Friday, February 23, 2024

Budget cuts to Mars Sample Return mission prompt hundreds of layoffs at JPL

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory laid off hundreds of employees Wednesday in anticipation of massive cuts to the federal budget.

Despite calls to NASA and the White House from California lawmakers hoping to preserve jobs at the La Cañada Flintridge research institute, the lab laid off 530 employees — about 8 percent of its workforce — and 40 contractors. additional, JPL Director Laurie Leshin said in a memo. to the staff.

“These reductions are among the most difficult we have had to make, even as we have sought to reduce our spending in recent months,” Leshin wrote. “While we wish we didn’t have to take this action, we need to move forward now to protect against even deeper cuts later if we had to wait. »

This is the second round of layoffs at JPL since the start of the year. In January, 100 on-site contractors lost their jobs after NASA ordered the lab to cut spending in anticipation of severe budget cuts for the lab. Sample return mission to Marsan ambitious effort managed by JPL that would bring pieces of the Red Planet back to Earth for study.

Although Congress has not yet finalized appropriations for next year, NASA has asked JPL to prepare a federal budget that could cap spending on returning samples to Mars in fiscal year 2024 at $300 million, or 36% of the previous year’s budget allocation of $822 million and below. more than a third of the $949 million requested by the Biden administration for the program.

“Spending more than this amount, without final legislation in place, would be reckless and spending money that NASA does not have,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

Most JPL employees were instructed to work remotely on Wednesday “so that everyone can be in a safe and comfortable environment on a stressful day,” Leshin wrote.

In recent months, California lawmakers have pleaded with NASA to preserve jobs at JPL, which currently employs about 6,000 people full time.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of more than 20 members of California’s congressional delegation sent a letter at the White House Office of Management and Budget to protest NASA’s “deeply misguided decision” to preemptively cut spending before appropriations were finalized.

“Make no mistake: These crushing job cuts are the direct result of the administration’s premature decision to circumvent Congress’s spending authority and unilaterally cut vital funding for JPL’s Mars Sample Return mission.” , declared Democratic Senator Alex Padilla, signatory of the letter. A declaration. “These dramatic reductions are devastating to our local workforce and will significantly set back California and the United States’ science and space leadership at this critical time.”

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) acknowledged that the job cuts would hurt Southern California workers, but expressed hope that they could be reversed. “I am hopeful that in the coming weeks we can work to negotiate an agreement with the administration and Congress to restore funding to the levels necessary to rehire workers,” she said in a statement.

The Mars Sample Return mission, a joint project with the European Space Agency, has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

A independent review commissioned by NASA last year determined that there was a “near zero probability” that the mission would reach its launch date in 2028.

The project is now on hold while NASA analyzes the review committee’s findings. The review team is expected to make its recommendations to NASA in March or April, Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator Nicky Fox said at a public meeting of the directorate last week.

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