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Is there life on Mars? Congressional gridlock is getting in the way of an answer.

NASA cut hundreds of jobs Tuesday at one of its key laboratories that sends robots to Mars, despite dozens of lawmakers urging the agency and the White House to avoid such a move.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been at the center of controversy between California lawmakers and NASA, which “paused” its Mars Sample Return program late last year due to Congress failing to pass a year-long budget to fund the space agency.

“Earlier today, JPL announced a reduction in its workforce. These painful decisions are hard, and we will feel this loss across the NASA family,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “To spend more than that amount, with no final legislation in place, would be unwise and spending money NASA does not have.”

Nelson noted that an independent review board is examining the future of the sample return program, which aims to bring rocks and dust collected by the Perseverance rover on the Martian surface back to Earth in 2033 for a “detailed chemical and physical analysis,” NASA said.

The cuts will affect about 530 people at the lab, about 8 percent of the workforce, and an additional 40 contractors, JPL said in a statement. About 6,300 people work at the laboratory, according to its website. 

Some of the lab’s legendary accomplishments include building Explorer 1, the first American satellite, as well as designing and remotely operating the Viking spacecraft that first landed on the surface of Mars, the Galileo probe of Jupiter and its moons, and Cassini’s 14-year journey snapping images around Saturn.

“Even in the wake of current challenges, JPL will continue to help drive key upcoming NASA missions,” Nelson said.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), a lawmaker leading the push to prevent job cuts at the lab, said that she’s “extremely disappointed” in the decision.

“These cuts will devastate workers and Southern California in the short-term, and they hurt the long-term viability of not just our Mars Exploration Program but also many years of scientific discovery to come,” she said in a statement.

Chu promised to keep fighting to reverse NASA’s “misguided” budget cuts to the program and said she’s hopeful that lawmakers can broker a deal with the Biden administration to restore funding to the levels necessary to rehire workers.

In early February, more than 40 California lawmakers expressed concerns about the decision to reduce funding to the Mars Sample Return mission, worrying that the cuts could kill the program entirely.

“We are gravely concerned that the administration’s decision to reallocate funds away from the Mars program would essentially cancel this high-priority program without Congressional authorization,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to White House budget director Shalanda Young.

The letter, signed by 44 lawmakers, was led by Chu, Rep. Adam Schiff, and Sen. Alex Padilla. The lawmakers urged Young’s office to obtain a plan from NASA to complete the next stage of the mission, maintain the program’s budget and refrain from further “premature” cuts.

In November, six California lawmakers called on the space agency to reverse its decision to proactively cut funding to the program and instead wait for the appropriations picture to be sorted out before they adjust. The lab is located near Pasadena, California.

“This short-sighted and misguided decision by NASA will cost hundreds of jobs and a decade of lost science, and it flies in the face of congressional authority,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the agency. “We are mystified by NASA’s rash decision to suggest at this stage of the appropriations process that any cuts would be necessary.”

The letter, addressed to Nelson, was led by Schiff and Padilla, both Democrats, and signed by Chu and Sen. Laphonza Butler, also a Democrat. Reps. Mike Garcia and Young Kim, both Republicans, also signed on. 

“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,” the letter reads.

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