Will NASA JPL layoffs set back Mars mission?

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin

Technicians test the robotic arm of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover “Curiosity,” at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, September 16, 2010. Photo by REUTERS/Fred Prouser.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena announced on Tuesday that it is laying off more than 500 employees. It’s also cutting dozens of independent contractors — all in anticipation of reductions to the federal budget. The layoffs could hit JPL’s Mars exploration efforts, including a planned mission with the European Space Agency to bring back pieces of the Red Planet for study. This is the second round of layoffs that have hit JPL this year, but the organization insists it’s still committed to Mars exploration. 

In total, JPL is losing 8% of staff, and the move is a direct result of Congress’ delay in approving this year’s federal budget, says LA Times Science and Medicine Reporter Corinne Purtill. 

The part of the budget that mainly appears to be targeted is the Mars Sample Return project, which Purtill says is an extremely expensive and highly ambitious one. So far, the project’s costs have ballooned upwards of $10 billion.

“NASA commissioned an independent review of the project last year, which found that there is a near-zero probability that the mission is going to make its 2028 launch date,” Purtill explains. “For it to make the next best window possible, which is a launch date in 2030, it would require massive injections of funding for each of the next several years.”

More: Are earthlings alone in the universe? JPL’s new director wants to find out

In recent months, the California congressional delegation has been vocal about its support for JPL, pressing NASA and the White House to preserve jobs and scientific research, Purtill says.

“Representative [Judy] Chu did say yesterday that she's hopeful that it's possible that once the appropriation comes through, there can be some reversal of this and rehiring. We don't have clarity right now and what specifically that path would be, but the hope is that Congress is going to be able to pass this budget soon. And at least some of these funds that have been in limbo will be back in JPL’s control.”

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  • Corinne Purtill - science and medicine reporter for the Los Angeles Times