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A complex project aimed at retrieving samples of rock and dirt from Mars has long been a top priority for NASA, whose supporters say the mission could answer the age-old question of whether life ever existed on the Red Planet. was present

The Perseverance rover, developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is collecting samples. But lawmakers are fighting over whether bringing them back to Earth for study is feasible in a tight budget environment.

Battle lines are regional, not partisan: California lawmakers backing work on Mars sample return program at Pasadena complex pit against Maryland and Virginia supporters of agency’s sprawling Goddard Space Flight Center What did

The Mars mission also faces serious questions about its viability after an internal NASA review determined the program would take longer, and cost more than originally predicted.

The GOP-controlled House has sided with the Biden administration, proposing full funding for the Mars program, while the Democratic-controlled Senate has sought to divert money to other projects.

Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Chair Jane Shaheen, DN.H. said, “The mission is over budget.” “It’s not at all clear what kind of science that’s going to produce for us, so I think given the budget constraints, we have to look at putting money where it’s going to have the most impact.”

Taking no chances, NASA is preparing for the worst. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced massive layoffs last week — 8 percent of its workforce. The move follows NASA Administrator Bill Nelson’s directive that the agency prepare for a $300 million fiscal year 2024 Mars project appropriation, as proposed in the Senate’s Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill.

The future of the Mars program is among the big decisions lawmakers face as they negotiate the final Commerce-Justice-Science bill. The current stopgap law has a March 8 deadline for the measure, which accounts for about four-fifths of the total fiscal 2024 discretionary funding due on that date.

The Senate wants to cut the account by 63 percent, prompted by a NASA review, which found the program would cost at least $3 billion more than expected. Additionally, the report accompanying the Senate bill directs NASA—if the agency reports it can’t find a way to stay within the earlier $5.3 billion projection—to “either terminate the scope or provide the MSR with options to re-operate or face mission cancellation.”

In contrast, House appropriators included the full $949.3 million in Mars program funding requested by President Joe Biden in his Commerce-Justice-Science bill.

“It’s going to be the most interesting series of samples that we’ll have when it comes back,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., whose district includes the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology, the facility. runs. “But all of that is being undermined by cuts that will undo all the great progress we’ve made.”


Congress has appropriated $1.74 billion to date for the Mars program, which a recent once-per-decade survey of planetary scientists named NASA’s highest robotic exploration priority.

But trying to get samples is difficult, to put it mildly. It involves the Perseverance rover delivering material to a garage-sized, bug-shaped “sample retrieval lander” equipped with a rocket to throw the material back into orbit. The samples will be collected by an orbiting spacecraft and returned to Earth with a re-entry date of 2033.

NASA spokesman Dwayne Washington said in a statement that the program is “one of the most complex missions ever attempted by NASA, including the first launch from another planet and the first spacecraft to orbit another planet.” An appointment with the ship is required.”

NASA’s independent review board released its report in September, which found the program would ultimately cost between $8 billion and $11 billion with “near zero chance” of meeting the interim launch deadline.

The board said, “Consequently, there is currently no credible …

Washington said the agency is now “evaluating future options for the program” due to the current budget environment. An internal review is underway with recommendations due in late March.

Territorial battles

The Mars program and NASA in general are already facing budget pressures.

Because of the spending cap in last year’s debt ceiling suspension law, the fiscal year 2024 Commerce-Justice-Science bill is almost certain to face cuts overall from last year’s version. Both chambers’ bills came in under the fiscal year 2023 enacted level of $84.2 billion, with the Senate bill at $83.5 billion and the House including $81.5 billion.

The White House sought a massive increase of $27.2 billion for NASA. But the agency would get just $25.4 billion in the House bill, essentially flat through fiscal year 2023.

With less money to go around, lawmakers are pushing to stretch available dollars in their states. Even before NASA releases its review board findings, Senate appropriators in a report accompanying their fiscal year 2024 bill allege that the agency’s financial and staffing demands of the Mars mission will derail work on other critical projects. I am delaying.

Lawmakers from Maryland and Virginia are backing the Senate figure as they seek to free up more money for projects that benefit the Green Belt, including Md.-based Goddard, which owns the Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Manages.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a member of the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, signed a Jan. 8 letter from Maryland and Virginia lawmakers to committee leaders urging them to They stick to the Senate’s proposed cut.

Shaheen is not a neutral observer. The University of New Hampshire’s Space Science Center, a major research arm of NASA, is involved in the agency’s Artemis program, which includes sending astronauts back to the moon as well as studying heliophysics, or how the sun affects its surroundings. .

After the death of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in September, California no longer has a senator on the appropriations panel. But California’s powerful delegation is trying to flex its muscles. The state’s senators and most of its House delegation sent a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Shalinda Young on Feb. 1 expressing concern over the administration’s decision to “prematurely move forward with budget cuts.” was

GOP lawmakers who signed the letter include Mike Garcia and Ken Calvert, chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, to three Democratic candidates vying to take Feinstein’s former seat: Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam B. Schiff.

Garcia, a member of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, said NASA’s prior cuts are undermining lawmakers’ wishes.

“NASA has unilaterally decided to assume the worst-case scenario with the Senate number, and also to … effectively reprogram the budget and effectively reduce the MSR to this point,” Garcia said. Where it is not viable in the near term,” Garcia said.

Senate Priorities

Initially, Senate appropriators in their Commerce-Justice-Science bill directed NASA to end the program if it failed to meet the $5.3 billion goal. At the panel’s July markup, two months before her death, Feinstein amended the initial draft committee report to allow NASA to scale back or rework the program instead of canceling it entirely. .

If NASA chooses to end the Mars mission, Senate appropriators would send most of the funding to the agency’s top overall priority, the Artemis mission.

The measure would redirect $235 million of the canceled Mars appropriation—if it comes—to Artemis, enough to meet the White House’s budget request. Artemis, which could put the first woman on the moon, is “at the top” of the Senate appropriators’ list of NASA priorities, Shaheen said.

Of the remaining Mars funds, $30 million each will go to the Dragonfly mission to study Saturn’s moon Titan, known as the Geospace Constellation Dynamics mission. The latter, the study of Earth’s upper atmosphere, would be put on hiatus under Biden’s budget, with funding redirected to the Mars program.

The Senate bill would already fully fund the administration’s dragonfly request. And it would add $35 million on top of the request to continue atmospheric studies, part of a broader push to support NASA’s heliophysics budget, which would receive more than the White House requested.

Both programs were referenced in a letter from the Maryland and Virginia delegations, which called for more than the Senate bill’s provision for dragonflies. Goddard is partnering with Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., on missions to Saturn.

Legislators from Virginia and Maryland, agreeing with the Senate’s proposed Mars cuts, oppose funding Artemis, however, arguing that the money should be reallocated to NASA’s science programs.

Next Steps

The California lawmakers argued in their letter to Young that NASA should develop a Mars rework program that is easier and cheaper than scrapping it.

Chu said she thinks the program can continue with $650 million this fiscal year and again next year, as appropriated two years ago. He said a compromise along those lines would allow the program to “proceed with perhaps less money, but make the project viable.”

Meanwhile, NASA needs to begin briefing Congress on its plans to restructure the program, Garcia said, as appropriators prepare to cut deals on fiscal 2024 spending.

He said that the Senate, their reservations are not wrong. “But the priority of the mission is still there, so when things get tough, or things change, you don’t just give up.”

2024 CQ-Roll Call, Inc.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Reference: Mars samples plan looms large in final cost talks (2024, February 18) Retrieved February 18, 2024 from https://phys.org/news/2024-02-mars-samples-looms-large.html has been

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