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Uncertain Funding Threatens JPL’s Future Plans

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which sits at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, is one of the primary American aerospace research centers.
Credit: NASA JPL/CalTech

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced Feb. 6 it will lay off 530 employees, about 8% of its staff, citing uncertainty about its budget for 2024. These layoffs, combined with mounting cost overruns and a strained workforce, paint a grim picture for the agency’s broad reaching exploration goals over the next few years, as Congress has been unable to pass spending bills to ensure improved funding levels.

In a public statement, JPL said it would lay off about 530 employees, as well as 40 contractors. This comes after other efforts to reduce costs given potential spending reductions for NASA. Other efforts to reduce costs for Mars Sample Return (MSR), NASA’s next flagship mission in the pipeline, have ultimately proved fruitless. “After exhausting all other measures to adjust to a lower budget from NASA, and in the absence of a FY24 appropriation from Congress, we have had to make the difficult decision to reduce the JPL workforce through layoffs,” the laboratory stated.

The layoffs come a month after JPL previously laid off 100 contractors, many of whom had been working on MSR. Those layoffs were in response to a NASA decision in November to reduce spending on MSR while the agency operates on a continuing resolution that funds programs at the same 2023 levels. Officials said in November that discrepancies in proposed funding for MSR between House and Senate spending bills for 2024, $949.3 million in the House versus $300 million in the Senate, forced the agency to reduce spending with the possibility of Congress enacting the lower spending level in play. Many recent meetings of assessment groups, such as the Outer Planets Assessment Group and the Mars Exploration Program Assessment Group, have described the upcoming budget crises as an “issue to be braced and ready for.”

NASA has been in something of a limbo for the past several months, with the government unable to come to an agreement about a budget, relying instead on continuing resolutions, or CRs, to keep the government open. In a memo to JPL staff on Feb. 6, Laurie Leshin, director of JPL, said that a lack of a final 2024 appropriations bill forced the layoffs after taking other measures such as a hiring freeze and reductions in MSR contracts and other spending, as well as the earlier contractor layoffs. In a statement, she said: “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.” 

Rep. Judy Chu (D-California.), of California’s 32nd district, which includes JPL in Pasadena, California, said she was “extremely disappointed” in the layoffs. “These cuts will devastate workers and Southern California in the short-term, and they hurt the long-term viability of not just our Mars Exploration Program but also many years of scientific discovery to come,” she said in a statement, adding later that she hoped to work out a final spending bill that would restore MSR funding and allow JPL to rehire workers and continue mission work.

NASA’s planned Mars Sample Return mission would be the largest lander to ever arrive on Mars.
Credit: NASA JPL/CalTech

In a Feb. 6 statement, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stood by the decision to cut spending on MSR, citing the discrepancies between the House and Senate bills as well as an ongoing NASA review of the MSR architecture prompted by an independent review board last year. “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,” he said. “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,” he said, but added that “these painful decisions are hard, and we will feel this loss across the NASA family.”

JPL has found itself in the crossfire of a great deal of funding uncertainty, citing missions such as MSR and Psyche as large expenditures, with ambitious goals for the future. Psyche, which launched in October 2023, resulted in costly schedule adjustments and corrective work, ultimately delaying the mission’s arrival to its namesake asteroid by two years. With a retargeted launch date of 2023, this mission’s delay had knock on effects, forcing the VERITAS mission to Venus to be put on hold while the issues with Psyche were rectified. This paints a grim picture for the status of the laboratory, as inadequate funding and staff retention has ultimately limited the scope for what the agency may be able to accomplish. Europa Clipper, the next flagship mission on the docket for the agency, remains on track for an October 2024 liftoff bound for Jupiter, and has been stressed by agency leadership as a scientific priority. 

NASA’s Europa Clipper during assembly. NASA leadership stressed the mission as a key element to move forward, despite uncertainties.
Credit: NASA JPL/CalTech

Further afield, the agency looks ahead to a great period of uncertainty following the lead up to and execution of MSR, with other projects entering a nebulous period of funding unavailability. Projects like Uranus Orbiter and Probe, which was recommended as a priority by the Decadal Survey, faces significant uncertainty whether or not the team will be able to start work in FY24, with a ticking clock as to when the mission can achieve its scientific goals before the equinox at Uranus. Other programs, such as the medium class New Frontiers missions, face a significant delay, with the next round of selection being delayed until 2026. Many have suggested the distribution of projects to other centers, such as the Applied Physics Laboratory, Ames or Goddard. However, these centers find themselves already at capacity with a variety of projects. 

The current Continuing Resolution guarantees funding at 2023 levels until March 8, 2024, when either the Federal Government will reach a deal or another resolution will be passed. At the time of writing, it is unclear whether or not a deal is on the table. It is also unclear whether JPL’s round of layoffs will be the beginning or end of drastic cuts across the agency in the face of federal uncertainty – uncertainty which only grows going into the 2024 election cycle.

Edited by Beverly Casillas

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