The NASA/CalTech Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) field centre in Pasadena, California, which has played a leading role in a glorious run of unmanned long-range exploratory missions, has laid off 530 people. Equating to 8 per cent of its overall workforce, the job losses include space scientists and engineers with long experience. JPL is also releasing 40 contractors in addition to the 100 it recently announced.
The official reason for the ‘RIF’ (a US term meaning ‘Reduction in Force’) is budget uncertainty with the US Congress yet to decide on NASA’s appropriation for fiscal year 2024. The other reason was doubt about whether the NASA Mars sample return mission would get the go-ahead due to its cost and complexity.
Comment by David Todd: RIFs are common – in many ways too common – in the aerospace industry. These usually occur with the ebb and flow of the market, which has a tendency to cause a “feast or famine” in funding, or due to funding problems associated with a temporary financial limitation/downturn within an aerospace company or organisation. Nevertheless, these job losses will be a shock to the JPL workforce, who have been responsible for many of the headline grabbing NASA missions of the past five decades.
In truth, human spaceflight has been parked in a boring low Earth orbit (LEO) cul-de-sac via the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). That will shortly change via the lunar exploratory Artemis programme. But since the end of the Apollo programme in the early 1970s, it has been the JPL-led unmanned missions to Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, asteroids, comets and the outer planets that have contributed most to NASA’s glory and public acclaim. The latest of these many venerated missions was the recently retired Mars Ingenuity helicopter.
In many ways JPL has been the most productive of NASA’s numerous field centres – of which there are too many spread across the US nation due to NASA’s need for political support. Thus, if cuts had to be made at NASA due to budget uncertainty, JPL does not look like the best place to make them.