California Lawmakers Urge NASA Not To Cut Mars Sample Return Funding

California Lawmakers Urge NASA Not To Cut Mars Sample Return Funding

Six members of California’s congressional delegation sent a letter to NASA Adminstrator Bill Nelson today urging him not to scale back Mars Sample Return funding right now. Saying they are “mystified” by the agency’s decision to pause the MSR program, revealed at a NASA advisory committee meeting last week, they asserted the decision violates Congress’s authority.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA)

The bipartisan letter from California’s two Senators plus four Representatives called the decision “short-sighted and misguided” since Congress has not completed deliberations on the FY2024 budget request.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology, manages the MSR program.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D) and Sen. Alex Padilla (D) were joined by Sen. Laphonza Butler (D), Rep. Judy Chu (D), Rep. Mike Garcia (R) and Rep. Young Kim (R) in sending the letter. Schiff, who is running for Senate, and Chu both represent congressional districts that include Pasadena. Garcia and Kim’s districts are nearby.

A recent report from an Independent Review Board, the second in the MSR program’s history, cited a range of technical issues with executing the program as currently designed and estimated the cost in the $8-11 billion range, significantly higher than the $5.3 billion as projected in the 2023 Decadal Survey on planetary science from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

NASA requested $949 million for FY2024 and warned the costs are expected to grow. The House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee approved the full amount. By contrast, the Senate Appropriations Committee sharply criticized the cost increase and allocated only $300 million, telling NASA that if they can’t keep the program within the $5.3 billion estimate they must “either provide options to de-scope or rework MSR or face mission cancellation.”

The House CJS bill is very controversial for reasons other than NASA and was not reported from the full committee. House leadership decided to send the bill directly to the House Rules Committee and it was reported last week, but the Rule was defeated on the floor. The Senate has not taken up the CJS bill yet.

Concerned that the Senate position might prevail, however, NASA decided to “pause” the program now.

Sandra Connelly, Deputy Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, is leading NASA’s team responding to the findings and recommendations from the Independent Review Board. She told NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee on November 13 that JPL and two other NASA centers, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL and Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, were directed to begin “ramping back” on spending.

The Schiff-Padilla letter said that “violates Congress’s appropriations authority.” They want Nelson to “rescind” the November 8 directive to JPL and not take any further steps until the FY2024 appropriations bill is enacted.

“… we are mystified by NASA’s rash decision to suggest at this stage of the appropriations process that any cuts would be necessary. If forced to operate at the unnecessarily low funding level prematurely directed by NASA in its November 8 letter, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will not be able to meet the 2030 launch window, billions of dollars in contracts supporting American businesses will be subject to cancellation, and hundreds of highly skilled jobs in California will be lost. This talent represents a national asset that we cannot afford to lose, and if this uniquely talented workforce is lost to the private sector, it will be near impossible to reassemble.

“NASA’s deeply short-sighted and misguided decision to unilaterally adjust the funding allocation granted to JPL to carry out the MSR mission violates Congress’s appropriations authority. Therefore, we strongly urge you to rescind NASA’s November 8th funding directive to JPL and not take any further steps to adjust funding levels for the mission until Congress enacts final FY24 appropriations for NASA.”

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.