Pasadena, California – November 28, 2023
A decision by NASA to reduce funding for a planned Mars mission is raising alarms among California lawmakers, who argue that the move could result in the loss of hundreds of high-paying jobs. The decision, communicated in a “November 8” letter to the “Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)” in Pasadena, has prompted a joint letter from four congress members and both senators from California, urging NASA Administrator Bill Nelson to reconsider.
The letter, signed by all Democratic representatives from the Golden State, criticizes NASA’s decision as “short-sighted and misguided,” claiming it will not only lead to job losses but also result in a decade of lost scientific progress. The lawmakers argue that the move contradicts Congressional authority.
At the heart of the issue is the reallocation of funds from the Mars mission to other programs and facilities, as outlined in the November 8 letter to JPL. The authors of the joint letter emphasize that the positions at JPL require advanced skills, and the reduction in funding could hinder the laboratory’s ability to meet the 2030 launch window.
“If forced to operate at the unnecessarily low funding level prematurely directed by NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory will not be able to meet the 2030 launch window,” the lawmakers warned. They expressed concern about the potential cancellation of contracts worth billions of dollars that uphold American businesses, which could result in the elimination of numerous highly skilled jobs in California.
Originally proposed as a $5.3 billion operation, the Mars Sample Return mission has already incurred approximately $2 billion in research and preparation expenses. Current estimates to complete the mission now range as high as $11 billion, according to NASA. Some lawmakers in Washington, D.C. have called for capping the mission’s budget at its original price tag, a move that could potentially jeopardize the future of the program.
The joint letter from California lawmakers echoes arguments made decades ago about the space race, emphasizing the need for continued investment to keep pace with Chinese and Russian ambitions. The authors express mystification by NASA’s choice to propose reductions at this point in the procedure.
While budget negotiations for the fiscal year 2024-25 are ongoing, supporters of the Mars mission stress the importance of not making premature decisions. The federal budget uncertainty was highlighted at NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee meeting on November 13, where spokespersons acknowledged the challenges of operating in a constrained budget environment.
Sandra Connelly, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for science, addressed concerns during the meeting, acknowledging the unfortunate necessity of the decision but emphasizing the need to ensure sufficient funding to continue working on and architecting the mission. As the debate over the Mars mission’s future unfolds, the fate of the ambitious project remains uncertain amid budgetary constraints and competing priorities.