JPL Lays Off Eight Percent of Workforce Amid Budget Uncertainty

JPL Lays Off Eight Percent of Workforce Amid Budget Uncertainty

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced today that it is laying off 580 people, 8 percent of its workforce, plus contractors, because Congress has not passed FY2024 appropriations. One of JPL’s flagship missions, Mars Sample Return, would be drastically cut in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s version of NASA’s funding bill and while that outcome is far from certain, NASA and JPL have to plan for the worst.

Today’s move follows earlier JPL actions to reduce spending while waiting for Congress to complete action on the FY2024 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill. FY2024 began on October 1, 2023. The fiscal year is already more than one-quarter of the way through while JPL and NASA wait to find out how much money they will get.

Unlike NASA’s nine civil service centers around the country, JPL, in Pasadena, CA, is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology.

JPL Director Laurie Leshin.

JPL has many NASA programs underway, including the Europa Clipper mission scheduled for launch in October, but the $8-11 billion Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission is a core element of the future.

MSR is turning out to be significantly more expensive than expected. The top priority of the two most recent planetary science Decadal Surveys from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the NASA-ESA MSR program would bring back to Earth the samples being collected on Mars right now by the Perseverance rover. The 2022 Decadal Survey estimated the cost at $5.3 billion, but an independent review last fall said it more likely would be $8-11 billion.

In its report on the FY2024 CJS bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee harshly criticized the cost growth. Instead of the $949 million requested, it approved just $300 million unless NASA could provide a lifecycle cost estimate meeting the $5.3 billion in the Decadal Survey or options to descope or rework the mission.

Conversely, the House Appropriations Committee approved full funding.

But neither chamber has passed a CJS bill yet so NASA has to work from the assumption that it will not get more than $300 million for MSR in FY2024.

In November, NASA directed JPL to “pause” the MSR program while it assessed the report from the independent review.

In a memo to employees today, JPL Director Laurie Leshin explained what they already have done in response to the funding uncertainty, including a hiring freeze, reducing MSR contracts, and laying off contractors. But it’s not enough.

“Today I’m writing to share some difficult news. While we still do not have an FY24 appropriation or the final word from Congress on our Mars Sample Return (MSR) 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. …

“The workforce reduction will affect approximately 530 of our JPL colleagues, an impact of about 8%, and approximately 40 additional members of our contractor workforce. …

“Without an approved federal budget including final allocation for MSR FY24 funding levels, NASA previously directed JPL to plan for an MSR budget of $300M.  … 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. Earlier this month, we further reduced spending by releasing some of our valued on-site contractors.

“Unfortunately, those actions alone are not enough for us to make it through the remainder of the fiscal year. So in the absence of an appropriation, and as much as we wish we didn’t need to take this action, we must now move forward to protect against even deeper cuts later were we to wait.”  — Laurie Leshin

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who served many years in both the House and the Senate, pointed out that spending more than the lowest level of funding recommended so far “would be unwise and spending money NASA does not have.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

“Earlier today, JPL announced a reduction in its workforce. These painful decisions are hard, and we will feel this loss across the NASA family.

“A recent Independent Review Board examined the Mars Sample Return mission and NASA is currently assessing the path forward based on their input. In addition to this need for a pause, this decision is necessary because the FY 2024 appropriation, which already started on Oct. 1, 2023, has not been passed by Congress and the lowest level of funding approved has been reported by the Senate appropriations committee. To spend more than that amount, with no final legislation in place, would be unwise and spending money NASA does not have.

 “JPL has long been – and will continue to be – a shining example of America’s leadership in space. Even in the wake of current challenges, JPL will continue to help drive key upcoming NASA 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 space telescope (NEO Surveyor).” — Bill Nelson

Bipartisan members of California’s congressional delegation wrote to NASA in November and the White House Office of Management and Budget last week objecting to the JPL cuts.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) represent JPL and the surrounding area and have been leaders on those letters. Chu said she is “extremently disappointed” by the decision and will continue to fight to “reverse NASA’s premature and misguided budget cuts” to MSR. Schiff called the layoffs a “devastating blow to the talented men and women” working on MSR.

Conversely, in a letter to House and Senate appropriators last month about FY2024 NASA funding overall, members of the Maryland and Virginia congressional delegations opposed spending more than the $300 million in the Senate report on MSR because it would “undermine” NASA’s efforts to restructure the program and be detrimental to other NASA science projects. They argued in favor of programs at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD and its Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, VA, which they represent.

None of the 12 FY2024 appropriations bills have cleared Congress.

The CJS bill was reported from the Senate Appropriations Committee, but has not been taken up by the full Senate yet.

The House bill did not even clear the full Appropriations committee because of controversial provisions not related to NASA. Instead it went directly from the House CJS subcommittee to the House Rules Committee, but the Rule was defeated on November 15 so the bill was not considered by the full House.

Only in early January did the four leaders of the House and Senate — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) — agree on top-level spending for FY2024. The chairs of the House and Senate appropriations committees — Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) —  adopted allocations for the 12 subcommittees just a week and a half ago.

The Continuing Resolution currently keeping the government operating expires on March 1 for some agencies and March 8 for others, including NASA.


This article has been updated.

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