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Mars Mission’s Budget Problems Force NASA Layoffs

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is cutting nearly 600 workers due to a lack of funding for the space agency’s Mars Sample Return mission.

Exterior of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California in a mountainous landscape

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California is a research and development laboratory federally funded by NASA and managed by Caltech.

Budget issues have forced the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), NASA’s main center for robotic planetary exploration, to reduce its staff by approximately 8%.

The cuts affect approximately 530 employees and 40 contractors, according to JPL officials, who announced the news this afternoon (Feb. 6).

“Impacts will occur in the laboratory’s technical and support areas,” JPL officials said in a statement today. “These are painful but necessary adjustments that will allow us to meet our budget allocation while continuing our important work for NASA and our nation.”

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JPL, located just north of Los Angeles, is federally funded but managed by the California Institute of Technology. The center leads many of NASA’s most important science projects, such as the Curiosity and Perseverance rover missions to Mars.

One of Perseverance’s main tasks is to collect and cache samples for return to Earth in the future. JPL is a driving force behind this ambitious Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign, which aims to take the search for life on the Red Planet to new and exciting levels.

The projected budget for MSR has recently skyrocketed; Last year, an independent review board estimated that the campaign will end up costing between $8 billion and $11 billion if it takes off by 2030, as planned.

These figures alarmed some members of Congress, who have tried to control MSR costs. For example, the Senate allocated just $300 million for MSR in its FY 2024 appropriations bill, a 63% decrease from funding awarded in 2023, as JPL Director Laurie Leshin noted in a letter to employees that the laboratory published with today’s layoff announcement. (Fiscal years work differently than calendar years; fiscal year 2024 began on October 1, 2023, for example, and will end on September 30, 2024.)

Congress has not yet met to pass a final appropriations bill for fiscal year 2024 (the House and Senate are still negotiating), but NASA has ordered JPL to plan for a $300 million MSR budget, Leshin said.

“In response to this direction, and in an effort to protect our workforce, we implemented a hiring freeze, reduced MSR contracts, and implemented cuts to strain budgets across the lab,” he wrote in the letter. “Earlier this month, we further reduced spending by freeing up some of our valuable contractors on site.”

However, it turned out that these measures “are not enough to get us through the rest of the fiscal year,” he added. “So, in the absence of an appropriation, and as much as we wish we didn’t have to take this action, we must now move forward to protect ourselves against even deeper cuts in the future if we had to wait.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson regretted the JPL layoffs but stressed that they were necessary, given the budget situation.

“These painful decisions are difficult and we will feel this loss throughout the NASA family,” Nelson said in an emailed statement.

“JPL has long been, and will continue to be, a shining example of American leadership in space,” he added. “Even in the wake of current challenges, JPL will continue to help power NASA’s next key missions as we explore the cosmos with Europa Clipper, study our changing climate with the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR), and defend the planet with the Near-Earth Object Surveyor (NEO Surveyor) Space Telescope.”

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