JPL to lay off 8% of its work force plus 40 contractors

Claiming the uncertainty of its federal budget allocation due to Congress’s inability to pass a new budget, the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) earlier today announced it was laying off 8% of its work force, 530 employees, plus 40 contractors.

In a memo to JPL staff Feb. 6, [director Laurie] Leshin said that a lack of a final 2024 appropriations bill — NASA is operating on a CR [continuing resolution] that runs until March 8 — forced the layoffs after taking other measures such as a hiring freeze and reductions in MSR [Mars Sample Return] contracts and other spending, as well as the earlier contractor layoffs. “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.

Uncertainty about how the Mars Sample Return project should be designed and built had caused Congress to express doubts about the project, with the Senate suggesting major cuts. NASA responded by loudly pausing the project and suggesting its own cuts. JPL has now followed up with these layoffs. Both have I think done so as a lobbying tactic, and as expected in this game of budget lobbying these actions have caused many legislators to scream in horror: “We really didn’t mean it! We really don’t want to cut anything!”

Expect our bankrupt Congress to fold and provide NASA and JPL the blank check it wants to fly a Mars mission that will cost billions, be years late, and likely be beaten to Mars by SpaceX’s Starship (which could do the job for a tenth the cost).

NASA “pauses” Mars Sample Return mission

Perseverance's first set of core samples, placed on the floor of Jezero Crater
Perseverance’s first set of core samples,
placed on the floor of Jezero Crater

Faced with a strong threat of major budget cuts from the Senate, NASA has decided to “pause” the Mars Sample Return mission (MSR) by ramping back some work to consider major changes to the project.

We brought Steve [Thibault] downtown to be the chief engineer in the Headquarters MSR program office … leading a team that consists of all the implementing centers and our European colleagues to stand back and take a look at the architecture with a fresh set of eyes and figure out not only just how to improve our technical margins and make the mission more robust, but also to see if there are ways to implement it in ways to potentially save costs. We’re also going off and listening to industry and seeing what ideas they have.

While the House had approved NASA’s budget request that exceeded $1 billion to complete the mission (more than double its original price tag), the Senate responded by only allocating one quarter of that, demanding NASA come up with a plan that would match its original budget number. This Senate pressure was enhanced by an independent review that harshly criticized the present design of the project, which involves three NASA centers, European participation, and multiple American companies, all building different components that must all interact perfectly.

Lacking funds to build its spacecraft, the VERITAS project team goes to Iceland

Because NASA has cut almost all funding for the VERITAS mission to Venus in order to fund its overbudget, badly managed, and behind schedule Mars Sample Return mission, the VERITAS science team, held over with only a tiny holding budget for the next seven years, has taken a geology trip to Iceland to study the volcanoes there.

Early last month, one such field campaign took the mission’s science team to a barren and rocky region in Iceland. There, they studied rocks and surfaces near an active volcano named Askja. Such volcanic areas are being used as analogs of Venus to understand the different types of eruptions that may occur on its surface, and to test out various technologies and techniques to prepare for the VERITAS (or Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy) mission, which is not expected to launch sooner than 2031.

The article at the link focuses on this research, but the real story is this quote:

The VERITAS science team — which is being supported by a shoestring budget of $1.5 million until 2028, after NASA pulled the mission’s funding earlier this year and disbanded its entire engineering wing — collected samples of young rocks and recent lava flows near the Askja volcano that will be analyzed in a lab, according to a NASA statement.

The reason the budget was pulled was to scrap together any funds available from within NASA’s planetary program for that Mars Sample Return Mission, which is doing to the planetary program what the Webb Space Telescope did to NASA’s astronomy program: killing it. As long as NASA and Congress remain committed to that sample return mission, do not expect many new planetary missions to other planets to fly. Its budget has already quadrupled, and its launch is already expected to be delayed. Worse, the mission’s basic design remains tentative, with many major components nothing more than cool graphics on powerpoint presentations, despite having spent gigantic amounts already.

Independent review: NASA’s Mars sample return mission is in big trouble

Perseverance's first set of core samples, placed on the floor of Jezero Crater
Perseverance’s first set of core samples,
placed on the floor of Jezero Crater

An independent review of NASA’s Mars sample return mission (MSR) to pick up the core samples being collected by the rover Perseverance has concluded that the project has serious fundamental problems that will likely cause it to be years late and billions over-budget, assuming it ever flies at all.

You can read the report here [pdf]. After thirteen pages touting the wonders and importance of the mission to get those samples back to Earth, the report finally gets to its main point:

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.

Technical issues, risks, and performance-to-date indicate a near zero probability of [the European Mars orbiter intended to bring the sample back to Earth] or [the Earth sample facility] or [the Mars ascent vehicle] meeting the 2027/2028 Launch Readiness Dates (LRDs). Potential LRDs exist in 2030, given adequate funding and timely resolution of issues.

• The projected overall budget for MSR in the FY24 President’s Budget Request is not adequate to accomplish the current program of record.

• A 2030 LRD for both [the sample return lander] and [the Mars orbiter] is estimated to require ~$8.0-9.6B, with funding in excess of $1B per year to be required for three or more years starting in 2025.

Based on this report, a mission launch in 2030 is only “potentially” possible, but only wild-eyed dreamers would believe that. It also indicates that the budget for each component listed above requires several billion dollars, suggesting the total amount needed to achieve this mission could easily exceed in the $30 to $40 billion, far more than the initial proposed total budget for the U.S. of $3 billion.

None of this is really a surprise. Since 2022 I have been reporting the confused, haphazard, and ever changing design of the mission as well as its ballooning budgets. This report underlines the problems, and also suggests, if one reads between the lines, that the mission won’t happen, at least as presently designed.

The report does suggest NASA consider “alternate architectures in combination with later [launch readiness dates].” Can you guess what might be an alternate architecture? I can, and its called Starship. Unlike the proposed helicopters and ascent rocket and Mars Orbiter, all of which are only in their initial design phases, Starship is already doing flight tests (or would be if the government would get out of the way). It is designed with Mars in mind, and can be adapted relatively quickly for getting those Perservance core samples back.

Otherwise, expect nothing to happen for years, even decades. In February 2022 I predicted this mission would be delayed from five to ten years from its then proposed ’26 launch date. A more realistic prediction, based on this new report, is ten to twenty years, unless NASA takes drastic action, and the Biden administration stops blocking Starship testing.

NASA puts off planetary mission competition for budget reasons

NASA has decided for budget reasons to delay the competition by scientists for a planetary mission by at least one year because of new budget constraints which the agency claims come from the budget limits imposed by Congress.

NASA has planned to release the announcement of opportunity, or AO, for the fifth New Frontiers mission in November, after releasing a draft version for public comment early this year. The release of the final AO would have kicked off a competition ending with the selection of a mission in the fall of 2026 for launch in the early 2030s.

However, after a debt-ceiling agreement enacted in early June that would keep non-defense discretionary spending at 2023 levels for fiscal year 2024, NASA tapped the brakes on those plans. Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said at a June 21 meeting of the agency’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee that the release of the AO would likely be delayed beyond November as NASA evaluates the implications of the debt-ceiling deal.

That claim is likely bogus. I suspect the real reason the agency has been forced to delay this project is because of cost overruns in other already existing planetary missions, most specifically the Mars Sample Return mission, whose budget has apparently doubled from about $4 billion to $8-$9 billion. Congress is likely not going to increase NASA’s budget in 2024, so this cost overrun forces it to find savings elsewhere.

Surprise! The cost for the Mars Sample Return mission is ballooning!

According to NASA, the cost for the Mars Sample Return mission could possibly rise to as high as $8 to $9 billion, more than double the $3.8 billion to $4.4 billion estimated by a 2020 review.

NASA itself has recently become very silent about the project’s expected cost.

NASA officials have been careful not to give any estimates of costs for MSR in recent presentations, stating that it will wait until a formal confirmation review for the program, scheduled for the fall, before providing an official cost and schedule baseline. That will come after a series of preliminary design reviews and a review by a second independent board led by Orlando Figueroa, a former director of NASA’s Mars exploration program.

Those earlier numbers were never realistic, based on NASA’s recent track record. The cost of its big projects — Webb, SLS, Orion, Roman Telescope — always grows exponentially, once the project gets going.

This cost increase however is a serious political problem for NASA and this sample return mission, as the House is demanding major real cuts in the budgets of almost all federal agencies. While I expect NASA to survive these cuts without great harm, a program that shows out-of-control budget growth might become a target by the House, which is likely why NASA scheduled its review of the sample return mission to occur in the fall, after the House approves its next budget. Better to announce bad news as late as possible.

NASA’s Mars Sample Return project now overbudget

According to testimony by NASA’s administrator Bill Nelson to a Senate committee, its Mars Sample Return (MSR) project now needs a lot of additional funds in order to have any chance of staying on schedule.

Nelson told the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee today that he just learned two weeks ago during a visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is building MSR, that they need an additional $250 million this year and an additional $250 million above the request for FY2024 to stay on schedule for launch in 2028.

That FY2024 request warns that the projections for future MSR funding requirements are likely to grow and force NASA to descope the mission or reduce funding for other science projects. NASA just set up a second [independent review board] to take another look at the program.

The project is already beginning to suck money from other science missions, such as solar and astronomy and the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. In addition, its method for getting the samples back to Earth remains somewhat uncertain due to ESA’s decision to not build a lander/rover for the mission, requiring JPL to propose the use of helicopters instead.

I predict Congress will fund everything, by simply printing more money as it nonchalantly continues to grow the national debt to levels unsustainable. Meanwhile, replacing the present very complex return concept — involving a lander, helicopters, an ascent rocket, and a return capsule (from Europe) — with a much cheaper and simpler option that is now on the horizon, Starship, does not seem to have occurred to any of the these government wonks.