Budget uncertainty prompts layoffs at JPL 

JPL is a research and development lab federally funded by NASA and managed by Caltech. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
JPL is a research and development lab federally funded by NASA and managed by Caltech. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena this week shared bad news with her team regarding layoffs being forced upon the rocket science facility and its contractors. 

The news is expected to have at least some impact in the Santa Clarita Valley, where past reports have indicated that hundreds of JPL employees live here and commute to the Pasadena facility. Past estimates have put the number at more than 400 residents. A representative for the agency was not immediately available Wednesday to confirm if those numbers have changed.  

A memo from the agency’s director, Laurie Leshine, to staff Tuesday sought to explain “how we got here,” based on its assumption for a budget allocation that has yet to be committed.  

“Without an approved federal budget including final allocation for (Mars Sample Return in fiscal year 2024-25) funding levels, NASA previously directed JPL to plan for an MSR budget of $300 million,” Leshine wrote, adding it was a 63% decrease over the FY23 level.  

“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 burden budgets across the Lab,” she wrote. “Earlier this month, we further reduced spending by releasing some of our valued on-site contractors.” 

The workforce reduction announced this week is expected to affect approximately 530 JPL employees, which would be about 8%, according to Leshine, in addition to roughly 40 members of the agency’s contracted workforce. 

The news brought a statement Tuesday from Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, urging the White House to reverse its “misguided decision to move forward with funding cuts to the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.”  

The release from his office states Garcia joined a bipartisan congressional California delegation in sending a letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson expressing their strong opposition to “the reprogramming of NASA’s MSR budget.” 

“NASA’s deeply shortsighted and misguided decision to unilaterally adjust the funding allocation granted to JPL to carry out the MSR mission violates Congress’s appropriations authority. Therefore, we strongly urge you to rescind NASA’s Nov. 8 funding directive to JPL and not take any further steps to adjust funding levels for the mission until Congress enacts final FY24 appropriations for NASA,” wrote the members of the congressional group. 

Last week, Garcia once again joined his colleagues in sending a letter to Director Shalanda Young of the White House Office of Management and Budget. 

“If not reversed, this decision would ensure that JPL will not be able to meet the next launch window and will force a dramatic reduction of billions of dollars in contracts as well as the termination of hundreds of highly skilled employees,” according to the letter. “The impacts of these layoffs will be detrimental not just in Southern California, but throughout the U.S. as our nation loses hundreds of extremely talented professionals responsible not only for the Mars Exploration program but also important Earth science and national security missions.” 

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