This laboratory lays off 530 employees assigned to the return of Martian samples, the mission in danger?

Eric Bottlaender

Space specialist

February 8, 2024 at 7:01 p.m.


NASA Mars Sample Return artist's impression 07 2022 © NASA

The budget battle over the sample return project leaves many employees in the lurch. ©NASA

Terrible week at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) which, due to lack of budget, is forced to lay off 530 employees and 40 subcontractors. A mainly associated workforce to the MSR projectthe return of samples taken by the Perseverance robot on Mars. Inevitably, this will impact the mission.

Dirty atmosphere in Pasadena, California. This morning, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) asked all of its employees to stay at home and wait in front of their mailboxes to find out whether or not they would be victims of this large wave of departures. 8% of researchers, engineers and technicians will be affected, for a total of 530 departures, without forgetting 40 subcontractors, assigned to a specific project… And this is already the second wave, a first group of 100 people had been put aside in December. Almost all of the departures concern workers assigned to a particular mission, the Mars Sample Return (or MSR), which consists of bringing back to Earth the samples currently taken from the surface of Mars by the large Perseverance rover. This is quite simply the most important mission at the moment for JPL, which is nevertheless preparing other vehicles such as Europa Clipper (departure this year for the moons of Jupiter), Dragonfly (Titan, Saturn’s moon) or Veritas (Venus ). But the big problem with MSR is its place in NASA’s budget and the political decision of its budget.

Big money and politics

Indeed, NASA has a problem. Like every year, or almost! Because the two houses of Congress (the Senate and the House of Representatives) of the United States must agree on the state budget for the 2024 fiscal year. Which has been underway for several months, because in the USA , the fiscal year starts on October 1. The budget is therefore prepared in advance, but in this pre-election year, politicians are opposed. But for them, no 49.3. There are therefore three options: either they manage to come to an agreement, or there is an abrupt and forced shutdown of state services, or the chambers vote to postpone the time for new debates (this is in fact the current situation ). But during this postponement, which is called a CR (Continuing Resolution), the budgets are frozen at the level of the previous year.

Enough to work for NASA, which works rather well for long-term projects (like the ISS, Hubble, JWST…), but which has a major impact on missions in preparation or which must change status . MSR, to be able to take off at the end of the decade, had to benefit from a budget increase from 300 to 943 million dollars. No vote, no decision, no budget: JPL “releases” the resources and employees it had gathered around the return of samples.

Perseverance rear hull intact preparation © NASA/JPL-Caltech

JPL brings together the world’s best experts on Mars landings. © NASA/JPL-Caltech

Leave without pay or without return?

The problem with these layoffs, apart from the obvious impact on the lives of those concerned, is that whatever happens, they will now weigh on the mission. Even assuming that the budget is finally voted on in the coming days, and that JPL once again receives funds for the MSR, it will take weeks, if not months, to reform the teams. Because without forgetting their potential weariness with JPL or NASA which is letting them down, many of them will be courted today by a certain number of other entities, recognized companies or start-ups who will be happy to benefit from these profiles. This is not the first time that a laboratory has had to let its workforce go, and this generally has several years of impact on missions, when they do not then lead to cancellation.

In addition to the state budget in general and NASA in particular, the MSR project itself suffers from clarity problems. Over the past three years, the bill has simply exploded. And while last spring the American agency estimated that it would need around $5.6 billion to complete the entire mission until its return to Earth, another estimate carried out at the end of 2023 put on its side the bar around 8.5 to 9.5 billion. An additional cost that goes badly, especially for a project already in progress, and at a time when the priority is rather oriented towards lunar missions in the United States. The political battle to free up a significant budget for sample return therefore also requires a clear definition of costs and objectives, without which NASA and JPL are not ready to be able to rehire many people.

Perseverance sample tube 2023 © NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance has already left several tubes pre-positioned while waiting to bring them back to Earth © NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Perseverance is very alone

But what we must not forget is that Perseverance is already on Mars, and the rover is already collecting samples. He has a majority of them with him today, and the current plan is for him to drop them off himself near the return platform. He will be able to do it in 5 years, but will he still be as valiant in 10, 12 or 15 years?

This delay also affects the ESA: the Europeans have committed to providing ERO, the orbiter which will collect samples in Mars orbit and bring them back to Earth. Will we have to wait for the Americans? Finally, let’s not forget China, which for its image would be delighted to get ahead of the Americans on a subject as important as the first samples recovered on another planet.

Source : Space News

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