Hundreds of workers to space out from NASA's JPL amid budget black hole
Launch windows do not respect political squabbling
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has confirmed that substantial budget cuts are inbound, with over 500 staffers affected – approximately 8 percent of the workforce.
Dr Garry Hunt, a former member of the team responsible for the hugely successful JPL Voyager program, described the confirmation as a "blow," although not entirely unexpected considering the US political situation. Hunt also likened the climate to that of the 1980s, in which the Space Shuttle program was voraciously consuming resources and attention, often at the expense of other missions.
Employees will learn their fate today, February 7, and most have been directed to work from home during what management has described as a "stressful day."
530 employees are set to be laid off, as well as approximately 40 from the contractor workforce. The layoffs will be spread over the technical and support areas of JPL.
JPL management has laid the blame for the situation squarely at the door of politicians and the absence of an FY24 appropriation from Congress.
The laboratory was already in the process of making some difficult decisions concerning the future of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, having been directed to work to a budget of $300 million, a 63 percent decrease from FY 23 levels. However, further action has been deemed necessary to balance the books.
JPL Director Laurie Leshin said: "These cuts are among the most challenging that we have had to make even as we have sought to reduce our spending in recent months."
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Hunt told us that JPL faced a double whammy as it prepared to lay off employees, having also had to deal with the early retirement of other experienced staff during the pandemic. The cuts, which appear driven more by political than technical issues, will also leave JPL in a weaker position when it comes to competition from other emerging space powers.
To deal with the shortfall, JPL had implemented a hiring freeze and let several contractors – including on-site contractors – go. This has not been enough to see the lab through to the end of the fiscal year at current budget levels so the ax is being swung today.
Representative Judy Chu, previously involved in the effort to reverse the MSR budget cuts, said she was "extremely disappointed with the impending JPL layoffs."
Chu highlighted the impact of the cuts in the short term and on the long-term viability of scientific discovery. She said: "I'm hopeful in the coming weeks we can work to broker a deal with the Administration and Congress to restore funding to the levels necessary to rehire workers and promote the kinds of scientific discovery JPL has been on the frontlines of for decades." Even if those cuts are reversed, and JPL can rehire workers – should they wish to be rehired – the effects of the cuts should not be underestimated.
Leshin said: "This is by far the hardest action I have had to take since becoming Director of JPL, and I know I join all of you in wishing it was not necessary.
"For those continuing on JPL's journey, we will come through this difficult time and keep moving ahead on our essential missions, research, and technology work for NASA and the nation." ®