[guest post by JVW]
The Los Angeles Times (known ’round these parts as the Dog Trainer) has a story of tremendous local interest in today’s paper regarding Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory laid off 100 contractors last week and will scale back part of the first-ever effort to bring pieces of Mars to Earth, after a cost-cutting order from NASA that lawmakers called “short-sighted and misguided.”
In an email to staff on Thursday, JPL director Laurie Leshin said that NASA is bracing for a federal budget that could cap spending on the Mars Sample Return mission at $300 million this fiscal year — just 36% of the previous year’s $822-million budget and less than one-third of the $949 million the Biden administration requested for the program.
Yeah, you know, that sort of thing is bound to happen when the federal government gets up to $34 trillion in debt. Here’s a fun fact: back in 2019 — before the pandemic and the subsequent orgy of spending that followed — the Congressional Budget Office expected that we wouldn’t reach the $34 trillion mark until 2029. But that can-do attitude in Washington means that we’ve said past their estimate five years early. (This is a good reason why CBO estimates should always be taken with a grain of salt.) More from the Dog Trainer:
Last week’s layoffs of contract employees along with a hiring freeze are part of a lab-wide effort to reduce spending, Leshin wrote. In addition, NASA has ordered JPL to cease operations at the end of this month on a key project within the mission to bring a piece of Mars back to Earth, a joint project with the European Space Agency and one of the biggest and most complex missions undertaken at the lab.
Gosh, you mean we’re just now finding out that there are consequences for a failure to rein in spending? I was told that Modern Monetary Theory and minting trillion-dollar gold coins would keep the gravy train rolling. Do you think our legislators might be chagrined at how badly they have let us all down, or are they deflecting blame back on to the victims? Yeah, that’s an easy one:
The cuts come while Congress is still debating how it’s going to parcel out the 2024 fiscal year budget.
Lawmakers have criticized the agency’s decision to scale back on staff and science on the Mars effort before final numbers are in.
“NASA’s unilateral and unprecedented decision to cut funding for the Mars Sample Return mission, before Congress has finished its appropriations process, is having devastating real world consequences,” Rep. Adam Schiff said on Friday. “This critical mission was identified as NASA’s highest scientific priority by the decadal survey, and to back away now will relinquish important American leadership in space science.”
There you have it, according to Rep. Adam Schiff. We have no choice but to continue to fully fund every single initiative that any government agency and their assorted lobbyists deems as “critical” or is otherwise necessary for American exceptionalism. You may wonder if JPL’s assessments of the feasibility and the time-table for a successful mission been historically accurate. In a word, no:
An independent review of the project that NASA commissioned last year found that the mission was “not arranged to be led effectively,” and that there was a “near zero probability” that it would make its 2028 launch date. Even meeting a postponed launch date of 2030 would require more than $1 billion a year for at least three years starting in 2025.
The mission’s final price tag could be nearly $10 billion, the review concluded — more than double the $4.4 billion estimated in 2020.
If you have even the vaguest familiarity with how government works, it’s obvious what has happened. Four years ago the project leaders cobbled together some numbers which assumed absolute best-case scenarios with the project going smoothly and no delays or mishaps along the way. Does this remind you of any ridiculous public projects that have tied up the Golden State for the last fifteen years? And like the stupid bullet train, we now find that the Mars project is far more complicated than first sketched out, and it will cost nearly 2.5 times as much as the original budget estimates.
I’m going to help bail out this project. I’ll contact Rep. Schiff and suggest to him that that the latest $6 billion which Washington inexplicably gave to Sacramento for high-speed rail be instead diverted to JPL. Frankly, neither one of these projects should get a dime of taxpayer money until our political leaders drop the posturing and start addressing our problem with runaway spending, but I have friends who work at JPL so I’ll put my principles aside in this case (see how that sort of thinking also exacerbates the debt situation?).
Nowhere in this Dog Trainer article is mentioned the budgetary mess that is forcing us to pinch pennies at JPL. Last fiscal year we spent on the order of $400 billion just to service the interest on the debt. That is four hundred times the amount that would fully-fund JPL for this year. It’s over five times what we have spent helping Ukraine repel the Russian invasion. It’s almost half as much as our entire defense budget. It’s roughly three-tenths of what we pay out in Social Security obligations each year. Yet there doesn’t seem to be the least bit of understanding, either from the Dog Trainer or frankly from a huge chunk of the voting public, as to how our rising debt impacts our other spending priorities. As cantankerous as I am, I’m really not too jazzed about living in the Golden Age of Pessimism.
It’s a long way to November, and unfortunately it’s going to be a long, hard slog after that, no matter which nimrod we elect.