take longer and cost more money than NASA had anticipated, according to a scathing Independent Review Board report released last year. According to a November report in, NASA officials had instructed three NASA centers working on Mars Sample Return to “start ramping back on activity” related to the mission.

In the Tuesday memo, Leshin explained that NASA had previously instructed JPL to allocate $300 million in fiscal 2024 for Mars Sample Return, a decrease of 63 percent from 2023. That figure is consistent with the lower end of congressional markups on the NASA budget. The budget uncertainty led to a hiring freeze at JPL and cuts to budgets and the contractor workforce, she wrote.

“Unfortunately, those actions alone are not enough for us to make it through the remainder of the fiscal year. So 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 against even deeper cuts later were we to wait,” she wrote.

A costly trip home

JPL has a fabled past in robotic space science. The Pasadena, Calif., laboratory managed the Viking and Voyager missions of the 1970s and, more recently, landed multiple rovers on Mars. The JPL-built Europa Clipper is scheduled to launch in October on a mission to an icy Jupiter moon known to have a subsurface ocean.

But its most important mission, officials have said, is Mars Sample Return. It is a high priority for planetary scientists, who suspect Mars was once congenial to 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 laboratories to tease out the full history of the Red Planet.

It’s also a complicated endeavor. 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 yet another spacecraft that would haul everything back to Earth.

However, the mission “was established with unrealistic budget and schedule expectations from the beginning,” according to the Independent Review Board report. “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.”

NASA is in the process of reviewing and revising the mission architecture in response to that report, and a new plan will be unveiled in coming weeks, officials have 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’m extremely disappointed with the impending JPL layoffs announced today, and my thoughts are with the workers who will be impacted and their families,” Chu said. “These cuts will devastate workers and Southern California in the short-term, and they hurt the long-term viability of not just our Mars Exploration Program but also many years of scientific discovery to come.”

At a NASA science town hall on Jan. 31, the agency’s top administrator for science, Nicola Fox, began her remarks by noting the difficult nature of budgetary uncertainties. “We do empathize with the stress in the community over this,” Fox said.

Wednesday is shaping up as particularly stressful. Most of the workforce at JPL has been instructed by Leshin to work remotely while employees learn if they still have a job.

“I am directing most employees to work from home tomorrow, Wednesday, February 7, so everyone can be in a safe, comfortable environment on a stressful day. Most individuals will not be able to enter the Lab during this mandatory remote work day,” Leshin wrote.

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

“We encourage impacted employees to forward this email to their personal email account immediately, as NASA requires that access to JPL systems be shut off very shortly following the notification,” she wrote.

Perseverance, meanwhile, is continuing its mission on a planet that at the moment is roughly 213 million miles away. The rover is supposed to climb out of Jezero Crater, where it has been digging up samples of sedimentary rocks in what was a river delta billions of years ago.

This journey to higher ground will give the rover access to a different type of landscape, an enticing prospect for planetary scientists who know that Mars used to be warmer and wetter but don’t know if it ever had life.

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