NASA chief pledges Mars help

With proposed federal budget cuts threatening to eliminate hundreds of jobs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA head Charles Bolden pledged Wednesday at JPL’s Mars mission control room that the agency would try to keep those scientists and engineers working.

Bolden, a former astronaut and Marine Corps major general, visited with members of JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory team during practice drills for the Aug. 5 landing of the Mars rover Curiosity.

Next year’s proposed NASA budget would reduce planetary science funding by $300 million, scrapping two future Mars robotic exploration missions that would have employed JPL Mars team members whose duties will end when Curiosity touches down if the proposed budget is approved. JPL officials have said that without those missions, several hundred at the facility could be left without work to do.

Although he offered little detail, Bolden said that NASA will attempt to restructure its Mars program in ways that would save jobs at JPL and preserve its Mars exploration brain trust.

“There are a lot of things about going to other planets that nobody knows, except here,” said Bolden. “We will be working with folks here at JPL in trying to restructure our robotic Mars exploration program.”

JPL Director Charles Elachi said the administrative restructuring could involve bringing other NASA work funded under the 2013 budget to JPL, but specific projects have not yet been identified.

Elachi also said that JPL will be able maintain its current workforce for at least the next nine months, until the new fiscal year begins in October.

Although planetary science takes a hit in the proposed NASA budget, the agency would invest billions in developing new technology that would carry humans into space.

Agency brass is “trying to lay the groundwork, the overall concept, for a viable, affordable program of robotic exploration that supports the objectives [of canceled Mars missions] … but also meets the president’s challenge of putting humans in the vicinity of Mars in the 2030s,” said Bolden. “If all that works out, hopefully you’ll find a minimum loss of jobs here in the Jet Propulsion Lab.”

Bolden hinted that NASA could develop a new Mars Mission that would launch between 2018 and 2020, when the planet comes closest to Earth once every 14 years.

“It’s really critical as we work with international partners, and work with academia and industry, to decide what is the type of program we’re going to have to replace [the canceled missions] — how do we best craft it so we don’t miss that window.”

During his visit with the Curiosity team, Bolden — who visited the lab’s “sandbox,” where a fullsize replica of Curiosity is operated — joked that in two decades a human astronaut might be able to take a ride on the long-lasting rover.

JPL’s current Mars missions, said Bolden, are “going to set the stage for the way we approach planetary exploration in the future.”

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