Due to months of budget uncertainty and an unclear path forward for funding of a Mars mission in Congress, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab said it’s laying off 530 workers after exhausting other options for budget cuts.
The federally funded research and development center managed by Caltech issued a grim memo to its workforce on Feb. 6 notifying them of reductions to technical and support staff.
“While we still do not have an FY24 appropriation or the final word from Congress on our Mars Sample Return budget allocation, we are now in a position where we must take further significant action to reduce our spending, which will result in layoffs of JPL employees and an additional release of contractors,” Director Laurie Leshin said in the memo.
An additional 40 contractors would also be let go.
Most employees were told to work from home Wednesday in an effort to make further announcements less traumatic, Leshin added. Virtual meetings were held throughout the day updating team members on the plan with a subsequent emails notifying employees of their individual status, according to the memo.
“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,” Leshin wrote.
Just days before, California lawmakers sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget opposing recent decisions to starve the Mars Sample Return mission before a 2024 budget was even final. The mission would’ve used a team of robotic systems and a rocket to collect and return rock and soil samples from the surface of Mars to Earth for analysis. A launch date has not been set.
The next funding deadline for the Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill is Friday, March 8. The House’s explanatory statement of the bill proposed $949 million for the MRS mission, matching the President’s 2024 budget request. The Senate, however, came up short at $300 million. Yet NASA has already been instructed to act as though that budget shortfall was the final world, wrote California Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla and Reps. Judy Chu and Adam Schiff in a Feb. 1 letter with 41 other lawmakers.
Leshin said that was consistent with the low-end markups for NASA’s budget and a 63% reduction from last fiscal year despite ongoing discussions for a 2024 budget. In preparation, the lab had already undergone hiring freezes, contract reductions and other budget cuts to cope.
“I’m extremely disappointed with these [NASA JPL] layoffs,” tweeted Rep. Chu following the layoff memo. “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 NASA JPL has been on the frontlines of for decades.”
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.