Layoffs at JPL


Most employees at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) spent Wednesday working from home and waiting to find out if they would be returning to their jobs or if they would be part of the over 500 who would be laid off.

The local area will feel the shock wave of the layoffs as several who work at JPL live in La Cañada Flintridge, Crescenta Valley and Pasadena. The JPL workforce supports local businesses and volunteers hundreds of hours with local organizations and schools.

“After exhausting all other measures to adjust to a lower budget from NASA, and in the absence of an FY (fiscal year) 24 appropriation from Congress, we have had to make the difficult decision to reduce the JPL workforce through layoffs. JPL staff has been advised that the workforce reduction will affect approximately 530 of our colleagues, an impact of about 8%, plus approximately 40 additional members of our contractor workforce. The impacts will occur across both technical and support areas of 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,” according to a JPL/NASA statement.

JPL director Dr. Laurie Leshin sent an email on Tuesday to employees that announced the layoffs. She stated cuts would also include contractors. JPL works with outside contractors throughout the world on many of its missions.

“The workforce reduction will affect approximately 530 of our JPL colleagues, an impact of about 8%, and approximately 40 additional members of our contractor workforce,” Leshin wrote.

She explained the decision for the layoffs is due to FY24 budget funding. NASA previously directed JPL to plan for a Mars Sample Return (MSR) budget of $300 million, which is a 63% decrease over the FY23 level.

JPL implemented a hiring freeze, reduced the MSR contracts and implemented cuts across the Lab in addition to cutting even more contractors who worked on-site. However, according to Leshin, those cuts were not enough.

So the employees waited on Wednesday to hear their fate as a mandatory remote workday was implemented. Leadership held virtual workforce update meetings with its JPL teams (each employee participates in particular teams). Following that, every employee who attended these virtual meetings received an email stating they were laid off or their jobs were saved.

Leshin also stated there would be a “town hall” meeting scheduled in the future to provide more information to employees.

This process of massive layoffs began in November 2022 when NASA Administrator Bill Nelson decided to cut funding for the MSR mission. At the time Representatives Adam Schiff, Judy Chu, Mike Garcia and Young Kim and Senators Laphonza Butler and Alex Padilla voiced their concerns with this “premature” decision that they said would lead to the layoffs that occurred on Wednesday.

“We write to express our strongest opposition to NASA’s recent unilateral and unprecedented decision to prematurely move forward with funding cuts to the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission 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. The 2023 Planetary Sciences Decadal Survey identified the completion of MSR as NASA’s highest scientific priority. Therefore, we are mystified by NASA’s rash decision to suggest at this stage of the appropriations process that any cuts would be necessary,” wrote the lawmakers.

With the notice of the layoffs, which were predicted by the lawmakers in November, Schiff released a statement calling the layoffs a “devastating blow to the talented men and women working on MSR mission and to our nation’s leadership in space exploration and scientific innovation.”

“The fact that NASA put JPL in the position to have to undertake such cuts flies in the face of Congressional intent and raises real concerns about our budgeting process for projects of this magnitude,” Schiff stated. “The people behind our nation’s greatest achievements in space exploration deserve our support and commitment not to lose their jobs because of a political decision.”

The “space race” may have officially ended when the U.S. landed on the Moon; however, in reality it never ended. JPL has worked with scientists and engineers around the world to continue exploration. The race may have become more inclusive but competition among some countries remains as several nations bolstered their exploration and space research since the Moon landing over five decades ago. This includes China, which expanded its space program.

Americans continue to see an essential role for the United States as a leader in space exploration, according to a July 2023 Pew Research Center survey. That survey found that seven in 10 Americans said it is essential that the U.S. continues to be a world leader in space exploration. This opinion was seen across several groups including majorities of Republicans and Democrats. And most Americans in the survey believe NASA has a critical role to play even as private space companies increase their involvement in space, according to Pew Research Center on July 20, 2023.

There is no way to know how the loss of the JPL workforce will affect future exploration and research; however, it is clear how NASA/JPLers have affected not only space exploration and Earth science knowledge but also society’s daily lives.

Here are just a few of the contributions of scientists and engineers of JPL/NASA:

  • JPL played a lead role in developing the technology that led to creating a CAT (computed axial tomography) scan and radiography.
  • Red LEDs (light emitting diodes) are being used in space to grow plants and heal humans on Earth. LED technology used by NASA has contributed to the development of medical devices.
  • Thiokol Propulsion uses NASA’s surplus rocket fuel to produce a flare that can safely destroy landmines.
  • Space is a place of extreme temperatures. Knowing this NASA developed insulation from aluminized polyester called radiant barrier that is used today in most home insulation.
  • The “jaws of life” used to free people from mangled vehicles is a miniature version of the explosive charge used to separate devices on the Space Shuttle.
  • And during the pandemic the U.S. turned to JPL engineers who created a new ventilator prototype in just 37 days. Called VITAL (Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally), the high-pressure ventilator was designed to use one-seventh the parts of a traditional ventilator, relying on parts already available in supply chains.