100 contractors laid off at JPL as budget cuts hit Mars program – Daily News

on Jan11
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NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory laid off 100 contractors last week and warned that more layoffs may be coming as the facility braces for sharp federal budget cuts to a program aimed at bringing pieces of Mars to Earth.

In a Thursday email to employees, JPL director Laurie Leshin said NASA is expecting a budget that could limit Mars Sample Return spending to $300 million for the current fiscal year. That amounts to 36% of the $822 million spent in the previous year and well below the $949 million the Biden administration sought for the program.

A host of lawmakers, including Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, have criticized NASA for pulling back on the project before Congress has finalized its fiscal year 2024 appropriations process.

“This short-sighted and misguided decision by NASA will cost hundreds of jobs and a decade of lost science, and it flies in the face of Congressional authority,” Schiff said in November.

This photo provided by NASA shows one of the six wheels on the Perseverance Mars rover, which landed on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

Leshin said adjusting to such a massive budget cut “will be painful.”

“It is also becoming more likely that there will be JPL workforce impacts in the form of layoffs, and the way such JPL workforce actions are implemented means that the impact would not be limited to MSR,” Leshin wrote.

Leshin could not be reached to comment on what JPL jobs are at risk of layoffs, or how many jobs might be lost.

In November, NASA announced it would slow down work on MSR because of sharp differences in proposed funding for the program in separate House and Senate bills. A House appropriations bill would provide the agency’s full request of $949.3 million, while the Senate version allocates only $300 million.

Schiff and other California lawmakers have called NASA’s decision “deeply short-sighted and misguided.”

NASA is operating under a continuing resolution until Feb. 2 that funds the agency at 2023 levels. But Sandra Connelly, the agency’s deputy associate administrator for science, warned there’s a potential danger there.

Speaking at an advisory committee meeting in November, Connelly said a slowdown in the MSR program was needed to avoid a “worst-case scenario” of spending at 2023 levels but ultimately getting only the $300 million allocated in the Senate bill.

In a Jan. 8 interview during a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, Leshin said JPL  received direction from NASA to plan for the lower level.

“So, the first thing to happen is to look at where we’re using on-site contractors on MSR, but other places as well, where JPLers could backfill for that,” she said.

The contractors, she said, are used when workloads become extremely heavy on specific programs. They were primarily working on MSR, but also on other projects she said were already finishing up.

JPL has also had a hiring freeze in place since September.

“We had been growing quite a bit because we were very busy,” Leshin said in an interview posted on SpaceNews.com. With several missions, such as Psyche, NISAR and Europa Clipper, either having launched or nearing completion, “we needed to stem the growth a bit.”

In a Jan. 5 Reddit post, a person who claimed to be among the laid off JPL contractors said the news came suddenly.

“Eighty (and counting) contractors were laid off last night, myself included,” the post said. “Basically, an email was sent at 5:30 p.m. saying, ‘you’re fired,’ effective immediately and not to show up the next day.”

The worker said they lost computer and building access within an hour.

“It was shocking and lightning fast,” the post said.

Another person who claimed to be a laid off JPL contractor posted: “Multiple projects now on hold because contractors are all gone.”



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