WASHINGTON — Members of Congress are asking NASA not to slow down work on the Mars Sample Return (MSR) program now while also lobbying fellow members to provide more money for the effort in 2024.
In a Nov. 21 letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, six members of California’s congressional delegation expressed their “strongest opposition” to a NASA directive earlier this month to slow down work on MSR because of uncertainty about how much funding will be available to the program in fiscal year 2024.
The letter was signed by Sens. Alex Padilla (D) and Laphonza Butler (D) and Reps. Adam Schiff (D), Judy Chu (D), Mike Garcia (R) and Young Kim (R). The four House members all represent districts in Southern California, home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is leading the overall MSR effort.
At a Nov. 13 advisory committee meeting, agency officials said they had recently instructed the centers working on MSR — Goddard Space Flight Center, JPL and Marshall Space Flight Center — to “start ramping back on activities” related to MSR because of the wide gap in spending between a House spending bill, which would provide the full request of $949.3 million for the program, and a Senate version that offers only $300 million.
“It’s very unfortunate that we have to make this decision at this point. However, the intent is to enable sufficient funding to carry us throughout the year so we can continue working on and architecting this mission,” Sandra Connelly, NASA deputy associate administrator for science, said at the Planetary Science Advisory Committee meeting.
NASA is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) that funds NASA at fiscal year 2023 levels, which for MSR is $822.3 million, through Feb. 2. The concern Connelly and other agency officials expressed is that if NASA spent at the 2023 rate but ended up with the lower Senate figure when Congress ultimately passes a full-year spending bill for 2024, there would be very little money left for MSR through the end of the fiscal year in September.
In the letter, the bipartisan group said they were “mystified” by NASA’s decision, noting the language in the House bill that provides full funding for MSR and directs NASA to launch the remaining missions to return samples to Earth by 2030, and argued that the reduction “violates Congress’s appropriations authority.”
“If forced to operate at the unnecessarily low funding level prematurely directed by NASA,” they wrote, 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.” The contents of the letter were first reported by Politico.
The letter also argued that MSR was part of a broader geopolitical competition with China in space. “The MSR mission is critical to staying well ahead of the competition in strategic space technologies, meeting the national security challenge posed by China, and maintaining our current competitive advantage,” they wrote.
Padilla and Butler joined seven other senators in an Oct. 31 letter, not previously reported, to Senate appropriators asking them to increase funding for MSR in 2024. They specifically asked for at least $822 million, the budget for MSR in 2023.
“Without sufficient funding next year, the 2028-2030 launch window cannot be met, putting the mission in doubt and likely eliminating nearly 1300 highly-skilled jobs across the nation,” they wrote in the letter to Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the chair and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The other senators signing the appropriations letter are Krysten Sinema (I-Ariz.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).
The funding debate about MSR comes as NASA is developing a response to an independent review board report published in September that concluded that the current approach for the mission had little chance of staying on budget or schedule, and that costs for the overall MSR program could run as high as $11 billion. NASA is evaluating several alternative architectures for MSR and expects to select a new approach for the mission by next March.
Both the letter to Nelson and the letter to Senate appropriations leaders mentioned the independent review and NASA’s response, and argued that inadequate funding either during the CR or in a fiscal year 2024 spending bill jeopardized NASA’s response to it.
“Coupled with changes in the NASA program management structure of MSR and the expeditious finalization of modified mission architecture, funding levels consistent with FY 2023 levels are necessary to ensure a launch no later than 2030 to get samples into the orbit of Mars,” the letter to Nelson stated.