Budget cuts cause NASA JPL layoffs, Mars program future uncertain

A significant round of layoffs has hit NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, affecting around 8% of its workforce, consisting of about 530 people in support and technical areas of the lab, NASA said. 

The federally funded California-based research and development lab that works with the California Institute of Technology said it went through an “exhausting” round of budget-cutting measures while operating without a 2024 fiscal year appropriations agreement on funding from Congress. 

NASA/ JPL-Caltech

JPL said this week around 40 additional people who are part of its contractor workforce would also be made redundant in the cuts, calling the staffing reduction “painful but necessary adjustments that will enable” NASA to stay on budget. 

Laurie Leshin, JPL’s director, said in a memo to employees: “These cuts are among the most challenging that we have had to make even as we have sought to reduce our spending in recent months.”

JPL had previously included its Mars Sample Return (MSR) project in requests to Congress for funding, a project which aims to bring back samples from the Red Planet to Earth to study their composition further. 

NASA had asked JPL to allocate $300 million in fiscal year 2024 for the MSR, which was a cut of around 63% compared to 2023, putting it in line with the lower end for congressional markups for NASA’s budget. 

Differences between lawmakers and NASA have put the hopes of learning more about Mars in a gridlock. 

Leshin said that even with funding request reductions and a hiring freeze, “those actions alone” were “not enough” to complete the remainder of this fiscal year without the dreaded staffing cuts. 

“We must streamline our operations while maintaining a level of expertise, creativity, technical agility, and innovation that will enable us to continue to do vital work and deliver on our current missions, including MSR,” Leshin said. 

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said an independent review board has been tasked with examining the future of the Mars Sample Return project.

JPL is credited with building the first American satellite and with designing and remotely operating the Viking spacecraft that first landed on the surface of Mars. JPL also launched the Galileo probe that set out to study Jupiter and its moons. 

Rep. Judy Chu of California said she was “extremely disappointed” with the layoffs and is working to “reverse NASA’s premature and misguided budget cuts” to the MSR program. 

In early February, Sen. Alex Padilla of California joined over 40 other lawmakers to urge White House Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young to reverse budget cuts to MSR they called “devastating.”

In a letter, the lawmakers wrote: “We are gravely concerned that the administration’s decision to reallocate funds away from the Mars program would essentially cancel this high-priority program without Congressional authorization.”