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Mars Sample Return in Trouble After Mass NASA Layoffs

NASA's proposed mission to return samples picked up by its Perseverance Mars rover is in big trouble.

Anticipated budget cuts have forced the agency's Jet Propulsion Lab to let go of a whopping 530 employees, representing roughly eight percent of its workforce, in addition to 40 contractors.

"These are painful but necessary adjustments that will enable us to adhere to our budget allocation while continuing our important work for NASA and our nation," JPL director Laurie Leshin wrote in a statement.

It's a highly unfortunate new development for a mission that's already struggled to convince lawmakers that it's worth spending anywhere between $8 billion and $11 billion on.

Last year, an independent review board balked at the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission's "unrealistic" budget, highly complex mission design, and glaring management failures. In its scathing report, the board concluded that there was a "near-zero probability" of the mission's many parts coming together in time for a 2028 launch date.

That's despite scientists arguing that the MSR could be of immense scientific value, greatly advancing humanity's efforts to probe the solar system for signs of life.

But with a massively reduced budget, the mission is in more trouble than it's ever been — and leaders are trying to stop it from imploding completely.

The MSR mission, a joint effort with the European Space Agency, involves shooting samples collected by NASA's Perseverance rover back into Martian orbit with a new lander, where they'll be picked up by a separate spacecraft and sent back to Earth in the early to mid-2030s.

At least, that's the plan on paper. Needless to say, it's a planetary Rube Goldberg machine that's already required an astronomical amount of funding and years of planning.

To be fair, it's also true that it's already made considerable headway. Since landing on the Red Planet in February 2021, Perseverance has bagged just over two dozen rock samples and sealed them inside tubes, ready for their eventual delivery back to Earth.

But given the latest news, it's possible we'll see JPL make some considerable concessions — to the timeline or otherwise — to cope with its greatly reduced headcount.

NASA's layoffs kicked off last month, with JPL letting go of 100 contractors and implementing a hiring freeze, marking the beginning of the lab's efforts to scale down its ambitions for the MSR mission.

As the LA Times now reports, California lawmakers have been begging NASA to stop the continued bleeding at JPL. A letter signed by a bipartisan group protested the space agency's decision to cut spending even before the budget was finalized.

All told, though, the MSR isn't completely dead. While JPL is still waiting for the budget hammer to come down, Leshin argued that "we must streamline our operations" to still "deliver on our current missions, including MSR."

What that mission will look like once the dust has settled is still unclear. Futurism has reached out to the ESA and NASA for comment.

But given the level of scrutiny over NASA's highly ambitious plans, something clearly has to give.

More on the layoffs: NASA Starts Layoffs After Budget Cuts