On Feb. 6, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Director Laurie Leshin announced layoffs of 530 people, roughly 8% of the lab’s full-time workforce, as well as 40 additional contract staff. The news comes on top of the 100 contractors let go last month.
In the most direct sense, people are losing their jobs because Congress is fighting over the budget of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) project.
In response to a chilling independent assessment of the project, which projected years of delay and a total cost of $11 billion, NASA paused work on MSR and initiated a major programmatic reassessment, which is still underway.
In response, the U.S. Senate proposed slashing MSR’s budget to $300 million in 2024, a cut of $522 million; the House of Representatives, on the other hand, strongly supported the project and proposed an increase to $949 million, the amount originally requested by the White House. Neither budget has passed either chamber of Congress, nor has any compromise been proposed, despite being four months into the 2024 fiscal year.
Without clarity from Congress, NASA decided to limit the rate of spending on MSR to match the lowest possible budget scenario — the Senate’s $300 million — until Congress passes a full-year budget. JPL, which has the largest share of MSR-related work among NASA centers, feels a disproportionate consequence of these cuts and now must absorb a significant and sudden loss of funding. Hence the layoffs, among other cost-saving measures.
Is this only impacting JPL, or is this happening at other NASA centers?
Workforce struggles are likely happening at other NASA centers, though the consequences are different for civil servants. We have heard reports of contractors being let go at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, which was working on a major MSR component that was suspended once the project went into reformulation. There may be similar situations occurring at other NASA centers as the agency is facing a shrinking budget for the first time in a decade. If this is occurring, details have not been made public. Generally, however, laying off civil servants (a “Reduction in Force,” or RIF) is less common in NASA history and far more visible due to their political impacts.
JPL, however, is not a standard NASA center, and its employees are not civil servants. It is a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC), which, while owned and funded by the government, is managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). FFRDCs provide, in principle, a greater degree of flexibility, compensation, and dynamism for their employees in exchange for fewer job protections. JPL’s workforce is, therefore, easier to downsize than a NASA center’s. JPL is also particularly reliant on planetary science projects as a funding source, and MSR was, until recently, the largest planetary project in recent history.
What is Congress doing about it?
In this situation, it’s not useful to consider “Congress” as a single entity. There are factions within the U.S. Congress that hold mutually incompatible positions regarding MSR and, thus, JPL’s workforce woes.
On Feb. 1, 44 members of Congress, all from California, wrote and publicized a bipartisan letter to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget supporting MSR and demanding that NASA and the White House not throttle funding before Congress passes a budget. Representative Judy Chu, a leading signatory on the letter and whose district includes JPL, released a statement saying that she is “hopeful in the coming weeks we can work to broker a deal with the Administration and Congress to restore funding to the levels necessary to rehire workers.”
However, members of Congress from Maryland and Virginia released a letter opposing funding for Mars Sample Return, stating that “we strongly oppose funding for the Mars Sample Return (MSR) at [a] level any greater than the Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science bill,” and specifically noting that Goddard Space Flight Center (not JPL) is their priority for NASA science funding.
Fundamentally, this tension can be traced to the broad curbs on federal spending passed last year. This has placed downward pressure on NASA’s budgets during a period of challenging and ambitious projects, including but not limited to Artemis, Dragonfly, the Roman Space Telescope, and establishing a post-ISS future in low-Earth orbit. At the moment, Artemis is winning the political battle for funding, and NASA’s science missions are struggling to secure funding as a result.
What is NASA doing about it?
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson released a statement lamenting the cuts, saying that “these painful decisions are hard, and we will feel this loss across the NASA family.” Notably, there was no broader commitment to MSR nor a call to restore the JPL workforce. He instead highlighted other projects, including Europa Clipper, NISAR, and NEO Surveyor.
NASA is in the midst of an extended review of the MSR project, and the project is functionally on pause. Agency leaders have not yet proposed a path forward and appear unlikely to do so before the April/May timeframe. The reasons for the long delay in responding to and replan of MSR are unclear.
What can I do about it?
The Planetary Society supports a considered approach to Mars Sample Return as part of a balanced science portfolio that benefits NASA facilities and workforce around the country. We've prepared a letter you can send to your congressional representatives, you can view and sign that here.
You can also join us in Washington, D.C., April 28 - 29 for our Day of Action, where you can advocate face-to-face to your representatives in Congress.