NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab has laid off approximately 8% of its workforce, totalling about 530 individuals, citing insufficient fund. Additionally, around 40 more members of the contractor workforce have also been affected by the layoffs.
“After exhausting all other measures to adjust to a lower budget from NASA, and in the absence of an FY24 appropriation from Congress, we have had to make the difficult decision to reduce the JPL workforce through layoffs,” officials said in a statement.
Officials emphasised that the layoffs will affect both technical and support areas within the Lab. “These are painful but necessary adjustments that will enable us to adhere to our budget allocation while continuing our important work for NASA and our nation,” the statement said.
Headquartered in California, JPL receives federal funding but is operated by the California Institute of Technology. The lab takes the lead in managing NASA's significant scientific endeavours, including missions like the Curiosity and Perseverance rover missions on Mars.
Additionally, it spearheads the ambitious Mars sample return (MSR) campaign, which seeks to elevate the exploration for signs of life on the Red Planet to unprecedented levels. An independent review board projected last year that the cost of the MSR campaign, scheduled for launch by 2030, could escalate to $11 billion, surpassing the earlier estimate of $8 billion.
Concerned by these figures, some members of Congress moved to contain the campaign's costs. Consequently, the Senate allocated only $300 million for MSR in its fiscal year 2024 appropriations bill — marking a 63% decrease from the funding allocated in 2023, as highlighted by JPL Director Laurie Leshin in a letter to employees accompanying the layoff announcement released by the lab.
“In response to this direction, and in an effort to protect our workforce, we implemented a hiring freeze, reduced MSR contracts, and implemented cuts to burden budgets across the Lab. Earlier this month, we further reduced spending by releasing some of our valued on-site contractors,” she wrote in the letter.
Nevertheless, as it transpired, these measures "are not sufficient for us to navigate through the remainder of the fiscal year," she elaborated. "Therefore, in the absence of an appropriation, and as much as we regret having to take this step, we must now proceed to safeguard against even more severe cuts later if we were to delay."